Baden U’Ren on the importance of teaching our youth entrepreneurship
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Baden U’Ren is an entrepreneurship educator and innovation professional who has worked in a variety of roles within the Australian startup ecosystem. He is the co-founder of both The Unconventional Group and Script-Ed, and had a nearly 20 year career as an academic as the head of entrepreneurship at Bond University. In his conversation with Adam, he discusses the importance of the education sector for the growth of Australia’s startup ecosystem, and how the ecosystem has evolved over the past 20 years.
Baden U’Ren: My name is Baden U’Ren, I’m currently co-founder of two entities, one, the Unconventional Group, which focuses on corporate innovation. The second Script-Ed, which is an education consultancy, focusing on entrepreneurship curriculum within secondary schools. Prior to this I had a almost 20 year career as an academic as the head of entrepreneurship at Bond University.
Baden U’Ren: Another business interest I have is with my wife in pet wellness centers. It’s a boutique group of full service veterinary clinics that takes a very customer centric focus to the delivery of animal health. So we’re, our little tagline is more than just a vet and we do things like acupuncture and nutrition and behavior consultancy and physiotherapy and a range of other services that perhaps you wouldn’t find in a traditional vetenary clinic.
Adam Spencer: And from what I understand about, the Unconventional Group, I think he may have met Trent Bagnall and his business partner, Phil, Craig, sorry. Cause through Slingshot, right? Well, Slingshot had a different arm where they went into corporates and help them innovate internally. That’s kind of what I understand the Unconventional Group to be doing or am I completely off on that?
Baden U’Ren: Where we focus is on internal capability building. So our task is to infect larger organizations with an innovative culture and a set of systems and structures to, to enable them to develop their own dynamic capabilities rather than just traditional strategic capabilities, which large organizations tend to be very good at developing a separate set of capabilities, which will enable them to innovate themselves. So how that differs to a lot of previous activity is rather than being an external agent we attempt to be a bit of an educator. So really, we’re an education firm. That’s what we’re all about.
Adam Spencer: Hmm, is this the thing that got you to leave, you know, university?
Baden U’Ren: Yeah, I think it’s actually a really good introduction to who I am and my role within our broader ecosystem, because I’m an educator. That’s what I am. I’m a teacher. I think in my life, I always have been.
Baden U’Ren: When I was really young, I was really good at numbers. So I ended up getting into the finance world but really where I think I get a lot of satisfaction in my life is from the beauty that is education that the ability to be able to positively influence another person’s trajectory in life.
Baden U’Ren: And right before being at Bond University, I was working in private equity and I had been asked by my alma mater Bond University to come back and teach the private equity and venture capital course. And I found when I started teaching that I really loved it. My dad was actually was a special education teacher, primary school special education teacher.
Baden U’Ren: And I think that history and seeing the impact that he had on so many people really connected with me. And I think that’s now come out in, leaving the university sector. I’m still doing exactly what I was doing within the university sector, I’m educating.
Baden U’Ren: So for corporates, my role is I refer to myself as the frameworks guy. I’m the person who brings framework driven thinking to innovation, to unlock and identify the discipline that sits behind innovative capability. And so with the Unconventional Group that connects with the other two co-founders Aaron Birkby obviously serial entrepreneur, like expert on tactics and on the intricacies of performance and then Peter Ellis, former CEO of River City Labs who’s really into people and culture and cultural change.
Baden U’Ren: So collectively we come together to educate corporates on building internal innovation capability. And then my second area is in the secondary education space on transferring best practice in how we teach entrepreneurship, the entrepreneur process the curriculum design, the environmental learning design, the change management that is needed within educational institutions in order for that to translate from what’s happened in the tertiary space, down into the secondary space, because it’s a real gap in education system at the moment.
Adam Spencer: What’s the motivation for you in terms of teaching entrepreneurship and teaching innovation? Why are you so interested in those things?
Baden U’Ren: Fundamentally I think it’s as a human, I want to have impact like as a, an individual within our society I want to have lasting impact on our nation. And for me, I see like an impending disaster for our country is our inability to play in the new global economy and Australia as an innovative country, has some wonderful positive attributes, but we’ve got some big things holding us back. And one of those is our workforce.
