Petr Adámek sees the benefits of greater cohesion of the national startup ecosystem
Petr Adámek is the CEO of the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN), a not for profit with the mission of empowering entrepreneurs to create positive change. Peter, originally from the Czech Republic, first entered the startup ecosystem in 2008, working as one of the co-founders of a consulting company in Prague, and has since spent time working in a variety of roles in the startup ecosystems of New Zealand and Australia. In his conversation with Adam, Petr discusses what the ACT’s startup ecosystem looked like when he first arrived in 2014, as well as his belief that while the diversity of startups within various geographies in Australia is a strength, as a nation we would benefit from a greater cohesion of the national startup ecosystem.
Canberra Innovation Network: https://cbrin.com.au/about/
Petr on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/petradamek/
Petr on Twitter: https://twitter.com/petradamek
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights 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-
Petr Adámek: My name is Petr Adamek. I’m the CEO of the Canberra Innovation network.
Adam Spencer: What does CBRIN do, and can you give us a little bit of a history on it?
Petr Adámek: Yeah, absolutely. So, Canberra Innovation Network is a relatively young enterprise. It’s a not-for-profit company. It was set up in 2014 by six foundation members at that point that included the major academic and research institutions that are present here in Canberra. So, Australian National University, the University of Canberra, University of New South Wales, Canberra, Canberra Institute of Technology, CSIRO, and at that point also NICTA that later became part of CSIRO and is known under the brand, Data61. So, these organizations came together to set up Canberra Innovation Network, not-for-profit. We have funding from the ACT government to coordinate support and accelerate growth of the innovation ecosystem in the ACT.
Adam Spencer: Right. And that’s your main focus?
Petr Adámek: That’s our main focus. So, we are 1600 square meters on top of ACT Health Building at 1 Moore Street in the civic and the CBD of Canberra. We house accelerator, incubator, coworking space, and connect a whole bunch of other programs, including hackathons and collaborative innovation sessions that sort of connect and grow the ecosystem here.
Adam Spencer: Why do you love your job so much?
Petr Adámek: Oh, I can talk forever about that. It’s so empowering to see so many smart, dedicated, motivated, passionate people who are trying to change the world every day and are learning as they grow, discovering and making it happen and failing and going through all the hoops. It’s so energizing that I just couldn’t couldn’t see myself anywhere else, and my background is in technology. I studied at a technical university. I have actually background in AI. So, I, as an engineer, I could see quite quickly that without the entrepreneurialism and without the ability to see what cannot be seen, you can’t really affect change, and entrepreneurship gives me that visibility all the time, and I’m super, super satisfied by communicating with these people, supporting them, and seeing them succeed.
Adam Spencer: I did know that you have a background in AI, and I was curious to ask two-part question, where do you see the future of AI going, and two, are you keeping your finger on the pulse in terms of what’s happening in the AI space, and are there any kind of notable things that’s happening in Australia that you’d like to point out?
Petr Adámek: Look, I’m trying to, I’m trying to, but truth is that I studied this in the ’90s before it was too sexy. It was the time of ICT and I wanted to do something on the edge of it. So, that’s why I chose AI, and we did a lot of neural networks and expert systems and machine learning, just the standard AI. What I sort of see the future of AI being, and it’s quite close future, it’s the robots building robots. I think that’s one that’s sort of yet not fully explored, but it’s already happening through the industry 4.0. You know how factories are now managed by robots who are being watched by other robots, and so we are slowly getting there. You see the low code or no code applications happening that help humans do the job faster and better, and then not have to be software developers who are specialists. So, you can imagine how the machines are able to do the same thing as well.
Petr Adámek: So, here in Canberra, for example, we have a lot of companies that are leveraging AI, whether it’s to generate new content or whether it’s to monitor how networks work and where documents are stored. And so, the applications will be everywhere, and it’ll be assisting people to do their job better, and they will need to learn how to work with AI.
