In the face of regional decline, universities have increasingly proven to be key assets in the transition of the local economy. The Universities of Waterloo, Twente, and Teesside provide shining examples of this potential. In the coming years we could add to the list the iAccelerate entrepreneurship centre, which is taking a prominent role in the redevelopment of the Illawarra region in the face of a decline in the steel and manufacturing industry.
Originally instigated as the ‘iAccelerate initiative’ by the University of Wollongong (UOW) in 2011, the iAccelerate Centre, which opened in July 2016, is a crucial step towards galvanising Illawarra as an “innovative region”. The iAccelerate Centre now represents the new face and direction of the regional economy, one of innovation, growth and self-determinacy.
The target for the initiative was to tap into the latent potential identified in the ICT graduates (UOW has the highest rates of ICT graduates in Australia), UOW alumni, those SMEs that had been servicing the steel industry combined with a business community that was committed to developing a tech sector.
Starting as a 20 seat co-location space, iAccelerate has itself followed an entrepreneurial development path. Much like a start-up, throughout the initial phase of its existence, the centre followed a lean development approach as concepts were tested and iterated to find the mix of activities fitting to the region and the needs of the market. Covering the different phases of the start-up lifecycle, iAccelerate offers a location and equipment for starters as well as a rigourous development programme, including education programmes, pitching training, intensive mentorships, connection to finance, networking events and peer-to-peer engagement.
Fast forward to today, and the centre itself has become an essential cog within which all elements of the iAccelerate programme are brought together in a “hothouseenvironment”. However, its development was reliant on a few essential factors, which provide an exemplar case of how to get a regionally-embedded entrepreneurship centre off the ground.
Through the initial leadership of Elisabeth Eastmann, together with a progressive senior university management, the entrepreneurship initiative commenced with full support of the university. This conviction added to a commitment to engage the opinion of regional stakeholders has helped to develop and sustain enthusiasm and momentum for iAccelerate, a vital ingredient in developing any new entrepreneurship initiative. A focussed and professional approach to access government and internal university funding for iAccelerate’s growth allowed management to convert this local support into finance, which was then used to employ key staff and ultimately, the impressive building in which iAccelerate now operates.
Clear objectives of how the centre should contribute to the university as well as the surrounding community provided the necessary vision for its development path. Critically, the focus for the centre was on retaining talent in the Illawarra region by providing a platform for graduate and alumni entrepreneurship as well as the development of jobs within the region to the tune of 500 new jobs and $AU75m (approx. €50m) in inward investment within 5 years. This differs to many entrepreneurship initiatives, which often seek to develop fast growth new enterprise with a medium-term exit point or which provide an opportunity for licensing; however, do not necessarily contribute long term employment opportunities or a platform for regional development.
Contributing to not only the vision of iAccelerate but also the method for its development was the successful Canadian example of the Waterloo region, whereby the University of Waterloo provided a nexus for the transformation of its region into Canada’s version of Silicon Valley. Close cooperation with members of the leaders of the initiative helped to guide iAccelerate’s early development, which included visits of iAccelerate management to Waterloo as well as reciprocal visits from Waterloo personal to Wollongong.
A further factor for their success was their engagement of the regional stakeholders through a number of mechanisms. The first and most prominent is the eClub, a regionally-focused entrepreneurship networking event whereby they handpicked representatives from government, business and academia. An additional initiative was the iAccelerate’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Breakfast series, which was launched in 2014. Since its inception, it has attracted and maintained significant female interest by being suited to female interests. For this reason, it is held in the morning instead of evening, provides ample time for networking and provides accessible models and learnings for potential female entrepreneurs.
The results thus far have been impressive. iAccelerate has experienced the following success since its inauguration in 2011:
- Companies assisted: 75 in total, including 39 companies currently in residence
- Start-up Jobs: 143
- Household income: $24.1M, including $15.5M in direct compensation of employees, and a further $8.6M (via indirect and induced effects) sustained elsewhere in the economy;
- Value added: $34.8M, including $18.2M in direct value added, and $13.1M (via indirect and induced effects) elsewhere in the economy.
- Female entrepreneurship: 47% iAccelerate start-ups with a female co-founder 391 full time equivalent jobs, including 256 direct jobs, and a further 135 (via indirect and induced effects) sustained elsewhere in the economy;
Despite its youth, the iAccelerate initiative provides some clear lessons for those trying to get such an initiative off the ground. The ongoing challenge for iAccelerate will be to continue to build enthusiasm and stay relevant for its university and region, but the foundation for success is firmly in place.
About the Author
Melissa Ryan | Innovation Development Senior Manager at iAccerelate – University of Wollongong
Melissa is responsible for developing and implementing business and marketing strategy to enhance UOW’s traction within the commercial marketplace via research, technology transfer and key initiatives such as iAccelerate. Melissa has a strong corporate background in marketing and communication strategy, relationship building and business development.