Baden U’Ren: Our national curriculum fails to build entrepreneurial capability in our youth. It’s reliant instead on them hitting their early twenties or finding it because of their parents or, just falling into developing the different set of skills that are needed to search for and to transform opportunity. It just, it’s not built systematically in our workforce through an education system.
Baden U’Ren: And I feel like I’ve got, like without blowing my own trumpet, like I know that I’ve got 15 to 20 years of expertise in the design of entrepreneurship curriculum that I know works. Like I know that we’ve been able to break it down into a set of attributes that we know that underpin the entrepreneurial method and the entrepreneurial mindset.
Baden U’Ren: And that’s what I’ve been basing Bond University’s curriculum on for the last 10 or 12 years. And I want to be able to translate that into our national curriculum so that every single Australian child who enters our workforce has some level of entrepreneurial capability because that’s like a, that’s like a system wide influence on Australia’s prosperity.
Baden U’Ren: Our national workforce developing its entrepreneurial capability will contribute to our economic prosperity moving forward. So I think that’s my big motivator. I want to have big impact. And I see the education system as a way to touch every single Australian.
Adam Spencer: Was it a hard decision for you to leave university after 12 years?
Baden U’Ren: It was an exceptionally difficult decision to leave Bond University. It’s funny how, we become defined by our roles within organizations, like internally, in my own mind I was always Baden from Bond. I’ve been known in the ecosystem as Baden from Bond. I’ve been fairly active in the entrepreneurial ecosystem for quite some time and I’ve always been the agent coming from the university sector, and so I think it’s probably, it’s only within my own head really because a lot of other people just see me as Baden, I just happened to be working at Bond, but in my own head that was wrapped up in the work that I had done with the university. So I think there was that psychological disentanglement.
Baden U’Ren: Also the fact that I had built something at Bond, like I had created and built an entrepreneurship curriculum that had begun its journey to spread outside of the business school and was starting to become a university asset and letting go of that and allowing others to take the reins was also, probably my ego taking a bit of a hit. I now need to leave that to somebody else. So there was that. Yeah, I think, and then just, with, as with anything going from a bunch of certainty to a bunch of uncertainty, so I’ve gone from a full-time salary to no salary and having to be responsible.
Baden U’Ren: It’s my own little entrepreneurial journey, so I’ve let go of all of the, of all of the safety nets of full-time employment. I’ve always had side gigs and things on the side and doing bits and pieces, but but I’m on my own little journey now.
Adam Spencer: When would you say you first were introduced to startup land or got involved in startup land?
Baden U’Ren: I think the first time I ever became exposed to let’s call it a startup was when I was doing my MBA and masters of finance. And this was in say, let’s say ’99 or 2000. There was a competition that QUT were running called, it was originally called Moot Corp.
Baden U’Ren: But then it was the John Heinie entrepreneurial challenge. And essentially it was a business planning competition. And it lent off this US competition called Moot Corp, which the University of Texas started and as a master’s student, I was on a Moot Corp team and we went and represented Australia over at Texas.
Baden U’Ren: And we were presenting a wonderful Gold Coast-based technology called Anti Biotechnologies, which was commercializing a new technology in the pool sanitation space, like a chlorine replacement. So that was my, we didn’t call them startups back in ’99, 2000, it was nascent entrepreneurship I think that was a term that was being used in academics at that stage. I then became a coach for Bond teams doing that activity.
Baden U’Ren: And then I think I worked for a private investment bank. And so from an investment standpoint, we were funding high growth, potential businesses. So I think my first professional entrance into the startup land was from the funding side.
Adam Spencer: I’m having a conversation with Peter Davidson, who was one of the founders of Fishburners in Sydney. He sent me a really long email, one of the things he wrote was he doesn’t think that we are at a stage where we can call a sale to an ecosystem, and that’s a very unpopular opinion I think.
Adam Spencer: The reason why I tell you all that story is, do you have any unpopular opinions about the way things are being done right now in the Australiam startup ecosystem in Queensland, nationally? Anything at all that you absolutely believe that other people just don’t seem to be on the same page?