Adam Spencer: Okay. So, let’s go back to the very beginning. When would you say you really got involved in this startup world?
Petr Adámek: I know it exactly. It was in 2008. It was back in Europe. I was one of the co-founders of a consulting company, and we won a job to work for South Moravian Innovation Centre. They wanted to understand the founders of companies in sort of four sectors of their local economy, and we did about 170 interviews with founders and CEOs of companies there, and that’s how I got really excited. I saw these amazing companies that nobody knew about because they were either too young, too small, but they were doing amazing things. I just got super excited about this whole scene.
Petr Adámek: Since then, I learned a whole lot about the early stage challenges and the pathways and growth. I moved to New Zealand later on in 2009 and got involved in a similar way in a startup ecosystem in Hamilton, and not too later, I was part of their incubator. I helped co-design their incubation programs, and later I became its acting CEO. So, I had a good visibility of the incubation scene there and of the startup ecosystem and the angel investor network there. And in 2015, my partner got a job in Canberra, and so I reluctantly moved here, and I never looked back because the ecosystem here accepted me really rapidly, and before I knew it, 2017, I was the CEO of the Canberra Innovation Network.
Adam Spencer: Having had some experience in overseas markets in Europe and New Zealand, if you can consider New Zealand overseas, it’s pretty close, what are some of the biggest differences or similarities between those ecosystems and the Australian ecosystem?
Petr Adámek: You know, fully aware that things have developed since I embedded myself in Canberra, in all of these places, there are differences that I saw and that I see right now, and I would say that the New Zealand entrepreneur is the most ambitious one of those that I have seen.
Adam Spencer: Really?
Petr Adámek: I think the ambition comes from the real remoteness and the real small size of the local market, where you have to think global from day one. They are really aggressive in their plans and in divisions, at least those I have seen, and they’re also extremely lean. There is not abundance of resources, and so they have to be really innovative, and I think that’s part of the New Zealand entrepreneur story. I encourage everyone to have a look there for inspiration.
Petr Adámek: The European scene is very diverse. So, I come originally from the Czech Republic which is sort of the west-most country of the former Eastern Block. So, almost embedded in Germany and the German innovation system, but with quite a differential in how people are remunerated. So, I would say that the human resources available for startups in the Eastern Block are more abundant, more available, and people there are very technical. I’m an engineer, and it’s a classic story in the Czech Republic. We have a huge amount of the populations are engineering, technical people. What those people there miss is the business drive and ambition. I think we see a lot of the iterative tech-based company development stories, and I think the Czech ecosystem and the Eastern European ecosystem would wish that they had more marketing and business-oriented people and business development people in their teams.
Petr Adámek: And in Australia, I find a healthy combination I would say of the good that I saw back in Europe and in New Zealand, I found here in Canberra, there is actually capital, there is angel investors. There’s venture capital here, and the scene is quite interesting. The country is huge, but not in terms of population, and I think we need to do a better job in how we connect the innovation ecosystems across Australia. So, Canberra is closer to Sydney, but the connectivity could be better, and I saw a better connectivity in Europe where the density is just bigger, but also in New Zealand where the national government is investing in the incubators and forces them to collaborate.
Adam Spencer: Going back to 2017, is that when you joined Canberra Innovation Network?
Petr Adámek: No, I actually joined earlier. I first joined the coworking space here while I was still living in New Zealand. I sort of traveled back and forth. That was in late 2014, beginning 2015, and then in 2015, I did a study for Canberra Innovation Network on how to set up the next incubator here, and then they hired me to be its first manager. So, I was the manager of the KILN Incubator here, and I was also director of programs under the first CEO here. That was Dr. Sarah Pearson. She gave me the opportunity, and when she left in late 2016, beginning 2017, I put my hand up and participated in the selection process, and the board chose me to lead the incubators and the network.
