A couple of years ago you could have been forgiven for asking “What startup scene in Brisbane?” – but today the river city is at an inflection point, and the startup ecosystem is really beginning to buzz.
What’s driving this growth?
A couple of things. Firstly, Brisbane has managed to produce a modest amount of startup density, albeit split across two or three different locations. More on that below.
Second, there seems to have been a realisation that startups are the future of the economy and that jobs as we know them are on the way out. There’s a growing interest in startups from uni students as well as more experienced folks with day jobs.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, there are a handful of folk who’ve stepped up to help drive the growth of the ecosystem. You’ll see some of them mentioned below.
Brisbane has produced a handful of notable startups such as Halfbrick Studios (makers of the hugely successful Fruit Ninja), We Are Hunted (acquired by Twitter in 2012), and going back a few years, Wotif.com (ASX: WTF).
It’s estimated there are currently around 100 startups in Brisbane. The overwhelming majority are unfunded, but the number that have raised money locally, interstate or overseas is steadily growing. They include:
No city’s startup ecosystem would be complete without a map. . . and of course Brisbane has one courtesy of Ricky Robinson from Tech Street Journal. Ricky’s map covers South-East Queensland and lists startups, incubators, accelerators and investors.
Incubators and co-working spaces
There are three programs of note:
- River City Labs – By most measures “the Labs” is the focal point of Brisbane’s startup scene. Steve Baxter started River City Labs in March 2012, a couple of years after the acquisition of Pipe Networks which he co-founded in 2001. In the last two years RCL has hosted 90 events and has been home to over 120 startups.
River City Labs founder Steve Baxter
- ilab – Despite its leafy suburban location, ilab has grown a formidable batch of early stage startups. It is funded by the Queensland Government and runs an accelerator program that offers startups up to $20k in return for a small equity stake.
- Creative Enterprise Australia – a creative industries incubator program run out of QUT’s Kelvin Grove Campus. It applies a fairly broad definition to creative industries and works with companies spanning fashion, design, media, tech and more.
The following are some of the co-working spaces available in Brisbane:
- Little Tokyo Two – a diverse, affordable and supportive collaboratice space located in Brisbane.
- The Swarm – an open co-working space located in Brisbane’s West End offering a mix of shared and reserved desks (as well as a lap pool and spa). In addition, they also incubate startups and provide investment options.
- Salt Space – offers co-working desks in their spacious shared studios
- Gravity Coworking – provides co-working spaces in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane
Brisbane is also home to the Queensland Microsoft Innovation Centre – one of 100 MICs around the world, and the first in Australia. The centre has been slow to make an impact in the local startup scene, but with a renewed focus this year it looks like it’ll start to hit its straps.
Another useful resource is the Amazon Web Services Activate program. It provide grants of up to $15,000 and is now available to startups in Brisbane [Thanks Craig D for pointing this out].
There are two main outlets reporting on goings on in the Brisbane startup scene:
- TechTidal – a weekly digest of happenings in the startup scene
- Tech Street Journal – a broader focus that encompasses startup, research and hackers / makers in South-East Queensland
TSJ is currently on go-slow while its editor-in-chief, Ricky Robinson, participates as one of the current batch of Startmate companies.
In addition, StartupQLD has popped up as a useful community resource for all things startup-related.
- RiverPitch is Brisbane’s answer to Sydney’s Innovation Bay dinners. It gives 4-5 pre-screened startups the chance to pitch a room full of investors. So far two companies that have pitched at RiverPitch have gone on to raise money, and the format clearly works. The rate limiting factor in expanding the series is the number of investable startups.
- Creative3 is an annual conference run by QUT’s Creative Enterprise Australia. It attracts a diverse array of local and international speakers on topics ranging from business models to raising capital.
- The Silicon Beach Brisbane meetup now has over 1,000 members and most events attract a crowd of 150-200 thirsty startup founders and wannapreneurs.
- Mobile Monday is a staple of the Brisbane scene and is consistently a full house.
- The Startup BRIS Festival – Brisbane’s first startup festival is happening on 26 & 27 June 2014.
- The Fetch is also a good place to keep up to date on events.
- Entrepreneurs in Brisbane – a meetup event for those eager to startup their own business or even for existing business owners. They hold workshops, seminars and other fun and relaxed business networking events.
- The Pulse – holds workshops, Q&A sessions, pitch nights, monthly expert panels with startup and business leaders and exclusive networking events for anyone in the entrepreneur community.
- Young Entrepreneurs Society Brisbane – for young and ambitious entrepreneurs who wishes to learn new ideas and share experiences on anything entrepreneur-related.
Sam Friend mentoring at the first Startup Weekend Brisbane
Efforts to boost the ecosystem
Brisbane has one of Australia’s more pro-startup city councils. Through its economic development agency it’s piloted a few programs aimed at helping the fledgling startup scene grow and prosper. As well as sponsoring just about every startup-related event, the city has rolled out a Visiting Entrepreneurs Program (in which it flies out startup heavyweights such as Tyler Crowley, Stephen Phillips and Adrian Turner to spend time in the city), a Budding Entrepreneurs grants program, and is working on getting more kids coding by running CoderDojo in six of the council libraries. [Of course I’m biased, having helped put the above programs together!]
Probably the biggest gap in the Brisbane startup scene is a lack of startup investors.
Steve Baxter (founder of River City Labs) does a fair bit of the heavy lifting and has backed a handful of Brisbane startups (as well as some from other parts of the country). He is also the main backer of the recently formed mobile games accelerator Right Pedal Studios.
Other investors in the Brisbane startup scene include:
- Blue Sky Venture Capital – a small fund with a broad remit that includes startups
- One Ventures – Brisbane-based partner is Anne-Marie Birkill, currently raising another fund
- The Creative Enterprise Fund – an early stage fund run by Creative Enterprise Australia
- Brisbane Angels – have done a handful of deals including some of the funded companies listed above
- The Swarm – in addition to providing a co-working space and incubation, they also provide investment options
Brisbane doesn’t yet have a commercial accelerator program, and I think this is holding the startup scene back. Like most Australian cities it also doesn’t have a deep pool of successful entrepreneurs who are cycling back into the ecosystem as mentors, investors etc.
However, if there was one thing that I think would unlock a lot of startup potential it’s better education for founders. I see a lot of startup founders who are receiving “mentoring” that is in reality one-on-one education in the fundamentals of doing a startup. Better education would equip startup founders with the basic skill set upon which real mentoring can add greater value.
What’s next for Brisbane?
As I gaze into my crystal ball I can see a bunch of possible (likely?) new initiatives shaping up in Brisbane in the near future, including:
- A Lean LaunchPad course
- An entrepreneurship centre
- At least one more co-working space
- An ecosystem mapping study
- Some startup-related events connected with G20YEA
- Some engagement from corporates
As they say, watch this space!