Baden U’Ren: I understand Peter’s point of view. I would suggest that we are an ecosystem, we’re just not operating the way we should be at the moment. I mentioned earlier that within the conventional group, I’m known as the frameworks guy and so for me the ecosystem, and we’ll just leave it at that has five major contributors. There’s the entrepreneurs themselves, there’s the government as an enabler and, there’s risk capital, there’s corporates and then there’s education.
Baden U’Ren: And when I look at what’s happening in Australia across the ecosystem, we’ve got wonderful entrepreneurs, we always have. Australian entrepreneurs are world-class. They really are. And I think part of an issue that we have is encouraging Aussies to think of themselves as world-class.
Baden U’Ren: And this was Steve Baxter’s set up Startup Catalyst, one of those things was designed specifically to allow Australian young tech talent to realize that they were globally relevant. So they took them across to San Francisco and entered them into a startup weekend as one of the activities and, typically the Aussie teams won those startup weekends cause they really are world-class so Aussies have excellent entrepreneurs always have, I think that’s been a natural strength about our ecosystem has been our individual human talent.
Baden U’Ren: Risk capital is emerging. That’s been a typical weakness of the Australian ecosystem, but it’s starting to emerge and we’re starting to see some progressive, globally connected players actually investing and new forms of investment coming through. In the early days it was all the ASV CLP, it was very rigid and structured and typically any, high growth, potential globally relevant company did not raise in Australia like everyone went over to the US or elsewhere to raise their funds.
Baden U’Ren: But that’s starting to change our government since the national innovation agenda that Malcolm Turnbull introduced, whenever that was 2017, I think, have really started to be proactive in their support role. So I see that as a bit of an advance.
Baden U’Ren: In the education space tertiary is starting to do a good job that’s been the last sort of 20 years and in the development of the tertiary entrepreneurship education space. But our national curriculum, our schooling system is really lagging. And then corporates apart from some exemplars, our corporates just don’t know how to play.
Baden U’Ren: Like when I go across to Israel and see the way in which multinational corporations intricately and intimately linked into the overall startup ecosystem in Israel, we have a lot to learn about how larger organizations can be a proactive contributor to the Australian innovation ecosystem. Apart from some exemplars and there were some good players in the Australian ecosystem, but generally speaking our corporates just don’t know how to play and that’s one of the motivators behind Aaron and Peter and I setting up that Unconventional Group.
Adam Spencer: What’s the reason for that? Why don’t they know, understand how to play? What are they missing?
Baden U’Ren: Well, typically, like if you look at Australia we’re 25,000, 25 million people most of our big industries are either duopolies or oligopolies and they become very complacent because they don’t have competition. That’s crux of it really the average large Australian organization doesn’t have the impending need to change that a global comparitor has. Our banks basically protected retail, same thing, like financial, like it’s just everyone, anyone in any large, significant industry is in an oligopolistic environment. And so the need to innovate is reduced and therefore, they become very good at improving their current offerings in a small, incremental sustaining way.
Adam Spencer: So back 99, 2000 when you say you first really got introduced to this, from your perspective, what did the landscape look like back then in terms of community size, programs, support, probably no government input. And were there any kind of things that you would describe as a successful startup from your point?
Baden U’Ren: Yeah. So I’ve looked back into what those what’s that 20 odd years ago things were very early and that there wasn’t really an ecosystem. There were entities doing things. And was that much government support? I think R&D tax incentives still existed back then.
Baden U’Ren: And unless I’m mistaken, but I think it was there. As a support that was in place. They developed specific corporations act laws for early stage venture capital limited partnerships. So there was the ability for risk capital to come with limited liability for the investing parties.
Baden U’Ren: Here on the Gold Coast, there was an early player in that space called Incubator, that was Dr. Laurie Hammond and Rick Anstey later became known as IQ Funds. They were one of the early VC funds and I remember one of the early startups was a company called Mesaplex. They produced specific filters for telephony infrastructure. And I think this epitomizes what the innovation ecosystem looked like 20 years ago.