Adam Spencer: Can you take us back to that year 2014, what did the landscape look like then in Canberra in terms of startup and that kind of scene? Community, was the community big? Was there much emphasis on it from the government? What did it look like?
Petr Adámek: That’s a good question, and I can actually explore it from the viewpoint of a person who tries to enter it as an entrepreneur. So, I looked on Twitter who was most active in entrepreneurship tweets in Canberra, and I identified a person whose name was Rory Ford. So, I direct messaged him and said, “Can we catch up for coffee when I’m first time in Canberra?” and we did, and he introduced me to the coworking space here which was in a demountable on a parking lot in front of Australian National University campus. And so, I became a member there, prepaid my membership, like 10 entries or something like that.
Petr Adámek: And then when I spent the first day there, it was very cold because it didn’t have proper heating, and there were other tech entrepreneurs who were kind of in their jackets. It was very surreal compared to something that was happening already back then in New Zealand. So, I was thinking, “Wow, this is early stage,” but then I was wrong. I was wrong. As I was discovering more and more and met other people in the ecosystem through this entry, I have figured that there’s venture capital, there’s angel investors, there was companies in making. I think at that point, Instaclustr, which is sort of our main story here now, in terms of innovation companies, they had like only the two people, the two founders who were there.
Petr Adámek: So, it was exciting to see it unfold, and it was about when the ACT government was looking at what is the next iteration of the ecosystem here, and they set up the Canberra Innovation Network as a new model, and it was like the position was that the ACT government will put in money into something like this, as long as the universities all collaborate together on it. That was the sort of a founding moment for the Canberra Innovation Network. But I must say it’s not the beginnings of it. It’s just the beginning the way I saw it, but there was a lot that was happening before, whether it’s [inaudible] Ventures, an incubator back in the ’90s or Epicorp later, or lighthouse Business Innovation Centre. So, there was a history of business incubation in Canberra that was actually quite long, and in global scale, quite pioneering. So, there was a lot to build on, and that’s why I think the next stage with Canberra Innovation Network was very successful.
Adam Spencer: Jumping forward again now to today, and this can be either your perspective, Canberra, ACT base, or nationally, what are some of the biggest gaps that you’re observing in the ecosystem? Where could we make the biggest improvements?
Petr Adámek: Look, that’s a great question, and when I was thinking about, to me, probably the number one would be the connectedness across the national innovation ecosystem because we are not such a huge nation, 24, 25 million people. We should be able to have good, regular visibility, connectivity, and not in too many fora so that it becomes complicated. What I saw in New Zealand, and fully realize it’s a smaller country, the government funds the incubators through an incubator support program, and they force them to come together at least once a year, at least when I was there, and that was the major source of growth of the ecosystem, learning from one another, spending the two days together, almost opening the kitchen of how we do things in customer validation, in business support, mentoring, working with angel investor groups, and so on.
Petr Adámek: That was even more important than the money that came from the national government in a steady way across the incubators. But I wish something like that existed here, and I wish the Department of Industry took a lead in this or with other partners and connected the incubators in a learning and sharing way.
Adam Spencer: What do you think we as a community, like a startup community, are doing really, really well at? What separates Australia from other ecosystems?
Petr Adámek: What I like about the Australian way of doing things is actually the opposite of the sort of uniformity and too much connectedness, and that is the diversity. So, you have the ecosystems evolve individually on the state, around the major metro areas level, and then each of them has a different flavor, and the story of that each ecosystem is relevant to those stakeholders there, their thinking, and so on, and that diversity in some way works. I always am inspired and learned to see how things change and how they have changed in Brisbane or Melbourne when I am able to visit. So, I think Australia, despite this sort of lack of coordination or top down has created some amazing, unique, local environments in which the passionate people who want to see startups succeed are working with those who want to see the ideas come together.
