Pete Horsley explains why diversity is so important in the ecosystem
Pete Horsley is the founder of Remarkable, a tech accelerator for early stage startups in the disability tech space. Starting his career as a landscape architect, Pete now has more than 10 years’ experience working in the not-for-profit sector. In his conversation with Adam, Pete discusses how an idea for a solar powered wheelchair led to the founding of Remarkable, and why diversity within Australia’s startup ecosystem is so important.
Pete on Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/petehorsley
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and Welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlight’s Australian startups, founders, and the organizations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning to tell a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. On the episode today, we have-
Pete Horsley: My name’s Pete Horsley. I’m the founder of Remarkable. We’re a tech accelerator for early stage startups in the disability tech space.
Adam Spencer: I think maybe you have quite a different background to a lot of the people that I’m talking to. I don’t even know if I can say there’s a typical path into the startup land, right? There’s not really, everyone seems to have very backgrounds, but can you tell me that story about how you came to be involved in this community? This world?
Pete Horsley: Yeah, I actually started studying… Well, studied and worked as a landscape architect prior to being in the startup ecosystem. I guess, sort of fell into the startup ecosystem by accident. I’d been doing some work in the disability sector, particularly around the space of innovation and technology, what could we utilize around technology for the benefit of people within the disability sector? And for us, it was at the beginning just about how do we get people to think differently about this space?
Pete Horsley: And so a colleague of mine was actually running a global competition called Change My World in One Minute, it was asking people with cerebral palsy, “What’s one thing that would change your world?” And then we were attempting to try and make that thing, that they had actually said that they’d love to see come to fruition. There was a man by the name of Alper who was living in a small country town called Bursa in Turkey. And he said the thing that would change his world is if someone could create him a solar powered wheelchair. And we thought that was interesting, but it ended up getting a lot of votes from other people in the cerebral palsy community from around the world.
Pete Horsley: So we sought to then kind of create this prototype for Alper. We put it out to the worldwide maker community, and we actually had a university in Virginia that said that they’d do it as a project, one of the feeder universities for NASA engineers. One of the things that Alper had told us is that there was a temple that he wanted to worship at on the other side of town, and he was also stuck in this catch 22 of where all the jobs were in town, which was outside of the reach of where his chair could get him at this time. But in order to buy a new chair, he of course needed a job. And so he was stuck in this catch 22.
Pete Horsley: We paid the university and gave them some money to ship the prototype over to Alper, and within days of him receiving that wheelchair, he sent us selfies out in front of a temple and said, “This is the temple that I wanted to worship at.” And about six weeks later, he told us that he had a part-time job. And so for us, this was technology changing someone’s life. This is what we really wanted to see, but it wasn’t happening at scale. That was one wheelchair for one person. It didn’t turn into a product that was kind of then built for thousands of people or tens of thousands of people.
Pete Horsley: But it then took us into kind of thinking it was just about innovation and ideas, so we’re running hackathons. but again, many of the people who are listening to this will be familiar with the outcomes of hackathons, is that lots of people come up with great ideas but the ideas that the easy part, I guess, and it’s not until you execute that that’s when you really find out if you’ve actually got a product that fits the market.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. What year was this when you were doing the hackathons?
Pete Horsley: So hackathons were 2014 and it was at that time that we got actually contacted by a major Australian telco. They said that they liked the work that we were doing, and Telstra said that through their foundation there might be an opportunity that we could get some funding. And they said, “If we were to give you some funding, we don’t just want to fund events. What would you use the funding for?” And essentially we went back to them and said, “Until we get technology in the hands of people with disability, I don’t think we’re really making a lick of difference.” And so I said, “We need to commercialize this technology. We need to get this technology out in market.”
Pete Horsley: And so Remarkable sits as part of a larger, not for profit called Cerebral Palsy Alliance and our CEO is just fantastic. He said, “I think that’s what we need to pitch to Telstra.” So we went back to them and said, “We want to create an accelerator and try and support early stage ideas, help them commercialize and get them into market so that we can get that technology into the hands of people with disability.” And so 2016, we set about launching that. And Remarkable has been going ever since.
Adam Spencer: So you came from not a business background necessarily?
Pete Horsley: No.
