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September 10, 2014

Start-up state on its way

Entrepreneurs are being touted as the saviour of the South Australian economy. The Director of Flinders University’s New Venture Institute, Matt Salier, certainly agrees that can be the case, but says some changes need to be made before the ‘Start-up State’ dream becomes a reality.

  • Words: Matt Salier
  • Illustration: Ross Bateup

Whenever we talk of entrepreneurship and new enterprises, our minds almost automatically swing to the technology-focused, high-growth start-up models that are so familiar to us from examples like Google and Facebook.

Whilst important for the spin-off value they create, South Australia also needs to recognise that entrepreneurship has a much broader range. New business ideas can occur across an almost unlimited number of sectors. Places like the Jam Factory and the arts initiative at St Paul’s are just as entrepreneurial as the tech focused start-ups in residence at Majoran Distillery or those that were created at the recent Start-Up weekend event.

A producer of something creative is just as valuable as the people who produce apps, and it is up to us to find ways to support both of them.

A producer of something creative is just as valuable as the people who produce apps, and it is up to us to find ways to support both of them.  While we may not find any quick solution to the loss of 5,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector, every new business contributes to the economy.

The New Venture Institute (NVI) at Flinders is one of several organisations in South Australia that is seeking to foster and promote this vital entrepreneurial culture.

Entrepreneurial skills need to be valued for themselves, precisely because they are transferable across different sectors. While a business idea represents unique intellectual property, it is vital that the skills and techniques needed to grow a business should be shared. 

This is the driving ethos behind organisations like the NVI. Access to knowledge and experience to help test ideas, find backers and develop business models is what young entrepreneurs and budding businesses most urgently need – not just locally, but everywhere. Organisations like ours seek to provide this by offering programs that enlist the experience of seasoned business people as mentors and advisers to students and to businesses.

What we need is for the whole system to collaborate, co-operate and create together, and it is something we’re well on the way to achieving in South Australia.

Governments definitely have a role to play in the process, but at the same time, governments should function more as an enabler than anything else. Governments should be looking to respond to new businesses by providing appropriate support and assistance, clearing roadblocks and facilitating opportunities that industry can’t do alone.

In South Australia we have seen entrepreneurs hanging back or attempting to align their activities with financial incentives offered by government. To my mind, this is the wrong form of motivation. Government and universities
clearly have a role as partners, but entrepreneurs should derive their momentum from the quality of their ideas and from the opportunities that exist organically in the community, not because there is funding available or because a university offers a particular degree or grant program.

Rather, universities should support and nurture entrepreneurial activity, encourage different ways of thinking, and contribute to existing businesses in creative and value-adding ways. 


The NVI recently ran a ten week-long program where 43 participants were supported in creating 22 new micro businesses. Some of those businesses have already attracted investment and hired staff, while Matt says some will likely cease to exist in less than 6 months. Either way, those South Australians have learned a new way to think about opportunity and that, says Matt, is the point.

While the core business of universities is to produce graduates, we need to focus more on the type of graduates we produce and the attributes and attitudes they take with them into the world. Through placements and projects with start-ups, students can come to understand the entrepreneurial mindset and aspire to it, or bring that creativity to employee roles.

What we at NVI are looking to do is produce job creators, rather than job takers – and a job creator can be an employee. The traditional progression of doing a degree and going into a job is increasingly redundant – we have to equip and encourage graduates to contribute to economic activity themselves, rather than waiting for someone to employ them to do it.

Even when graduates do join a business as an employee, having strategic entrepreneurial skills gives that business far greater potential to be more innovative, creative and adaptable.

It is also important that we don’t think of the benefits of entrepreneurial skills as being limited to business schools or graduates. In a whole range of sectors, including aged care and health management, the system faces huge challenges that will require innovative approaches to meet and solve. Entrepreneurial thinking is just as valuable among social workers as it is among computer coders.

Adelaide and South Australia provide a unique market that should be made the most of and chief among that state’s attributes is our accessible scale. We have a huge amount of sectors and demographics contained in a population of just 1.6 million people, so we have the potential to act as a great test bed for new things – in a sense, if an idea works here, it can work anywhere. With this size of population and strong degree of connections, ideas and creativity can spread within a demographic quicker than in larger disconnected populations.

And while there is always a possibility that some businesses that grow rapidly may end up leaving the state, I would argue every successful company that is initially formed and financed in South Australia teaches us valuable lessons and helps to create an environment that can benefit the next generation of business ideas.

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