As the University of Wollongong's new business incubator - the iAccelerate building - hums to life, emerging companies within it are mapping out new industries and a much-needed entrepreneurial optimism in a region where jobs are in flux. KATE McILWAIN reports.
Being a shrewd businesswoman amid the peace, love and mungbeans mentality of the yoga community has sometimes made Deb Young feel a little out of place.
And being a yoga teacher trying to make it in the jargon-heavy environment of tech start-ups has also seemed incongruous.
“If we look forward 20 years, we want our children to be able to have jobs.''
But, over the past few months, the Wollongong mum has straddled both worlds, creating an online studio to run alongside the physical one, Younga Yoga, which she and husband Russ have run in the city for the past 10 years.
The Youngs’ Online Yoga Studio is one of the eclectic burgeoning businesses that have joined the University of Wollongong's iAccelerate program and moved into the high-tech $18.5 million building at the Innovation Campus, which is due to open this week.
The couple joined the futuristic sounding “start-up incubator” about a year ago, when they were thinking about creating online courses for Younga Yoga’s pregnant customers who couldn’t always get in to the physical studio.
“In the last few months, we have – in start-up speak – pivoted, so we’ve now changed our idea from just focusing on women during pregnancy to a much broader market,” Deb says.
Tapping in to trends for online learning, the popularity of yoga and the societal pressures of busy family life and shifting working hours, the online studio uses recorded yoga sessions and live streaming to reach customers around the world.
Recently, the couple ran a short paid online course, where 140 participants – from Wollongong, Australia and overseas – signed up to learn how to use yoga to help them sleep, focus and relax.
And while Deb says she was initially skeptical that the online classes could be as “authentic” as those run in the studio, the use of technology has allowed people to connect and “open up” in different ways.
She hopes her own leap from a traditional bricks-and-mortar Wollongong business to a broader reaching online one might inspire others to approach iAccelerate, even if they don’t quite fit in the entrepreneurial, start-up world.
“In the yoga industry, it’s not the norm for yogis to be outwardly business-minded, so for us it’s been so great to be surrounded by other people who are excited about business and having an idea,” she says.
“We’re not tech, we’re not male, we don’t have some amazing intellectual property. We’re really just leveraging the technology that’s emerging to continue to do what we love and do it in a new way. Sometimes you feel like a square peg in a round hole, but you feel a lot of encouragement to take your idea and make it successful.”
In contrast, Nicholas Muldoon and Dave Elkan are exactly the type of people you'd expect to find at a start-up. Young guns who wear caps and sneakers to work, they worked in San Francisco for the Australian-founded multi-national software company Atlassian.
Both from northern Sydney originally, the men decided to move to the Illawarra from San Francisco as they were keen to raise their kids in regional Australia and saw potential in running a tech business in a university town.
It was only after settling in Wollongong that they stumbled on iAccelerate and decided to use the program to start their business, Arijea.
The company builds software add-ons for Atlassian products, and in a few short months has garnered customers across the Australian, US and European finance, insurance, media, environment and technology sectors.
“Our flagship product is a tool that software engineering teams to use to understand their customers better, they use it to plan what they are going to deliver to their customers and execute against that plan,” Nick says.
And while he rightly claims most people won't really know what this means – “My experience so far is that no one in the Illawarra has any idea what we do” – both men are excited about their future in the region.
“I just want people to know that there’s so much opportunity, it doesn’t have to be technology, for entrepreneurs in the Illawarra,” Nick says.
Asked if he’ll stick around once Arijea “graduates” from being an iAccelerate start-up, Nick is clear: “F--- yeah! We’re lifers.”
“If we look forward 20 years, we want our children to be able to have jobs,” he says.
“Steelmaking and industry in the Illawarra is slowing down, and that will decrease again over time – and maybe software and technology won’t be any different.
‘’So we want to build a community in the Illawarra that is focused on entrepreneurship and constantly looking to the next thing, so that when our children are looking for a job, there are internships and opportunities for them.”
This infectious optimism – unusual in a town used to hearing more about redundancies than new industries - is also evident in the ethos of 3D printing company, Me3D. Founded by mechanical engineer Matt Connelly, economist Leanne Connelly and Fletcher Thompson, the education-focused manufacturing business is one of the most advanced within iAccelerate.
In two years, Me3D has sold hundreds of printers to more than 80 schools and libraries.
“Think of it like a hot glue gun on a robotic arm,” Leanne says. “Basically Matt had his first 3D printer about six years ago, and the first thing he said was ‘why is this so expensive, it’s really simple?’.
‘’So we decided to design our own printer that was easy to use and for kids, because they’re the ones that are going to be using this every day in their work lives in a couple of years time.”
She said 3D printing was already used in about a third of engineering jobs, and would become much more prevalent in the very near future across many industries.
A former BlueScope manager who is well aware of the need for the Illawarra to shift from more traditional industries, Leanne has relished working in the “agile” world of iAccelerate (which even allows her to be at work with six-month-old Logan).
“Wollongong is full of highly skilled, experienced people that have never really thought outside of the steel and coal industries but who, like me, have very transferable skills.
‘’There’s no reason why it can’t be a hub to Sydney – we’ve got infrastructure, a university pumping out graduates and we’re 200 metres from the beach! We need to start to looking at other things we can do here.”