Don Wright believes the various startup ecosystems within Australia should work cooperatively
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Don Wright is the Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Western Sydney University, as well as co-founder of Western Sydney University Launch Pad, a business and innovation support program that provides facilities, assistance and resources for startups and high growth technology based businesses in Western Sydney. Don is also Senior Vice President of Western Sydney Business Connection, a resource hub for Western Sydney based businesses. In his conversation with guest host Will Tjo, Don discusses the growth of the startup ecosystem in Western Sydney over the last decade or so, as well as his belief that the various geographical startup ecosystems within Australia should work in cooperation, rather than competition, and focus on competing on a global stage.
Launch Pad: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/launch-pad
Western Sydney Business Connection: https://wsbc.org.au/
Don on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/don-wright-487a2128/
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 Don Wright. Don, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show today. Thank you.
Don Wright: Yeah, thanks Will. Great to be with you.
Will Tjo: To start us off, could you just briefly introduce yourself and what you’re currently working on?
Don Wright: Yeah, so I’m the Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Western Sydney University. So, we run an incubator program called Launchpad, and we offer a range of startup acceleration programs, as well as entrepreneurship training, as well as a range of other education and support services around startup out in the Western Sydney area.
Will Tjo: To start us off, I’d like to take us back right to the beginning. Don, would you say you’ve always been an entrepreneur?
Don Wright: No, probably not, Will, to be honest. I worked in larger organisations in my early career, so I grew up working in big engineering companies, and I moved more across to the more entrepreneurship side when I started my own consulting business a little bit later on. So, that came a little bit later for me.
Will Tjo: What drew you into the space?
Don Wright: Look, I think, when I started working with the university, I saw a lot of the opportunity in the Western Sydney region that was there. There’s a lot of innovative activity that happens out in Western Sydney, but there really was a lack of support for startup and for entrepreneurship out in the Western suburbs. But a lot of the people that would be in some of the hubs in central Sydney and the CBD would actually come from the west. So, part of what I saw was, I was working at that time in the university with the school of business, and we wanted to create some sort of a hub to be able to support people who really wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial journey or a startup of their own in the Western Sydney region, and even to work with researchers who wanted to commercialise their technology to offer more support within the university.
Will Tjo: Yeah. And this was back in 2005 when you created the consultancy, was it?
Don Wright: Yes, I think so, Will. That was around that time, yes. Maybe even a little bit earlier than that, in 2003.
Will Tjo: You mentioned that, back then, there wasn’t that support that could be seen in the Western Sydney region. Was it just pure barren? Nothing at all? Could you describe the scene a little?
Don Wright: Yeah, pretty much. There was the odd little bits of support here and there, and there certainly was a lot of support for small business. The typical 101-type small business support was out there. But anyone who really wanted to pursue that startup opportunity and to really look for in particular that tech startup-type potential, there really wasn’t any dedicated support. It really was a bit of a barren landscape, to be honest, out in the west at that time, in terms of support. So, we knew that there were people out in the west who were interested, and we knew those people would be traveling into the city. So, it was really a case of getting that local support, and we knew if we could get that local support in place, we could really kick off a really vibrant ecosystem, and that was hence, really, the start of Launchpad.
Will Tjo: Yeah. Forgive if this is an ignorant question, but it just popped up into my mind. If it was just a geographical limitation, in a sense that support was in the CBD area. What benefit does it bring to create another ecosystem?
Don Wright: I think one way to look at it is that we’re really creating scale for the whole Greater Sydney ecosystem, and that’s how I try to look at it. It is a different geographical area. We’re only separated, really, by about 30 minutes max on the train out to Parramatta, so it’s not too far away. But some of the further-flung areas like Campbelltown, Penrith, Liverpool, there’s a little bit more of a journey. And the reality is that not everyone will go to the city. It can be a good hour on the train at least, or in the car. The economics of it were that we were really ignoring a massive opportunity. And we knew if we got that local supporting place out in the Western Sydney region, because there’s so much investment and so much activity and so much vibrancy out in the west.
Don Wright: Yeah, so we knew there was so much opportunity out in Western Sydney, and we knew what was to come. We’re building an airport and aerotropolis in Western Sydney. We have the Westmead precinct. We have the Liverpool health and education precinct. Precincts all over the west. And we know with so much investment going in, so much activity and so much vibrancy, that was making Western Sydney a really obvious place to support startup activities. It becomes a canvas for these businesses to go in and capture ideas or develop ideas and generate new customers and create opportunities. So, I think it was a natural choice to really extend that Greater Sydney ecosystem out to the west, and capture that economic development opportunity.