Baden U’Ren: Particular people, so Mesaplex was founded by two scientists, Rick, Taylor and Elsie Shepherd both in their own rights, extraordinarily gifted individuals and they spun out of their operations, this technology to improve the efficiency of telephone infrastructure, the radio frequency deliverers for the telecommunications. They got in touch with Rick and Laurie and got some capital to capitalize that business. And it ended up being exited after quite some time in 2014 to Nokia, so things were occurring, but that were happening because of individuals, and the relationships between individuals there wasn’t really a community that was that was acting as the collector to bring all that together. That epitomises what was happening back in those days.
Baden U’Ren: And early two thousands, there were some private equity firms, like Hastings Funds Management, but that was owned by Westpac, and typically it was later stage deals. So Hastings were essentially, an NBO type of buy-out organization, later stage private equity kind of work. So at that stage early days, individuals and not much of a community where you can share best practice.
Adam Spencer: If you had to say a starting point of the ecosystem that we know today, when would you say that really kicked off and what were the events that happen to make people pay attention?
Baden U’Ren: So I think that for me, momentum really started to begin with around 2015, 2016. That’s when the momentum really started to occur. And there was some leaders into that. I think we first started running startup weekends in about 2013 here on the Gold Coast, that was delivered by an entity called Silicon Lakes that Aaron Birkby founded. And as with most ecosystems, Aaron’s, a successful serial entrepreneur, and he was looking to, give back to his community. So you looked at what happened in Boulder, Colorado, same thing, some successful entrepreneurs decided they wanted to give back to a community and develop an ecosystem.
Baden U’Ren: Similar thing happened here. Same with Steve Baxter with River City Labs in Brisbane. That was a successful entrepreneur investing back into the environment. So you started to see these successful entrepreneurs want to build a community around them. I think if you want to put a cynical eye, Baxter’s investment into River City Labs was really about deal flow for his family office, perhaps.
Baden U’Ren: But fantastic. He invested heavily to develop that ecosystem and so I think it began with some successful entrepreneurs looking to develop communities and activity builds momentum. So the first time I connected him with Silicon Lakes after that Startup weekend was a local counselor had been across on a trade mission to Silicon Valley.
Baden U’Ren: And and so we decided to run an event where we talked about how government and industry and education could work together to support innovative businesses on the Gold Coast. And I think at the time the city of Gold Coast was investing into a vision for the future. What does Gold Coast 2050 look like? And so I think there was a collection of actors coming together that kind of supported the development of the early stages of the ecosystem here in the gold coast.
Adam Spencer: What year was that happening?
Baden U’Ren: That’s around 2012, 13, 14, I think. So I know in 2013 it was enough for me to go on a, global tour. So I went across to the US and I went to Stanford and I went to Northwestern and I went to Northeastern and to MIT to look at how they had developed their entrepreneurship curriculum.
Baden U’Ren: So at that stage, I think 2008, I’d taken over responsibility for entrepreneurship curriculum at Bond. And I was looking to shake things up, in my view, it was very old school, it was still teaching business plans and 40-page business plans with five-year cashflow projections.
Baden U’Ren: And I had seen in practice that’s not how things were happening. So I was trying to innovate and make more relevant the education that was happening at the university. So I went and I just, I picked out some international exemplars and went and spoke to them and figured out what was happening and then brought that back.
Baden U’Ren: And I think in 2014 we first ran our first pre-accelerator. We partnered up with the Incubate program that USYD had developed and ran that. And yeah, there was a lot of momentum happening sort of around that 2013, ’14, ’15 space.
Adam Spencer: What were some of the key takeaways that you took back and started to implement?
Baden U’Ren: So first strong connection with industry, each of those programs had almost blurred boundaries between industry and the university and the second major component was that entrepreneurship and innovation weren’t considered a business school discipline. Like I went to UC Boulder and it actually had activity out of there happened from the law school.
Baden U’Ren: Sometimes it was out of the engineering school. Sometimes it was out of the business school, but the successful programs were considering entrepreneurship as an interdisciplinary skill. And they had set up an entity that sat independent across campus that broke down the barriers and the silos that exist very strongly on university campuses.
