James Fielding shares his belief that Australia’s talent pool is world class
Dr James Fielding is the Founder and Managing Director of Audeara, a hearing health technology company that produces headphones designed to deliver sound suited to an individual’s hearing profile. While working as a junior doctor in a hospital shortly after finishing a medical degree, James turned his attention to startups, went through the iLabs Accelerator program and founded Audeara. In his conversation with Adam, James discusses the four other companies he was involved with founding that are in various stages of development, as well as his belief that the talent within the Australian startup ecosystem is world class.
iLab Accelerator: https://ventures.uq.edu.au/programs/ilab-accelerator
James on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesafielding/
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…
James Fielding: Hi, everyone. I’m Dr. James Fielding, founder and managing director of Audeara. We make headphones that focus on what really matters, which is what you could hear. We do that by offering personalized sound through a hearing check algorithm on our smartphone. We tailor the sound to the individual needs and sell our product through predominantly audiology clinics in Australia and spreading around the world.
Adam Spencer: I want to just try to pick up where we were just then before I hit record. You were talking about the community and the pockets, and it’s not just the valley and the city now, I think you said. Can we just try to pick up there and what you were talking about?
James Fielding: Yeah, absolutely. I think what has changed over the last five or six years since we were entering the system… We were starting to muck around during medical school, which was in the early 2010s and graduated 2015 and started these five companies that we kicked off. Back in the day, you were either in the city or you were in the valley, and that was that. If you were anywhere else, then you weren’t really on the map. What’s happened over the last five or six years is these little pockets have opened up, these technology parks. There’s been local government ones, state government ones, lots of people trying to create an avenue for people to bring their ideas to life, and that’s been backed by a lot of really cool real estate changes and reclaiming of territory and these little pockets. There’s Newstead, there’s Bulimba, there’s Stones Corner, there’s technology parks at Eight Mile Plains, there’s manufacturing centers.
James Fielding: There’s all these places where it used to just be industrial wasteland, to be a bit harsh about it. Now, it’s filled with startups and hubs and people trying to get stuff done. It’s really exciting to be called out to see something cool, visit an office, and it’s a place in Brisbane that you may never been before and you get there and there’s 30, 40 companies out there. It’s not just this idea that you’re either in this city or you’re at home, and it creates a lot of amazing opportunity for people.
Adam Spencer: I’m sorry. Did I hear that correctly when you said finished uni and started five companies?
James Fielding: Yeah, I did. Finished a medical degree. During the medical degree, did most of an MBA. It was this combined medical school-business school MBA thing. My buddy came to me with a clever idea about making hearing tests easier for people. And then, we had another clever idea about a magnetic total wrist replacement. And then, we had another clever idea about mental wellness chocolate to focus on resilience and fulfillment. And then, we had another idea about a cool camera vision tech piece, which was on ice. And then, we made the most R and D sounding company I could think of, called Robotics Engineering Research Laboratories, where we just got a bunch of clever people and started working on really different problems for people, because obviously, we didn’t have enough to do. And so, while I was a junior doctor working the hospital, I was doing the iLab startup accelerator piece on Audeara.
James Fielding: We had Field Orthopaedics, Yum!, RER 360 and RER labs, all cooking at once, and just built a whole bunch of really clever people and asked them to work as hard as they could across a whole bunch of different projects that then became companies. And now, Audeara’s listed, Field’s going [inaudible] , Yum’s kicking some really great goals with mental wellness and corporate and education. Unfortunately, the other two are on ice because we just decided to prioritize the ones that had gained the most traction. Yeah, so it’s been a pretty exciting few years.
Adam Spencer: Can I ask how old you are now?
James Fielding: I am 33. I’m turning 34 in six days.
Adam Spencer: Happy pre-birthday.
James Fielding: Thank you.
Adam Spencer: It’s become abundantly clear to me why UQ ventures put your name forward as a guest for this series. That’s insane.
