An “innovation boom” and the Illawarra’s chance to become the next Silicon Valley have been hot topics this week, as the opening of the University of Wollongong’s iAccelerate highlighted promising ideas being developed by the region’s eclectic start-ups.
But, unbeknownst to most, there’s a small slice of the global technology hub already here.
On the top floor of a nondescript Wollongong office block, a team of about two dozen tech-heads spend their days working at Accelo – a venture capital-backed, San Francisco-based company which has spent the past few years bringing in millions to the region.
The software company – which helps professional service businesses run their operations – was started in Wollongong in 2009 by entrepreneur Geoff McQueen and three of his colleagues.
It developed out of Mr McQueen’s first company, Internetrix, which he has since sold, and took off when he left Wollongong for Silicon Valley in search of a bigger customer base.
After initially attracting money from small investors to get him out of potential financial ruin, Mr McQueen’s company now raises millions each year and is backed by some of Australia’s leading venture capital firms.
Accelo employs 24 people in Australia, another dozen or so in San Francisco (where Mr McQueen still lives) and has plans to double its Illawarra workforce.
While it’s no Google, the Wollongong headquarters certainly looks like an office where young, tech-focused graduates would want to work. There’s music pumping out of speakers, a pack of Exploding Kittens cards sitting on the lunch room table, and an office dog, Chico, chasing a soccer ball.
“We’ve grown pretty quickly, but we also want to make sure we have a really strong, high performing culture,” Mr McQueen said, during his latest trip home.
“Most of our employees are computer science graduates who like working on really hard problems and want to have a global focus in their career. And our product is used by thousands of business around the world, so people can have a challenging, technically interesting job here in Wollongong.
“This means that smart people don’t have to leave the city – which is changing so much and becoming a place that, less than ever, young people want to run away from.”
Last year, Mr McQueen wrote a widely shared blog post about his surprise, during a visit home, about walking through Crown Street Mall on a Thursday night.
“[As] I walked through the western end of the mall, and you could have knocked me over with a feather,” he wrote, of his first Eat Street Markets experience.
“The city was absolutely buzzing, with a singer-guitarist putting on a show, and in other parts of the mall there were other talented buskers doing their thing.”
Reveling in an “amazing transformation” of his much-loved but oft-maligned hometown, he wrote that the city was “for the first time in my life… actually on the front foot and finally on track to realise its incredible potential”.
Mr McQueen has been buoyed by the emerging companies taking us residency in UOW’s iAccelerate building. He is convinced the creation of jobs driven by the university’s computer science graduates – regarded as some of the best in the country –will help the region move on from the downturn in its traditional industries.
“But we need to make sure we keep encouraging these talented people, and making the city a place where these people want to live,” he said.
“The natural environment and cost of living does a pretty good job of that, as does the increasing urbanisation and density of the city. But changing the face of the region is a multi-decade project, it will require lots of people coming here and doing their own things for their own good reasons.
“Hopefully we’re showing what the next step might look like for start-ups – employing dozens of people and going to employ dozens more.
“Because the more we as a city succeed, the more we can create jobs and convince other people that this is a place they want to invest in.”