Darryl Lyons believes Australia has an opportunity to lead the world in Agri-tech
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Darryl Lyons is the Entrepreneur in Residence at both James Cook University in Cairns, Queensland, and at Farmers2Founders, a national Agri-tech organisation that helps aspiring entrepreneurs and founders from early idea validation through to business growth and international commercialisation. After running several businesses with mixed success, Darryl first encountered the startup world around 6 years ago at a startup weeking in Cairns and found the experience “life changing”. Since then, Darryl has worked in the startup world, with a particular focus on Agri-tech. In his conversation with guest host Will Tjo, Darryl discusses the unique advantages and challenges of founding a startup in regional Australia, as well as his belief that Australia has an opportunity to lead the world in Agri-tech.
Darryl on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/darryl-lyons-90424623/
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. This episode was conducted by guest host Will Tjo.
Will Tjo: Hi everyone and welcome back to the Australian Startup Series interviews. Our guest today is Darryl Lyons. So good to have you on Darryl.
Darryl Lyons: Yeah. Thanks William. Glad to be here.
Will Tjo: Could you introduce yourself?
Darryl Lyons: My name’s Darryl Lyons. I work as the entrepreneur in residence for James Cook Union, the Tropical North Queensland Drought Hub and also for a national Agri-tech startup group called Farmers2Founders.
Will Tjo: So what are you doing at the James Cook University as well as Farmers2Founders?
Darryl Lyons: Basically helping run sort of pre-accelerators and accelerators and then also mentoring regional startups on their journey to become successful and then helping them grind through the ups and downs of their startup journey.
Will Tjo: I see. I’d love to dig in a little bit into your background, Darryl. Take us back even to when you were at University days. Would you say that you’ve always been an entrepreneur?
Darryl Lyons: Yeah. I didn’t go to university when I left school. So I left school and traveled Australia picking fruit and then went overseas for a bit. I grew up in an agricultural area, my parents are cattle farmers, so I kind of ran away from ag after traveling. Ended up in the construction industry for quite a while. I had a few different businesses. I always say my claim to fame is I’m a failed NBN contractor, as I went in to build the NBN across Northern Australia with a team of 60, but that was a mistake working for a government owned entity that was a political football. And then following that, actually that big failure, I looked at a sign for a startup weekend in Cairns. I decided to go to that and that was kind of life changing for me. Basically learning to fail fast and that was probably six years ago and that started my startup journey.
Will Tjo: That’s amazing. What made you stick around?
Darryl Lyons: In the startups or?
Will Tjo: Yeah. In startup plan after you went into that startup week in Cairns?
Darryl Lyons: It just was a huge light bulb moment for me. Just lit me up and just realized the way I’ve been trying to run my businesses and create them and put so much capital and time into create something and then not really hitting the mark sometimes. And then also working as a contractor and the construction industry was a lot of resources and time and squeeze at the industry. It was really hard. Whereas how do you go and make something that’s scalable and can make money while you sleep, but more around how you go around and do that for not much equity in the lean startup methodology, which we did on the weekend and then I went out and went, “Cool, this is what I need to do.” And created two startups which kind of fell over. But that was a good learning tool to continue there.
Will Tjo: What year was that when you first dipped your toes?
Darryl Lyons: So, that was six years ago. So 2017.
Will Tjo: What was it like back then? Did you find that when you wanted to transition into this whole startup ecosystem, what was the support structures around you? Do you remember any notable organizations?
Darryl Lyons: Yeah, I went through a place called The Space in Cairns and I guess as I’ve kind of learned along, there was a fair bit of involvement from the Queensland government back then to help set up regional ecosystems. That was my involvement to get in there to get connected and have some people very excited to help teach about that journey and how to go forward with that.
Will Tjo: Do you think over the last six years, the startup ecosystem in Cairns, has the growth been what you expected it to be?
Darryl Lyons: No, it’s been really challenging in the regional areas and I guess after my failed startup to form the company startup called ESCoBox. Which is going pretty well, we kind of track food in the supply chain and we’ve got team of 20 down in Sydney when my partner and I decided to have another baby, that’s when I just started to take on the EIR roles because I’m passionate about regional activity and I think there’s a huge opportunity for very successful startups to be based in the regions. One of the problems though is I guess the regional ecosystems are normally set up by a couple of people who are very passionate, might get a grant to get them going for a while and it’s takes a lot of energy and they kind of… Hard to keep that momentum because they kind of might burn out or don’t get some funding.