Adam Spencer: You come into this world and you’ve built one of the most recognizable and successful accelerators, like the brand recognition is amazing. I don’t know if it’s just me that I’m super aware of it, or if it’s a lot of people are. My question is 2014, that’s really early on in what most people describe as the startup ecosystem. 2012 seems to be about, or thereabouts, seems to be the year when things really got going. So you’ve come into this world with not much experience and you’ve managed to build this amazing organization. How? Did you have any support? Who did you go to? Who helped you? No one ever builds anything by themselves, so there’s probably a list of people, but yeah, how did you do it?
Pete Horsley: We first started by just talking to startups themselves, and so we wanted to really understand what it was that they were dealing with and what support that they really needed. And at that time, not many of the startups were being taken seriously by any of the rest of the tech sector. I guess that was understandable, because they’re thinking, “This is a small market, the opportunities for finding a unicorn in amongst this is going to be limited.”
Pete Horsley: We had an incredible amount of help from Telstra’s muru-D at the time. So Annie Parker, Mick Liubinskas, they were great sounding boards for what we were trying to do. And then it wasn’t until we actually had a workshop that they ran for us with the help of Telstra that I met Ben Reid, and Ben Reid was part of the muru-D team at the time, was actually leaving muru-D to do his own startup and moving to China, and we maintained contact after that. But Ben was an incredibly significant person in the development of Remarkable. I didn’t really know the tech sector. I didn’t really understand the startup ecosystem and he was really teaching us everything that we needed to know and connecting us.
Pete Horsley: That’s probably one of the other things that we’ve really noticed about the Australian tech ecosystem, is it’s incredibly generous. It is incredibly forthcoming in providing assistance, in giving you a leg up, in saying, “Just give it a go.” It would be quite easy for there to be lots of criticism of what we were trying to do but we found quite the opposite, that we had so many people who were willing to help. And there have been many, many hundreds of them since then. We have incredible mentors, incredible startup coaches, entrepreneurs and residents, and others from the tech ecosystem that help us do what we do.
Adam Spencer: Switching gears a bit. How long have you been running Remarkable now, or involved in Remarkable? Five or six years?
Pete Horsley: Yeah, this is coming into our sixth year, so five years so far.
Adam Spencer: What are some of the biggest gaps that you’ve observed in the ecosystem? Either Sydney specific, New South Wales specific, or nationally?
Pete Horsley: I think there’s a couple of things. Some of the gaps that I see in the ecosystem, particularly around the space that we are working in, is a pipeline of innovation. I think that unless people are personally impacted by a problem or someone that they love is impacted by this problem, or they’ve been working in this space for some time, that it’s not until they experience that up close that we have very, very few people that sit outside of that, that see this space as a space worth solving problems for. So pipeline is definitely one issue.
Pete Horsley: I think early stage capital is always a struggle here in Australia. Some of our startups do go through multiple accelerator programs. And I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing because I think the reality is you look for opportunities that you can keep your runway going, and so that little bit of extra capital, or little bit of extra support are the only pathways for that at the moment. We don’t have really well funded angel and seed networks. There are some of them around, but there’s not a high proportion of those that are putting bets on young companies, not knowing if they’re going to get anything back in return.
Pete Horsley: I think we’ve got an incredible opportunity here in Australia with the bipartisan support we’ve got around the national disability insurance scheme. There’s a real opportunity for us to see innovation in this sector as one of Australia’s major exports. One of our opportunities for being on the international stage is to really be at the forefront of assistive technology and technology that sits around disability and aging. So, I do see it at the moment as a real missed opportunity by both government and the investment community. There are some that are investing, but on the most part, it gets bypassed as a state for the not-for-profit and the charity sector.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Is that mentality from the investment community linked to the point you made earlier about high impact, highly scalable companies, there’s this misunderstanding that that can’t happen or that won’t happen?
Pete Horsley: I think so, yeah. It’s interesting though, when you do compare some of our federal government spending and investment, it’s at an all time high in this sector. We’re putting over a quarter of a trillion dollars of Australian government money into the NDIS over the next 10 years and yet we don’t see this as a major opportunity for innovation in Australia. We still look to space and RegTech and cyber and those sorts of things. Really important areas, yes. But we’ve got an opportunity that, hey, we’re putting a big proportion of government spending in this space. So why not see it as a rich territory for innovation and for startup technology as well.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Let’s, on the flip side of that, be a bit more positive now. What do you think we, as an innovation community, startup community are doing really, really well in?
