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student startups

Kick-starting student startups

Gone are the days when students enrol in university with the ultimate aim of being employed by a large company. Today, students are looking for more than just a degree and a set career path to follow. “Forty per cent of our students say that they don’t want jobs,” says Attila Brungs, Vice Chancellor of the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). “They want to create their own career path as entrepreneurs.”

To help kick-start these ambitions, UTS has launched the Hatchery and Hatchery+ pre-incubator and incubator programs. Far from typical classroom learning, the Hatchery programs are open to students from all faculties and offer a cross-disciplinary, hands-on environment to develop startup skills. In addition to classes, workshops and networking events, students are given access to their own co-working space and the support of industry mentors.

The timing could not be better. It is estimated that tech startups could contribute $100 billion to Australia’s gross domestic product by 2030. But according to the recent report Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia commissioned by Australia’s former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, Australian innovation continues to lag behind countries like South Korea and the United Kingdom. Despite producing around 43,000 STEM publications annually, tech startups currently make up just 0.06% of all Australian businesses.

The report pointed out that universities hold the key to creating fast-growing and globally competitive new businesses. There was an emphasis on making entrepreneurship more accessible to innovation-driven students by fostering industry partnerships, encouraging a stronger startup culture and developing more incubator programs – similar to the Hatchery.

The six-week Hatchery pre-incubator program is aimed at students considering an entrepreneurial career and focuses on the development of innovative business ideas. The program uses a range of practical approaches, such as teaching students how to design prototypes with limited materials and how to pitch ideas to investors. The Hatchery also gives participants the opportunity to connect with industry powerhouses like Microsoft, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia Innovation Lab and ABC Innovation.

Annette McClelland is a UTS Master of Business Administration (MBA) student who also manages the teen mental health website biteback.org.au for The Black Dog Institute. She is taking part in the Hatchery to explore how she can use technology to improve children’s education.

“Learning alongside people from such diverse backgrounds is helping me turn my ideas into a business,” she says. “I definitely feel more prepared to collaborate with people from different fields than I did when I graduated with my Arts degree in 2012.”

For standout business ideas, UTS recently launched Hatchery+, a three-month incubator program that supports the growth of early-stage startups founded by UTS students or alumni. Hatchery+ offers its startups free access to their own co-working space, clinics on business topics ranging from IP law to web development, and continual support from mentors. The program also includes some funding towards business development and an introduction to potential investors.

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At the UTS Hatchery+ launch, program mentor Vicky Lee spoke about her experience as a student founder of the successful online textbook resource, Zookal.

One of the seven startups participating in Hatchery+ is Psykinetic, a social enterprise that produces life-improving technologies for people with severe disabilities like cerebral palsy. Founded by biomedical engineer and futurist presenter Dr Jordan Nguyen, Psykinetic’s products include a thought-controlled wheelchair and eye-tracking software to enable people with disabilities to use keyboards.

After just a few weeks of being involved with Hatchery+, Jordan says that Psykinetic is ready for further investment. He says that the program has enabled him to focus on certain aspects of his startup that had been neglected like accounting and administration. “It’s been a great opportunity to tie up loose ends that we hadn’t yet thought of,” he says. “It’s so exciting to get a clearer idea of how to give your business the best possible start instead of cutting corners down the line without even realising.”

Hatchery+ offers participants the dedicated support of industry mentors like Vicki Lay, a former student founder of the successful online textbook resource Zookal. For UTS MBA student Leah Callon-Butler, the opportunity to discuss ideas with experienced entrepreneurs has been invaluable for the development of her startup NeoWip, a digital hub that aims to help Australian businesses expand across the globe in a fast and cost-effective way.

“Being able to bounce ideas off industry experts who have been-there-done-that allows me to leverage a wealth of validated learning that already exists in the Australian startup community,” she says. “The mentor relationships have really accelerated the growth and development of my company.”

While Australia has been slow to support a startup culture, the Hatchery and Hatchery+ join a growing number of startup facilities provided by Australian universities, such as Western Sydney University’s Launch Pad and the University of Wollongong’s iAccelerate hub. “I’m excited by the impact that these programs are going to have,” says Brungs. “Cross-disciplinary collaboration is key to innovation and advancement.”

– Gemma Conroy