Darryl Lyons: So I’ve sort of seen that a fair bit across the regional ecosystem. What I think might change in JCU going about it in a different model where yet to see if it’s going to be successful, but through the state and federal governments and JCU, they built a large 30 million building here called the JCU Ideas Lab. It’s a venue that hopefully will attract people and open them up to the talent that’s in the university, but create an ecosystem. So it’s a different model. It’s only been open for 12 months, starting to see some good green shoots come through. So I’m hoping this is a new model that actually allows that entrepreneurial capacity because there’s a hell of allotted in regions and the regional people are probably very resilient as well. So, hopefully there’s some really big success stories to come out of here in the coming years.
Will Tjo: Yeah, that’s awesome. The only thing that came to my mind is it seems like it isn’t a talent shortage that, as you say, that there are plenty of talented entrepreneurs up in regional areas, but the problem seems to be that there wasn’t just attention given. Why is it only within the last 12 months attention was given?
Darryl Lyons: I think there’s been attention given over the five years that I’ve been involved and probably before, but it goes in cycles and funding cycles and it’s really hard to keep that momentum when it’s only a few people trying to lead the whole ecosystem. So they’re potential lead dependent on funding cycles, which kind of, I guess takes away the momentum that’s needed to keep that critical momentum to allow that found ecosystem and kind of work on that talent to get them moving through their journeys.
Will Tjo: Yeah. Absolutely. Switching gears a little bit, what sort of advantages would you say, setting up your startup in a regional ecosystem has over say a metro city?
Darryl Lyons: One, I guess. You’ve got the Great Barrier Reef, you’ve got World Heritage Dream For Us. You’ve got 15 minute commutes with a couple of sets of lights, a very casual city to live in. I guess definitely Covid has dramatically changed real estate in Cairns and a lot of people have moving up here to work out how good it is. And remote work is obviously not an issue compared to what before. So people could create their startup up here, they could have regional workforces with tech talent that they might not be able to source here.
Darryl Lyons: It’s a great environment for tech talent to actually move up here. Cost of living is a hell of a lot cheaper. There’s kind of lots of positives and I guess Covid’s actually making it a lot more enticing. And I guess the investment that James Cook Union and the governments put in with facilities like this will hopefully enable that because I guess this gives confidence that this place was back for a decade and there’s going to be support and ecosystem in this building. So it won’t be that stop start and momentum that might have hindered it previously.
Will Tjo: Yeah, definitely. Do you have any perspectives on potential solutions on what we could be doing better for regional ecosystems? Because you said that it’s run only by a few people and if they get burnt out then momentum’s kind of ties down.
Darryl Lyons: Yeah, I think a lot of the people, my especially is probably in the agritech area and I guess that’s a potential opportunity and [inaudible] of strength in regional areas in Queensland and Australia. So how do people really play at the strengths in what’s a good theme in their area and not trying to boil the ocean and have a bit of everything and that will kind of attract groups of startups that can kind of leverage off each other. And then I think it’s kind of like how do we stop duplication of services between different regions that maybe, for example, doing Agritech in the Darling Downs in towns and the Mackay in Bundaberg and in Cairns. How do they all work together? That can actually help those new startups and founders in that industry and help them accelerate. And I guess that enables a lot… Getting a fair bit further with the bang for buck or what those regional ecosystems do have.
Will Tjo: Yeah, so it’s just all about specialization. So when your ecosystem is known for, as you mentioned, agritech, naturally all the people who are interested in that will start to flock towards that area. And it won’t just have to be a couple of people trying to drive everything.
Darryl Lyons: Yeah, I think that’s the opportunity.
Will Tjo: When you mentioned, to try to prevent duplication of services that kind of peaked my interest. Would you say that competition is a good thing? When say Townsville and Cairns try to do the same thing, then they can try to compete with each other?
Darryl Lyons: I guess Cairns and Townsville have competed with each other forever, kind of like the Sydney, Melbourne kind of knock each other off. But I guess… But in reality though, if they try to compete on exactly the same thing and try to offer the same services to people and it’s just not… Its small towns compared to obviously cities and there’s a lot less people and the resources we can attract it to the population, are probably not as large as the metro areas. So it’s how do you work together to use your resources to help improve the overall ecosystems in each area.
Will Tjo: Switching gears to a national perspective, is there anything top of mind that you think that as a country we should be doing better for our entrepreneurs?
Darryl Lyons: One of the things I’m kind of passionate about on, I’m indigenous, so I kind of feel there’s a really big opportunity to push our indigenous entrepreneurs and get them a bit more represented in the ecosystem. I know there’s a lot of people doing lots of different things and that’s becoming a little bit more topical and I think there needs to be more momentum and support for that. Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see if, I guess the other area that I’m really close in is in Agritech and just trying to get that recognized as an industry, which is then recognized across federal government and state government and regional government and all ended up in with a bit of a similar policies to enable that area to flourish. And I guess that goes for any other vertical startup ecosystem regionally as well.
Will Tjo: Yeah. When you mentioned trying to support the indigenous founders, what mode of support would you like to see? Is it funding or?