Baden U’Ren: So the two big takeaways I took away from there were entrepreneurship is a complex set of skills and processes and it does not belong in the business school. It might begin in the business school, or it might begin in one of the other faculties, but it needs to make its way into its own entity that is a facilitator and an integrator across campus. And the second is that it must be taught experientially. Like you can’t learn entrepreneurship without doing, it must be learned in an experiential mode.
Adam Spencer: What do you think as a community that we’re doing extremely well? Like what is Australia, I guess, really good at that can set us apart?
Baden U’Ren: I’m not sure whether we realize it, but we are tiny globally. As a nation, we are tiny and we don’t realize that. But one of the strengths of that is that we’re connected. So there are very strong relationships among the players in the innovation ecosystem and that’s an extraordinary strength of the Australian environment.
Baden U’Ren: And it’s also, funnily enough, one of our massive weaknesses, because we still consider ourselves as Sydney, Melbourne. Brisbane, Gold Coast, like even Gold Coast and Brisbane, like it’s crazy where we’re a hundred kilometers away from one another and we consider ourselves separate.
Baden U’Ren: Like it’s one of our massive limiting factors is the fact that we’re still competing amongst ourselves within the Australian context and not considering ourselves as just a, single entity on the global marketplace.
Adam Spencer: What’s the biggest area that we can improve? If we do one thing, what would it, yeah, what would jump us forward the furtherest?
Baden U’Ren: So one thing we can do is we can start to think nationally, like we can start to think nationally and consider our relevance globally. We can start to think of ourselves as Aussies competing on a global state.
Baden U’Ren: The second thing we need to do is we need to change our mindset to be like the average Australian’s mindset needs to shift away from this priority we have on perfection that is driven throughout our education system and we need to be far more accepting of potential failure and being able to learn and incorporate the outcomes and the learnings from that failure into being better the next time. The average Aussie is not very good at doing that.
Adam Spencer: Someone I interviewed yesterday from South Australia, when we were talking about ecosystem they said, you know, we don’t have an ecosystem, we have an egosystem. And the implication there was that everyone seems to be competing against each other for a bigger slice of the existing pie. Do you think that is the case or do you have an alternate perspective?
Baden U’Ren: So I’ll answer this by quoting Dave Cohen, one of the co-founders of Techstars. He came over and did some work in Australia and I was visiting Techstar’s HQ as part of the community leaders program.
Baden U’Ren: So the Queensland government funded a set of programs that were designed to build community under the, when we first had our chief entrepreneur, our first chief entrepreneur, Mark Sowerby, and we visited David Cohen and he said, I’ve been in Australia and you need to get into the business of creating pie factories.
Baden U’Ren: Like you need to build more pies, stop, trying to slice up the original pie and just build more pies. That’s what you need to do. Like it was his external opinion. His other external opinion was what is this thing called? The Tall Poppy Syndrome and why do you have it?
Baden U’Ren: Like I’ve been fortunate enough to go and visit some very highly innovative ecosystems, like, when I go to Tel Aviv in Israel it’s the same, there’s this collective community who’s all working for the greater good for all. And you can understand it in Israel, the people who live in Israel have been persecuted their entire existence. But they’re trying to create a space, a safe space for them to live free of persecution. Like it’s just this overarching sense of we do it for country. And then we do it for ourselves.
Baden U’Ren: And I think Australia has had it too good for too long. And we’ve lost that. Like I think we had it back in the early 20th century, obviously. But the bounty of, the lucky country has lulled us into a false sense of security and it, leaves us open to having to compete within ourselves rather than thinking of ourselves as we’ve got to do this for our country, so that we can prosper globally.
Adam Spencer: What do you see is the biggest difference between the Queensland ecosystem and the rest of the country? What do you guys do really well that others could learn from?
Baden U’Ren: So I truly believe the Queensland secret sauce is our community. It’s our people and the interconnectedness of our people. And of course, we also have competition that occurs and bad actors but I think a real strength in Queensland is the interconnectedness of the key people that are enablers of innovative activity. So the people that are running accelerators, the people that are responsible for education programs, people who have influence over government policy, we all know one another and we’ve all developed personal relationships and have a shared agenda to drive the prosperity of our state. And I think that’s our key point of difference.