Will Tjo: I hear you. The opportunity was there and it was just about making it as accessible and easy as possible for people in the region to get involved, really.
Don Wright: Yeah, and it’s not just about accessibility. It’s symbolic as well. People need a signal, the old saying, you can only be it if you can see it. For a lot of kids out in Western Sydney, young people growing up, there are so many great role models now of people out in the west who are doing really fantastic things in the startup space. So we knew that it wasn’t just about geographical access. And we talk about doing things a little bit different out in the west as well. The west of Sydney, it comes from a history of social disadvantage, but that doesn’t define Western Sydney, and increasingly, that’s been addressed. Not everywhere, but largely. So, it was about Western Sydney carving out its own culture, if you like. Its own innovation culture. And there has historically been a lot of innovation out in Western Sydney through the big industrial history we have.
Don Wright: We talk about doing things real out in the west. There hasn’t always been the resources and the luxury of being able to approach things from point of view where you can necessarily fail, even though we, of course, encourage people to accept risk and the option of failure. But I think the ecosystem is a bit differently defined, and everyone who comes out and experiences that tends to seem to walk away with that impression as well. We have this little saying, we deal in real, and we like to be really at the coal face of really making things happen.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. Could you tell me more about that distinct innovation identity, compared to the city ecosystem and the Western Sydney ecosystem?
Don Wright: I think diversity is another really important factor. If you look at our populations, we are the most diverse region in Australia. Our university is, I think, the most diverse university in Australia. And within those multicultural populations that are spread across Western Sydney, there’s just such a wealth of richness and people who come from entrepreneurial backgrounds in their home countries. And often, they’re coming from countries where it’s not an option to go and do a startup. It’s a necessity to feed your family, is to go off and start your own business. So, the drivers have been sometimes a little bit different. So they bring this unique perspective that really drives, I think, a lot of the essence of the ecosystem.
Don Wright: The other thing that I think defines is this opportunity. As I talked about before, there is just so much investment and potential and so much happening in the west that just creates this new level of growth that can happen. We tend to try to get our startups that we support, we try to really look at not only supporting them in terms of growing their business, but market immersion. We really look at that opportunity to take them out and look at what’s happening out at the new airport, what’s happening out at Campbelltown or Penrith or Liverpool or Blacktown, where there’s new hospitals being built, and there’s new roads, and there’s metros, and there’s all sorts of investment taking place in terms of regenerating CBDs, urban transformation taking place, in housing estates, industrial estates. So, in areas like construction and infrastructure, those areas in particular and other areas like health and education, it’s just creating so much opportunity for really smart people to jump in with good solutions and access a local market opportunity. Again, those sorts of factors are what differentiates us.
Will Tjo: Don, from your experience, being in the ecosystem for about a decade and a half, what are some of the biggest gaps that you’ve observed?
Don Wright: I think if I take that Western Sydney regional perspective, it was high quality programming. We’ve really tried to address that. And again, that’s what we’ve tried to create as a point of difference, that in our accelerator programs, we really focus on the quality of the program, the depth of the content. We really try to focus on the experience of the participants in our programs and the way we support them from a facilities point of view, from a digital access point of view in terms of the systems they work with. The connections we provide, the way that we build our network. The people that we bring in to our incubators.
Don Wright: We really try to bring an experience. We really try to take that experience, focus towards engaging people. And we have a belief that, really, building key skills is really important. So we really do focus on, we do a lot of entrepreneurial training at the university. We have an ambition to drive entrepreneurial training across as many of our students as possible. We have over 50,000 students. It will take us a long time to get those numbers right up. But this year alone, we’ve already worked with probably a thousand students to provide entrepreneurial training. So, we want to create a shift in the labor market in Western Sydney, where we’re pushing more entrepreneurs out into the market. This is the way that our region will grow and really capitalize on all of that growth and investment that’s happening in the region. We need more entrepreneurial people and more intrapreneurial people working within organizations that can be more creative and generate more new ideas.
Will Tjo: Yeah. And how about on the other end of the spectrum? What could the Western Sydney ecosystem still be doing better, or improvement opportunities?