Pete Horsley: I think that there is a desire to see technology that doesn’t just give a commercial return, but it does have social impact as well. I’ve seen a real growth over the last couple of years in technology that doesn’t just kind of fit for purpose, perform a function, but it also has a way of considering some of the meta trends and some of the things that are happening around climate change, around gender diversity, around workplace diversity, around seeing the opportunities to actually make Australia and potentially the world a better place. So, I think Australia is doing particularly well in that space. We see kind of a number of accelerators in this space.
Pete Horsley: And then I think we have this incredible generosity in Australia, as I mentioned before, that there is a generosity of people within the startup ecosystem that I think that sets us apart in Australia. It’s this kind of, maybe it’s an extension of the mateship kind of thing. Maybe it’s an extension of we’ve had an incredibly rich, diverse migrant kind of community where you have to give each other a hand up, because that’s exactly what kind of situation we find ourselves in. But I find that’s incredibly encouraging. I love seeing the support that comes from the tech ecosystem.
Adam Spencer: That is a reoccurring theme that has come up through my interviews. I’m seeing a number of different patterns come up and that is definitely one of them, everyone helping everyone. So that’s really good to hear. I want to just quickly go back to talk about the beginning of your story again, just 2014, that time period. Aside from muru-D and I think, who else did you mention? You mentioned Annie Parker and Mick. Can you just give me a bit of a snapshot from your perspective at that time? What did the landscape look like at that time in Sydney? What other organizations were you noticing that were about? What other people, maybe? How big was the community?
Pete Horsley: Yeah, I found it a really exciting part of the kind of Australian business landscape, I guess, was seeing this burgeoning tech startup ecosystem. I guess I’d kind of been keeping an eye on what was happening overseas, and then when I saw that we had a number of accelerators across Australia, we were starting to see the emergence of a couple of bigger players that had actually made it out of that startup kind of bubble, onto the Australian scene. And so, I don’t know. I found it just one with lots of burgeoning hope and possibility that was kind of happening. And I was like, “Oh, if we could play a little part in this and kind of create a little mark on this part of the world in that, that would be exciting.”
Pete Horsley: But, we didn’t even know really if there was going to be enough startups actually even out there, that needed this kind of help. And so all we started doing was running monthly meetups and just saying, “Hey, if you’re working in this space and you want to meet up with some other people that perhaps are working in a similar space, then let’s do that.” And we started running it just out of some pubs in Surry Hills. Then after a little while, Atlassian actually took us in and allowed us to run some of our meetups in one of their spaces in George street. It was just an exciting time of meeting other entrepreneurs, and we’d give everyone at chance to pitch their business at the end of the session. But we’d try and put on something that was actually useful for all the entrepreneurs as well.
Pete Horsley: But really it was just a chance to kind of connect with each other, and I think that’s a central backbone to what we are currently doing now, is that opportunity to meet others that might be that little step beyond where you are, or maybe they’ve been successful and kind of exited a business, or they’ve had some startup failures that can be learned from. And I think that ability to kind of bring people around and create a network that hopefully lifts all boats, I think is a really important thing.
Pete Horsley: One of the things that we’ve noticed is that people with lived experience of disability are often left out of this conversation. And so we want to do more to make sure that people with disability who are aspiring tech entrepreneurs have exactly the same amount of opportunity as anyone that may not have a disability. I think that inherently they’ve actually got some problem solving skills that come with the territory of having to be the original life hackers, if you like, of having to make the world that’s not designed for them, work for them. So how do we tap into that skillset and that network in Australia, and see that, again, as a differentiator for us.
Adam Spencer: Just out of curiosity, over the last five years or so, and through all these pub meetups and through your work at Remarkable and just life in general, ballpark it for me. How many founders slash entrepreneurs do you reckon you’ve met?
Pete Horsley: Oh, wow. That’s a really good question. It’d be in the hundreds for sure, because we’ve formally worked with over a hundred founders. We run events all the time. Yeah, so it’d be hundreds. I don’t know if I’ve got a specific number to that, sorry Adam.
Adam Spencer: No, the reason why I ask is because you’ve helped a lot of founders and you’ve spoken to a lot of founders and it leads me into my next question, which is the advice question. If a brand new founder came to you tomorrow, just like you. Brand new founder, she was a landscape architect. She’s just coming into startup land. If you could give her one per piece of advice to help put her on the right path, slightly increase the chance of her succeeding, what would you tell her?
