ChangeMakers spoke to ilab Director Bernie Woodcroft and UQ engineering alumnus John Scott about their experiences in start-up industries and the role ilab plays in helping young innovators bring ideas to market.
ilab is an incubator/accelerator based at UQ’s Long Pocket precinct that helps founders move their start-up idea into an investable company that has a validated market, early-stage product and initial revenues.
Since 2012 when UniQuest, the University’s main commercialisation company, took on the operation of ilab in partnership with the Queensland Government, we have supported more than 120 start-up companies, providing programs, workspaces, business mentors, events and, most importantly, strong connections with industry.
It is important to understand why accelerators like ilab can help move your idea into a reality. The truth is that most ideas are not unique. There are a lot of people in the world, and it is highly likely that someone has thought of your idea before you. The key to success is in the execution.
You also have the opportunity to pitch your ideas to investors who can help fund and fast-track your product development.
It is great to see the establishment of student entrepreneurial programs such as IdeaHub at the St Lucia campus. Here you can start to immerse yourself in what it means to traverse the gap between your idea and creating something that customers actually want, and hear from some great entrepreneurs. Accelerators like ilab are the next step in the pathway when you are ready to work on your idea full-time.
Start-up founders working at ilab, such as engineering alumnus John Scott, marry advances in technology and science with customer needs and rapidly translate the outcome into businesses that change the way people do things. Mr Scott co-founded Cartesian Co., a company that developed a 3D printer for electronics. He now leads the hardware development for MOVUS, another start-up that went through the ilab program. Another ilab start-up, Rumbl, is focused on reducing food wastage; Language and Learning is building speech therapy apps for children; Turbine Machine Genes is using complex computer processing to simulate jet engine behaviour; Skyborne Technologies is developing new drone technology; Agalytics is finding cheap ways to test soil on site to avoid over-fertilising; and Evorce is providing online mediation and divorce. The world is changing at high speed, and that pace is only accelerating.
ilab is deliberately focused on external engagement. A successful founder team requires a range of talents, networks and experience. Many entrepreneurs and founders are not UQ alumni – ilab is providing a home to attract entrepreneurial talent from anywhere. These entrepreneurs then have the opportunity to reach back into the University to find the knowledge and expertise they need to move their businesses forward.
MOVUS is a great example of the mutually beneficial relationship between ilab and UQ. Since the company has been at ilab, MOVUS has been able to access the University’s Properties and Facilities group for some of its product testing, and has facilitated some early product sales back into UQ. This opportunity has been incredibly helpful in helping MOVUS achieve momentum.
Redback Technologies, which provides intelligent solar storage solutions and has attracted $2 million worth of investment since commencing at ilab, is another great example.
Since starting at ilab in 2015, Redback has established strong partnerships with UQ researchers, facilitated through UniQuest, and has also established a relationship with UQ Solar. Redback has also made its first sales, grown its staff to 20 people including UQ graduates, and is currently raising a Series A funding round.
Start-ups are always looking for help with technology, marketing, and anyone with initiative and enthusiasm.
From my own perspective as a UQ Electrical Engineering alumnus, and having spent the majority of my career helping build businesses globally, it is both inspiring and satisfying to engage first-hand with new founders as they seek to change the world.
A job today may not be a job tomorrow. Many companies today will not exist tomorrow. Those people who will succeed best, like Mr Scott, will be those with the mindset to make their own jobs by creating new business paradigms. Learning to nurture ideas and effectively execute them, whether in your own start-up or by helping companies reinvent themselves, are important skills to have if you want to impact the future.
ilab is a start-up accelerator owned by UQ Holdings Pty Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of UQ that supports early stage, high-tech companies. ilab has incubated more than 140 start-up companies and helped them raise more than $80 million in grant and investment capital to fund their growth and generate nearly 800 technology jobs. As ilab’s Director, Bernie Woodcroft is responsible for all start-up programs, facilities and operational aspects of the accelerator, specialising in executive leadership, innovation and design, start-ups, customer and stakeholder engagement, commercialisation, business development, management, strategy and governance.
Find out more
To learn more about ilab, visit ilab.com.au.
After graduating from UQ with a Bachelor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in 2012, I joined a large building and engineering company as a site engineer. I quickly realised that I wanted to make something of my own and feel like I was really creating value, and I didn’t feel like I could do that working for a large engineering company.
At the same time, my long-time friend Ariel Briner, who had graduated from UQ with a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering, was working on some simple prototypes for a 3D electronics printer.
He had originally approached me about the idea while we were at university and now, not enjoying my job very much, I said to him, “let’s do this”. Together with another engineering friend we met through university, Isabella Stephens, we applied to ilab and got in, and that was how the company Cartesian Co. started.
3D printers print physical things, mainly out of plastic. Our vision was to make the electronics equivalent of a 3D printer. If you want to build a circuit board, which is in every phone, computer and most electronic devices, you need to test that circuit board before you go into production.
Often there are quite a few revisions that you need to go through while refining your design. The problem we found from our experiences, and from talking to other electrical engineers, was that the process of sending a board away to a manufacturer and waiting for it to come back took about two weeks. Our idea was to make an electronics printer so people could design, refine and make their own circuit boards within a few hours, rather than waiting for them to be produced by a third-party manufacturer.
We entered the three-month Germinate program at ilab at the beginning of 2013, and this experience was critical to refining our business model and getting it off the ground.
The program ended in April 2013 and we spent the rest of that year working on a prototype. We launched a campaign through Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects, which raised more than $137,000 and pre-sold 120 units. This gave us the confidence that people actually wanted the product. We used the money we raised to bring on two employees, move to a larger office and buy the equipment we needed to manufacture the printer. We shipped the first batch of products at the end of 2014.
We then decided to expand the company, as there were a few competitors at that stage, and the best way was to move to the US. We were accepted into Techstars, another accelerator program based in New York, and also raised some money from
a Sydney-based Angel Investor, which helped us relocate.
We had some success in the US. We were the first company to market with this type of product and sold more than 250 printers to customers all over the world, including huge companies like Google and NASA.
We wound up the company in December 2015. There were a few reasons for this, the main one being that the market for the product we made – that is, a consumer hobbyist sort of product – wasn’t there like we thought it was. We looked at hobbyist 3D printers and thought people would buy an electronics version, but we discovered it was mainly businesses that wanted this type of capability.
I decided to return to Brisbane as I thought the start-up scene here was growing a lot, and I wanted to be part of it. I’m now working for another start-up company, MOVUS, which also went through the Germinate program. We are developing a wireless sensor that can attach to any piece of equipment that has a rotating component and give advance warning if the equipment is about to break down. I’m leading the hardware development and am excited about what we are doing.
I don’t have any regrets about starting a company – I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. It was scary putting myself out there, and I had no idea what was going to happen, but I believe if you give it your all, only good things can come of it.
John Scott graduated with a Bachelor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in 2012. After working as a site engineer for a large building and engineering company, John and fellow UQ graduates Ariel Briner and Isabella Stephens founded Cartesian Co., a company that developed a 3D printer for electronics. The company was accepted into ilab’s Germinate program in 2013 and raised more than $137,000 though a Kickstarter campaign. Mr Scott is now leading the hardware development for MOVUS, another start-up that went through the Germinate program. MOVUS provides industrial Internet of Things solutions, helping businesses optimise their resources with new thinking and innovation.
Find out more
To learn more about MOVUS, visit movus.com.au