Darryl Lyons: What we’re finding in a few of the programs and accelerators we run, there’s a bit of an education around startup, which is a bit scary for some people, but there’s a huge entrepreneurial capacity. And I think that’s been there for tens of thousands of years. So I think there is a piece of education. And then I guess then there’s also a piece of… In the accelerators we run, we potentially don’t match them for skill set as far as runway and runs on the board because they’re new to the whole startup scene. So if you nurture people through the different accelerators, they’ll actually accelerate quite quickly. And I guess that goes back to my education piece when I went to a startup weekend five years ago, I’m still educating myself around it. So it takes a while to get people on that journey and for them to be successes. So the more work we can get those indigenous founders in early is going to start that pathway and then we get around and celebrate the successful people as well because they’re the shining light so people can aspire to.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. It’s all about just encouraging the tens of thousands of years of skills and entrepreneurial skills in the indigenous founders and educating them so that we can bring them along to journey as well.
Darryl Lyons: Yeah, totally.
Will Tjo: How about in terms of strengths as a national ecosystem? What do we do better than other countries?
Darryl Lyons: Speaking from a regional perspective, I think everyone’s really genuine. They’re genuine about their capacity, they have that entrepreneurial spirit, and I really like that honesty from the regional area. Again, I’m kind of passionate about Agritech area. I think that’s a huge opportunity for Australia to be the best in the world at. And I think that get in and have a go attitude is really good.
Will Tjo: Yeah. What excites you about Agritech I noticed that this is a theme that’s been mentioned a couple of times through our conversation.
Darryl Lyons: My grandparents were in ag and farmers. My parents are my traditional side of the family, I believed they’ve practiced sustainable agriculture for tens of thousands of years on our traditional country. We’ve got such a diverse country with lots of different areas. We have our unsubsidized farming systems. So basically all our producers have been entrepreneurial to succeed over the last a few hundred years. And our indigenous population had to be entrepreneurial to flourish in some tough environments around the country for tens of thousands of years. So I think that breeds into that spirit of finding a problem, working out how to solve it. And I guess any application we build in this country is definitely usable right around the world. And I think with our clean food, which will go to. It’ll breed more sustainable regenerative agriculture systems, which kind of brings in a lot of clean tech. We can get into a lot of food value adding tech, we’ve putting sustainable, really healthy food which the world wants. The tech required to make all that work is such a huge opportunity for us.
Will Tjo: So Darryl, could you tell me a little bit about some of the opportunities that you see in regional centers?
Darryl Lyons: Yeah, I see the next decade and two decades as a huge opportunity for Northern Australia, I think as a huge untapped potential. And I guess that still runs in the theme around the Agritech in food. And I think Agri-Tech’s going to play a huge part about increasing production in Northern Australia and also see an area that’s just untapped yet. And that’s around indigenous entrepreneurial spirit in Northern Australia and how we can start to work out how we can unpack that and then create that and see this huge opportunity to get people involved in that.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. So Darryl, what we’re trying to do in this podcast is to document as accurately as possible our history. Just so that we can inform future decisions and we’re aiming to reach all corners from policy makers, academics, founders, and investors. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about today that is constantly top of mind for you that they need to hear?
Darryl Lyons: I think one of the problems I guess we have with short election cycles is we get a bit of stop start and that’s problematic in trying to, especially in regional areas, to just kind of keep momentum going. That has been mentioned before, but I think that’s definitely a topical area that needs to be reiterated and talked about.
Will Tjo: Yeah, that’s a constant theme that I hear with a lot of founders on the show, talking about how the whims of policy makers changes drastically obviously during election cycles and it makes it difficult. Could you tell me a bit about some of the impact that you’ve noticed firsthand?
Darryl Lyons: Yeah, so in our ESCoBox journey, we were lucky enough to be a recipient of this accelerating commercialization grant. But when that goes into election cycles, that whole area of in [inaudible] industry, when they announce caretaker in whenever it is in the next month or two. That whole area of grants will be going on hold. And it’s in doubt to what’s going to happen if there’s a change in election, which could be totally ripped out or a change. So is it two years before they put something similar out there? That’s just an example of a really successful program for ESCoBox, that we had a million dollar grant from that which enabled us to develop out our system and we track food all around the world. If that’s continuous, it just allows a continual flow of grants for people to keep going on rather than it kind of stop start kind of mentality.
Will Tjo: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And lastly, if a brand new entrepreneur or founder came to you, given all your experience, your mistakes and wins, what would you tell them to increase their chances of success?
Darryl Lyons: Yeah, it’s definitely not a sprint. How do you work on your resilience ability and increase your skills to endure the ups and downs of the journey would be the key advice I would pass on.
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 stand ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.