Petr Adámek: So, that’s probably what we do well, and then I think the next step is to respect the diversity, but also connect it in a, I would say, non-competing way because we are too small to kind of compete or exclude each other. We need to work together and we need to, maybe even with New Zealand, and I would be much for it because together we mean something on the global scene of innovation and startups, and then that card can be played much more. We should try to attract here major events, and we should try to promote the Australian and New Zealand way of entrepreneurship which is slightly different to the American, but sourcing a lot of it, and we should try to apply it locally as well so that others can learn from us.
Adam Spencer: What do you think ACT or even just Canberra is really strong in? What is it known for? You’ve got South Australia and Adelaide, and it seems to be a lot of space tech happening there, a lot of defense, Sydney is fintech. Yeah, what do you think Canberra is known for?
Petr Adámek: I will probably start with cybersecurity because that’s a logical place for a city where the major industry is government and related to public funding. However, space industries is developing here as well. We are a city that is very knowledge intensive. The knowledge institutions in the local economy play a very important role, universities, research centers, but also the peak organizations that actually govern industries and sectors and their development. So, anything related or that can leverage these special and unique characteristics of the ecosystems has a role to play.
Petr Adámek: The other one is renewable energy and that whole battery storage, and again, that’s connected to the knowledge that’s in the universities here. Defense of course, so the cybersecurity space, defense triangle of specializations is quite closely related here. You have the major contractors to government here and so work around them and for them and innovation that can help them and that can connect to their supply chains. So, yeah, renewables, those other three industries, and interestingly, agritech as well because Canberra and ACT as itself is a urban region or urban territory, but we are in the middle of a very fertile, agricultural rural space of New South Wales. And so agtech, innovation, and innovations connected to the capabilities around plant science and environmental sciences, that’s very strong here as well.
Adam Spencer: I guess that given your role, you are talking to a lot of founders, a lot of startup founders. I want to ask you, I’m asking everybody this question, the advice question I call it. If a brand new founder came to you tomorrow and you could only tell them one thing, one piece of advice that would slightly increase the chance of their success, what would you tell them?
Petr Adámek: I saw that question, and I of course have multiple answers. I was probably most inspired when this happened to me, when I saw this one investor in New Zealand who only asked always two words to any entrepreneur that was pitching him an idea. Those two words were who cares.
Adam Spencer: Huh.
Petr Adámek: It had a huge impact on me. And so, the advice connected to these two words is basically always try to look at yourself from outside. If you are in love and you are very passionate about your idea and your solution to some problem, you often don’t see that there could be maybe other solutions to the same problems or that that problem doesn’t matter to people. So, the ability to kind of step outside and look objectively at yourself is probably universal rule of professional growth, but in entrepreneurs, it is a must. And if they can’t do it, if they are too connected to their ego and too much to the way they do things and want to just convince the whole world that that’s the way it should be done, I think they will struggle, and that they need to learn quickly the ability to see themselves from outside, realize who cares, and to talk to people, and be open to actually hearing the answers that they don’t want to hear. That’s probably the biggest ticket to success is to be able to deal with this.
Adam Spencer: That’s the main part of the interview done, but I want to ask you, I’ve got a few questions here, some research questions that may be used by some universities. What do you think defines a startup ecosystem and what defines it particularly as a strong ecosystem? That’s the first question, sorry. The second question, what do you think we as a community are doing really well and what makes the Australian startup ecosystem unique? And the third question, could we be doing something better as a community and what area could we make the biggest improvement in? We kind of touched on those last two a little bit in the interview, but are you happy to answer those?
Petr Adámek: Yeah, absolutely. So, in my opinion, an ecosystem, and it’s just worth mentioning that this is derived from the natural sciences, right? So, rather than us engineers, we like to create systems which are built by us in a top-down manner, and then an ecosystem is something that evolves naturally and you can’t really control it or direct it. The difference between an ecosystem and a created system is almost like a rainforest compared to a field that has been plowed by some agricultural operation. So, an ecosystem is serendipitous. It’s a collision and with of a variety of species and nutrients that are available there for the species to thrive on, whether it’s plants or animals.