Pete Horsley: I think there’s something incredibly important about belief in a person, and so being a first believer in someone, it’s something that I’ve tried to do and we’ve tried to do as a team over the years, is to believe in someone’s potential and ability to do that. So firstly, I’d be encouraging her and I’d be saying, “That’s amazing, fantastic. Congratulations on getting where you’ve got to so far, keep going.”
Pete Horsley: Advice, and I’ve started things. I haven’t started a startup. So, I give most of the advice opportunities to our coaches, who are incredibly experienced and our mentors are way more experienced than what I am. But certainly there’s some fundamentals that I think sit across every startup that they need to have. One of those is being incredibly close to your customers and understanding your customers and not making assumptions about your customers.
Pete Horsley: So the closer you can get to your customers through interviewing them every… We try and help our founders actually have a discipline of customer interviews, talking to customers all the time. What is it that they need? What is it that they want? How are they going about solving that problem now? Not, “Hey, I’ve got this really great idea. Do you think you’d like it?” And of course people, human nature says yes to that, but really asking them, how are they solving that problem right now? What’s the intricacies? How do you build up that kind of knowledge around that problem. So that can set you apart in terms of your business, by having that really, really intricate knowledge of the problem space that you’re solving for.
Adam Spencer: What do you think defines a startup ecosystem, and what defines it as a particularly strong ecosystem?
Pete Horsley: I guess we think about an ecosystem as a living organization, a living thing. And it is one that occurs in balance as well, the different parts feed each other. Then I think a startup ecosystem is one that builds itself, that the different parts are equaling something that’s bigger than the individuals. And I think that connectedness has to be a central part of that. It was interesting, I was reflecting with a few other people about the _SOUTHSTART conference in South Australia. There was definitely kind of some rose colored glasses of being at an in-person event, being able to jump on a plane and all of those sorts of things.
Pete Horsley: But there was something that conference did to kind of really… It felt like an ecosystem. It felt like a community. There was a whole bunch of people there that I knew, and then a whole bunch of people, massive amounts of people that I didn’t know. It was great just discovering who they were and what they were passionate about and what they were working on. I think that’s, for me, the definition of an ecosystem that’s thriving, it’s kind of this excitement that builds around the opportunities that are before all of us. And we love to champion each other’s causes around that as part of this broader ecosystem.
Adam Spencer: There might be one or two more questions, follow up questions. But this last question that I leave people with is not really a question. I just want to open the floor up to you because part of this interview will be used in a much larger documentary series about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. I’ll also publish this interview in its entirety.
Adam Spencer: What do you think needs to go into this story about the Australian startup ecosystem? So asked another way, what’s something that you are always thinking about? Maybe a problem that exists that needs to be solved or what we’re doing really well, what we’re doing really bad, where we can improve? What comes to mind when I ask you what absolutely needs to go into this series?
Pete Horsley: I think there’s probably a few things that come to mind about what we need to have as part of the Australian startup ecosystem. I think immense gratitude for the people who have come before us. Companies like Pollenizer right back in the day, really trying to set the scene. We kind of stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before us, and so gratitude for that. But then also an acknowledgement that we’re, like any industry or any sector, we also need to grow up and mature and we need to keep changing and morphing. And so I guess the part that I somehow wish is that startup ecosystem continues to push the boundaries around inclusion. I think that’s been an important development in the last couple of years.
Pete Horsley: I think it’s been predominantly limited to kind of thinking about gender inclusion, and I think we need to kind of push that out to cover a number of other vectors of inclusion, because I think that’s one of Australia’s greatest gifts is our multiculturalism, is our health system that allows someone with a disability to actually engage and have a good life in Australia. It’s important that we actually lean into the unfair advantage we’ve got of this kind of really diverse community that we have. I still see us being a little bit choked around that. We don’t quite get the settings right around that. I think that there’s more that we can do around that.z.
Pete Horsley: And probably the second thing is we need to get government policy firing on the startup ecosystem. It’s a well known fact that we can’t continue to look to dig our future out of the ground. We have to dig it out of our heads and use our creativity to be able to set up Australia’s future economy, that’s one of incredible innovation and entrepreneurship, that builds that next phase of Australia’s economy as well.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.