Not just a city of churches: Is Adelaide the nation’s secret startup hub?

Andrew Mackenzie-Ross and Jindou Lee, co-founders of HappyCo, a startup initiated in Adelaide now taking on Silicon Valley (Image Source: Jindou Lee). 

By Jesse Neill |@JesseNeill2

Adelaide has long been the butt of Australian jokes, often seen as the ‘boring’ city that is closed on Sundays, teeming with serial killers and only coming alive for one month of the year.

However, with lower living costs and less business competition than other capital cities, along with State Government and City Council investments driving innovation and ideas creation, Adelaide could be on its way to becoming Australia’s little-known tech haven.

Is Australia too small for startups?

Startups are a buzzword at the moment. It seems like if you’re under 30, involved in IT, and not running a startup, then you’ve made some serious mistakes in your career.

With startups expanding all over the world, Australia’s own startup ecosystem has grown from a neglected area with very little activity into an exciting field with significant investment.

Currently, 12 per cent of the Australian population is involved in business startups, and Australia has one of the fastest-growing sectors globally, rising to fifth place on StartupBlink’s Startup Ecosystem Rankings for 2019.

While the startup population may be smaller than other well-known tech-hubs like Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv, Adelaide hasn’t missed out on this growth, with almost 180 startups currently operating in the city.

It is a tight-knit community with over 100 organisations offering events, training and funding, to promote and develop new startups.

While some ideas and operations start at a small scale, continual advancements in communication technologies and the internet allow these companies to share their product with a global audience—HappyCo is a prime example of this.

Founded in 2011 by Jindou Lee, HappyCo began its journey in Adelaide as Happy Investor, and after enjoying considerable growth, moved to Silicon Valley—the mecca of tech startups.

“I felt that the [move] was the right thing to do as our biggest market was in the US and I wanted to be closer to our customers,” Mr Lee explains.

“However, in hindsight we had to make some very big sacrifices, leaving family, friends and a comfortable life in Adelaide behind.”

At the end of last year, Lee chose to move the research and development team back to Adelaide with hopes of creating a dominant position in the city’s smaller ecosystem.

“I moved the research and development team back here as there are a number of great universities in Adelaide and a lot of amazing talent. There are also many expats that want to move back for family and lifestyle reasons,” he said. 

“We hope to give back to Adelaide by creating a world-class company, hiring world-class talent to service a global audience.”

Another local startup on the rise is Fleet Space, a space and communication company specialising in low-cost satellite systems for Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

Fleet Space CEO, Flavia Nardini explains that in the current context, the location of the company isn’t as important as the product.

“Companies are global now thanks to significant advances in technology in recent times,” Ms Nardini said.

“Wherever we are, we can access the market.”

When asked about working in Adelaide and maintaining operations here, her responses are glowing.

“I didn’t actually choose Adelaide — my husband was from Adelaide — so I guess you could say Adelaide chose me,” she said.

“It’s been fortunate for me though, as in the last three years the government has changed their approach and has started pushing innovation and creation, celebrating our local entrepreneurs. Adelaide is on the map now.

“However, the new space agency has also created new momentum here.”

One small step for Adelaide, one giant leap for Australia

Announced late last year, the decision to make Adelaide the home of the first Australian Space Agency is the next exciting step in the expansion of this city’s startup culture. While it might not be NASA, the agency still holds many exciting opportunities.

SA put forward the strongest case, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison describing SA as an ideal home for the new agency and pointing out the state’s historical role as a hub for the Australian space and technology industry. 

The Prime Minister also pumped up the potential benefits this agency could bring to Australia as a whole. 

“This agency is going to open doors for local businesses and Australian access to the $US345 billion dollar global space industry.” Mr Morrison said at an announcement last December. 

Our Government’s 41 million dollar investment into the agency will act as a launching pad to triple Australia’s space economy to $12 billion and create up to 20,000 jobs by 2030.”

The agency will be based at Lot Fourteen—the former Royal Adelaide Hospital site—which is being transformed into an innovation precinct, another sign of exciting times ahead.

Where to next?

While the rest of Australia might still look down on the ‘city of churches’, Adelaide recently entered the top 150 startup cities globallymaking a massive leap from 227th to 143rd.

It still may be a modest placing for the South Australian capital; however, it is a testament to the changing culture of the city and the renewed focus on startup development.

The Australian Space Agency may be just one of many opportunities coming this way.

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