Petr Adámek: So, it’s the same with the startups or established companies in that ecosystem, that availability of the water and the oxygen which is the advice and the capital and the stories of others that inspire me as a founder, a potential founder, or the availability of the feeder which is the university or the education institution milieu that produces the graduates and the knowledge and the research that can then enter into the startups, and a proactive and supportive government such as we have here in the ACT that can see and seed those things that would commercially not exist and support the initiatives, and then local enthusiasts so that fluidity, density, connectivity, and diversity of players is defining for a high quality startup ecosystem.
Petr Adámek: There’s probably a lot of literature globally, and there definitely is. We use some of it like the MIT approach to the innovation-driven entrepreneur ecosystems that kind of defines who are the key players, whether it’s the business community, venture capital, universities, and research, and government, and the entrepreneurs, but in a sense, it has to be kind of always evolving and growing, and it has to create its identity that attracts other people who want to be part of it, whether as customers, whether as mentors, investors, supporters, but most importantly, entrepreneurs. We want to see growth of the next generations and cohorts of people who want to change the world through entrepreneurship. They have always better and better way to do it. That’s how I would define a startup ecosystem, a bit long.
Adam Spencer: No, that’s really good. What do you think defines an ecosystem as a strong ecosystem?
Petr Adámek: Yeah, I think the strength can be measured by the density, by the degrees of separation and connectivity, how it allows itself to evolve and change, you know?
Adam Spencer: Yeah.
Petr Adámek: Yeah, I think Kauffman Foundation has been defining this strength along these lines, and I kind of like it. I don’t like to only measure it by the number or size of startups because that’s also about those specializations. If it’s digital economy specialized cluster or space, it’ll be different to the life sciences, and so the job profiles are different. So, I like the density and the fluidity and connectivity and diversity measures.
Adam Spencer: Now I’ll ask you this question again. I think we did touch on it a bit. But what do you think makes the Australian startup ecosystem unique?
Petr Adámek: I would say it’s the diversity of how the different ecosystems that are quite separate and not too connected evolved, and the wealth of lessons that is embedded in those ecosystems that can be tapped into and learned from. So, if I am a researcher from around the world, I would come to the startup ecosystem in Australia, and I could probably discover all the methods that are applied anywhere else here in Australia. So, the diversity is big.
Adam Spencer: And finally, where’s the area that you think we could make the biggest improvement on?
Petr Adámek: I think it’s in the connectivity. So, we’ve done well to develop on our own in the different states and territories part of the journey, and we need to now connect better, learn better from one another, and experiment together, and lift, sort of lift together. The rising tide lifts all the boats. We have the boats now.
Adam Spencer: How do we do that?
Petr Adámek: I think there’s a role for the federal government. I think they need to invest in it as, as they tried during the Malcolm Turnbull era, and I think that could be the first step, and after that, it can already be natural and that those collaboration can exist. I still sort of find it easier to reach to some of my counterparts globally that I’ve been connected to for ages now than kind of discovering the new faces in Australia.
Adam Spencer: Wow.
Petr Adámek: So, I would like that ease to be improved among us Australian players in the ecosystem.
Adam Spencer: That’s very interesting. I have one more question. It’s not really a question, but I just like to wrap up the interview with just giving you the floor. So, this series, we’re trying to tell the most comprehensive and truest version of the Australian startup ecosystem over the last 20 years, what do you think needs to go into this series? What are you thinking about all the time? Anything that comes to mind that you think absolutely needs to go into the series?
Petr Adámek: How do we raise our ambition? You look around the world and there’s people trying to put people on Mars. There’s huge ambition. How do we raise ambition across the ecosystem and of the ecosystem as a whole? Could we dare? Could we dare to aim to be one of the most productive startup ecosystems on the planet? And I think we could, and I’d be happy to be part of a group that aspires to achieve that.
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.