Don Wright: Look, I think access to funding is one. Certainly making good progress, but I think, still, that is an issue that I would like to see more investors getting out to Western Sydney and seeing what’s out there, what the potential is. So, we’re doing a lot of work in that space. I think Launchpad has been the only game in town, really, in Western Sydney. That will change soon, which is great news. We’ve got the Western Sydney Startup Hub. So, an extension of the Sydney Startup Hub, being opened in Parramatta this year. So, that’s going to build more capacity and that’s what we need.
Don Wright: You need more startup capacity in the system, more startup support capacity in the system. And we’re seeing other universities coming into the space as well, which is great, and we really welcome that. And we have really key partnerships in our Parramatta Launchpad center. In that building, we partner with UNSW, and I have a really good connection with the Founders Program at UNSW. I have a great connection with UTS, UTS Startups. Murray Hurps down there, David Burt at UNSW. Also, Macquarie University. We’re well connected with them. So, I think Western Sydney, it’s about capacity in Western Sydney, but also linkages back into central Sydney CBD ecosystem as well. It’s really important.
Will Tjo: One of the things that we haven’t really gotten a consensus with with the guests that we’ve interviewed is this idea of competition between ecosystems. I’d love to get your view on this. Do you think that we should have a distinct national identity, instead of having these little pockets of ecosystems that vie for scarce resources? That we should have a coordinated effort when it comes to innovation?
Don Wright: I think definitely. I really hate the whole competition thing, really, because I think our competition is really global. So, I really try to not have that mindset. And I think a lot of the people I work with are the same. But I would probably draw it back to Sydney. I think Sydney, New South Wales, I think we have a particular opportunity to present a common front, if you like. And if you just take Sydney, and just bringing what’s happening in the west into, as I say, I like to talk about the Greater Sydney ecosystem. And I think there’s great things happening in Northern Sydney as well, when you look, and down in Southern Sydney.
Don Wright: I think there’s so much potential there for us to be looking more globally and saying, “Right, how do we build more capacity into our system? Let’s forget about,” to be honest, “worrying about incubators bumping up against each other too much.” Just try to work together. And it’s about building volume in our system. We need more people. We need more pipeline. We need more good entrepreneurs, more good startups in the system, and try to work together with everybody. I don’t see competition as local. I see our competition as global.
Will Tjo: This is a broad-ended question that I’d love to get your perspective on. It ties back to diversity. Some of the guests that we’ve interviewed for this series have pointed out that a particular challenge that we face within the startup ecosystem is just its lack of diversity, whether that means cultural or gender. That, for example, funding seems to be directed towards typically white, Caucasian males. Do you see this as a challenge, if at all, or do you see it as potentially something that could be improved or is already improving?
Don Wright: I think it’s improving. I think it is a challenge, but it’s improving. And I know a lot of people in the ecosystem are working hard towards that. In our latest accelerator cohort we just started this week, we’ve got nearly 50% female founders, or at least one female founder in the team. And that’s been a little bit up and down, but in our last, I think three cohorts, we would probably average around 40 to 45% female founders, which is quite good. So, I think it’s something that you can’t take your eye off is the other thing. We can’t have one good cohort and then think, “Great, we’ve nailed it,” because I have seen it move around a little bit in the numbers. So, I think we’ve got to stay consistent on getting more females supported in the system.
Don Wright: I think in Western Sydney, we probably have a little bit of an advantage there, just based on the diversity we bring from a cultural perspective. But definitely at our university, we have a major commitment to equity, and I think that comes through what happens in Launchpad as well. But I would agree, we all have to stay very focused on it, because we just know that the results are so much better when we get that diverse mix of gender and culture and background and discipline into teams. I’m a massive fan of pushing diversity and equity across, as far as we can into the ecosystem.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. Do you have any unpopular opinions, Don?
Don Wright: Unpopular? I’ve upset the state government a few times just trying to ensure that we get a fair crack out in the west. And I think we have to have noisy advocates. That can be a little bit antagonistic, but look, I think that there’s no issues there. I think it’s all good. And we have had quite a bit of a advocacy to try to get the Western Sydney Startup Hub happening in Parramatta, and it’s great that it’s happening. We’re really happy that the government has responded and they’ve seen the opportunity.