Adam Spencer: If a brand new entrepreneur or a founder come to you tomorrow, and you could give them one piece of advice that would slightly increase their chances of success, what would you tell them?
Baden U’Ren: My base advice is always be open and connect and talk and build be out there and engaged. And it’s it’s so true that action gets traction. And traction is everything like traction trumps everything like in order to succeed more and more these days.
Baden U’Ren: And there are a couple of qualifiers. Like for example, if you’re dealing with something that has the potential for significant IP protection that you can benefit from, you know, you need to switch that out, but for everything else, every other commercial endeavor, your very best way of being successful is by going out and sharing and talking and engaging and connecting and collaborating.
Baden U’Ren: Even with companies that are doing the same thing as you like I work in the secondary education sector with schools to build entrepreneurship curriculum and there’s 280 something, other providers of entrepreneurship curriculum in Australia.
Baden U’Ren: And if you look through my LinkedIn feed, I’m spruiking the value of all of them. My interest is in developing entrepreneurship curriculum at secondary schools. And I’ll rely on the fact that I’m really good at what I do at now and what I do and encourage everybody else to connect with, like Nicole Dyson from Future Anything or Scott Miller from Bop Industries or Young Change Agents or, whoever who’s also doing good things.
Baden U’Ren: The more we can collectively, I think it was Michael Porter who termed the word coopetition yeah, competition, but cooperative competition. Let’s go at, and they’ll be the best of what we do and do it in a way that, focuses us and get on our us better and what we do and also helps others to do what they do better as well.
Adam Spencer: The last question I have is not really a question, it’s just a chance for me to open up the floor to you to talk about anything that’s top of mind or something that you are thinking about, you know, every single day that, that you think it should be in this series.
Baden U’Ren: One is is encouraging our schools to develop entrepreneurial pathways for students, as well as vocational outcomes, as well as tertiary outcomes. We must consider the entrepreneurial outcome as a viable and prosperous option for our youth and examples of Melanie Perkins from Canva and Scott and Mike from Atlassian and there are numerous other exemplars that we can now put up to show that it’s a viable alternative for students to pursue.
Baden U’Ren: That’s one thing that I would love to be in the national conversation is that entrepreneurship is a skillset and a mindset that must be developed within our youth. And the second is to somehow break the nut of the average Australian corporate to enable them to be able to develop their own internal capability to innovate based on international best practice.
Baden U’Ren: It’s known like entrepreneurship is not magic. This is Peter Drucker. Entrepreneurship is not magic. Innovation is not magic, it’s a discipline. And like any discipline, you can break it down into attributes of best practice and you can train yourself on them and you can implement them. And I think the average Aussie larger organization is going to become increasingly redundant if they don’t become innovative and they need to think that way.
Baden U’Ren: There’s a, as an example, there’s a our largest transport insurance company, NTI, is looking at the future of their industry and seeing that there’s a significant chance that the insurance of trucks is going to go through a massive disruption. And they’ve appointed a chief sustainability officer and the sustainability officer is not about environmental or social sustainability it’s about business sustainability. How is their business going to sustain itself for the next 20 years? I think every Australian corporate needs to think that way.
Adam Spencer: Lastly, is there anything at all, anything else that you want to put on record at this point, that you think would be interesting or useful for this series?
Baden U’Ren: Australia must innovate. Like we must, we are facing a crisis globally in terms of our economy, like and our prosperity, like it’s a massive crisis point for us as a nation right now. And we must consider how Australia as a country can develop its innovative capability, we must.
Baden U’Ren: Or we will continue to slide in OECD rankings on innovative capability and, GDP per capita. And we will continue to slide because we have become complacent on our resources and that’s going to end, and we must supplant it with what we do have natural strength in, which is in our people.
Baden U’Ren: We have highly educated innovative at their core humans who need to be unleashed on the world. And we need to find ways to do that, systemically across the entire nation must improve its innovative capability. Because if we don’t our quality of life will continue to decline relative to the rest of the world. You can think of us as a Nokia or a Kodak. We’ve been reliant on existing capabilities for so long that we’ve become really complacent and we’re about we’re being disrupted.