Don Wright: Yeah, I suppose my only other, what I’ve observed over the years is that the attitude towards risk doesn’t need to be taken in a cavalier approach. And I think it gets lost in translation sometimes, I think, with founders, who are probably being pushed more towards risk, sometimes in areas where they really shouldn’t be. So, I think that’s something I think we’ve tried to do a better job of, is really managing the way that people approach risk. And I think this comes back to our Western Sydney, where we might be coming, working with people who have a little bit less opportunity in terms of resources and backups financially, so their appetite for risk and their ability to absorb failure. We try to look at things a little bit differently in terms of the way we approach that risk return ratio, and the way that we prepare people so that they can better approach the way that they take on and manage risk, yeah.
Will Tjo: I love what you mentioned just then. The wording that used was a cavalier approach to a risk. Can you tell me more about what you mean by this? Are you advocating for taking on more risk?
Don Wright: No, I’m not advocating for taking on more risk, or less risk necessarily. I think what I’m really talking about is just the way that we prepare people to understand the risks they’re taking, and to manage the risks they’re taking. Because, and I think this is born out of some personal experience, working with founders over the years from our region, who’ve had really limited capacity, and really potential high impact for them in their personal circumstances financially or with their families in terms of the success of their particular venture that they’re pursuing. So, yeah, I’m not advocating around less or more risk. I’m just saying that it’s been my personal experience, that we really need to think hard and really work hard to provide the best possible skilling for people to be able to understand and manage risk.
Will Tjo: It’s sort of like a tailored approach, I suppose. Just understanding the whole context with which someone decides to create a company, looking into their financials, the capacity for risk so that, for lack of better term, they don’t overtake risk is what I’m hearing you say.
Don Wright: Yeah. And look, it’s hard to generalize because every situation’s different and I think it needs to be treated that way and managed that way, as a mentor, as an advisor. But, yeah, I just think it’s an area that, I’ve seen over the years that the notion of, I suppose, sometimes I feel like it’s a bit of theater around the way that we try to drive people towards failing fast and taking on these levels of risk that they don’t particularly understand. So, that’s really all I’m talking about. As I say, for me, it’s just about preparing people so that they understand what they’re in for and up against.
Will Tjo: Yeah, that’s a fair point. So, over the last 15 years, has the growth in the Western Sydney ecosystem been what you expected, exceeded, or not as much as what you were hoping to see?
Don Wright: Look, I’m eternally unsatisfied with the level of growth and I think that’s just maybe my pessimistic mindset. If I take a step back and I look at what’s changed, I think there’s been a huge amount of change. We’ve definitely seen changes in the number of startup companies getting generated, the investment capital raised, the economic contribution to the regional economy that this change is made. But I think, most pleasing for me, there’s just a change in attitude. There’s just far more understanding around the potential of startup. There’s far more people coming out of university or coming out of TAFE or school and thinking about a side hustle or thinking about what their next startup opportunity is. So, it’s a big change in attitude in the west as well. But I think what’s changed over the last 10 years and what’s to come in the next 10 is just going to be amazing. The next 10 years in Western Sydney are going to be truly transformative with what’s happening out there at the moment.
Will Tjo: Yeah. That’s amazing. So, last question. Don, as you know, what we’re trying to do with this series is to reach all corners of the ecosystem and tell the startup story. We’re aiming to reach politicians, academics, founders and investors. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about today that is constantly on your mind that they need to hear?
Don Wright: That’s a good question. Look, I think just probably the focus on collaboration. We just know that, particularly from the research commercialization point of view, the great research that takes place in our university, it’s so highly ranked globally, but we definitely still don’t capitalize on that commercialization opportunity as much as we should. And we know governments are very exercised towards realizing this opportunity, but we know that only happens when we get the collaboration piece. We’ve got to get the collaboration. We haven’t talked about SMEs today, and I think the connectivity between startup and SME is really important.
Don Wright: So, from our university’s point of view, and I know a lot of people in government, we’ve got to get that collaboration happening better across the ecosystem, so that researchers, entrepreneurs from the community, investors, and just getting people connected more. For me, it’s all about team. It’s just about getting those right people in the team so that you create the potential that you need to manage the opportunity that’s in front of a startup. So, I think, much more focus on connectivity and collaboration and pushing potential co-founders together as well, I think, is a couple of areas we could really focus 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 startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.