James Fielding: It feels a bit that way, but it also just happened.
Adam Spencer: Yeah.
James Fielding: If you keep saying yes, it doesn’t feel as in insane. It does sometimes, but when you look at it on paper, and we had this award ceremony last night and my imposter syndrome was on high alert, and thank God my ego’s there to keep me afloat, but when you hear it all read out, and I just think about… Because I get to wave the flag and I get to do the podcast. I get to go on the stage. I get to make the speeches. I get to do the public facing piece, because that’s part of my skillset. That’s part of my offering to the group, but we had 30, 40 people making this reality. Chris Jeffrey who brought me into the piece originally and Alex Afflick who’s my CTO at Audeara… I mean, Ross Prior who’s left us and gone on to greener pastures and helping these other medical device companies.
James Fielding: We got FDA and TGA certification on a medical device company while launching a headphone kick starter. We just had a bunch of people doing really interesting things because they simply said, “Okay, let’s do it”, not “Let’s wait for someone else. What if we can’t do it?” It was always, “How will we make this work?” not, “Can we make this work?” We probably should have done a bit of, “Should we make this work?” But we also just got on with it. You start at page one. By the time you’re at page 200, you’re done. These things aren’t as complicated as people make out if you’re willing to find the right resource, put the right people together and get on with it.
Adam Spencer: That’s a promo spot right there, that sentence. What drives you? Why do you do this?
James Fielding: I like helping people. I know that sounds naf, but I like the sense of satisfaction I get from knowing that I’ve improved someone’s life. I get to do that every day, and now, I get to do it at scale, which is really cool. Because I was going to be a surgeon and I still do surgical assisting once a month. I’ve got surgery tomorrow morning, actually, which I love. See a problem, fix a problem, go home. It’s a truly gratifying experience and it gets me out of bed every day. I treat every single one of our customers like they are one of my family, because most often not in the first few years, they were and people would never know. It created this really amazing culture because if there was a customer riding in or if there was someone engaging with our companies, people had to be damn sure it wasn’t one of my uncles or aunties. It sets this really great foundation for that’s how you treat people, because if they have a problem, you will solve it.
James Fielding: If you look at the tens of thousands of people whose quality of life will improve with the headphones now, which is really gratifying, and there’s government support in that space, we’re supporting veterans, we’re supporting the hearing impaired, we’re supporting kids with autism struggling to do homeschooling because it’s all laptop-based and they have hearing impairment and signal noise ratio issues so we can fix those problems. And then, we get these heartfelt emails from parents. I don’t believe in altruism. I think there’s always a driver for this, and the driver for me is how good it feels, and I own that. I love that feeling of someone saying, “Wow, this has changed my life. Thank you.” That’s why I get out of bed.
Adam Spencer: We’re going to skirt around the outside of the Audeara story, but the Welcome to Day One podcast, we normally do founder stories where we dive deep into the journey, the whole story of the startup. I’d love to do that with you at some point…
James Fielding: Sure.
Adam Spencer: … to soundtrack a little bit here with this documentary we’re trying to create about the Australian startup ecosystem. When would you say you’ve very first got exposed to this startup ecosystem? Was it through iLab? Was that the first touch point?
James Fielding: I think over university, you hear about it and you see it and you’re aware of it, but I never really engaged with, for me, the ecosystem, until probably medical school. Yeah, I did business and science first for the first three or four years of uni life. And then, went and worked in New York for a bit. In that stage, I was in hedge funds. I was looking at distressed assets and different companies. Part of that was, “Look at all these different companies.” The first time I went across and went on some adventures when I was 18, there was this thing called Facebook and I was in Portland and people were talking about it and I was like, “That’s creepy as hell. I’ve got no interest in that.” I still don’t, actually. But that was this first like, “People are doing interesting stuff. That’s cool.”
James Fielding: I was very much on the “I’m going to be a doctor” path. And then my parents, who are amazing, were saying, “Why don’t you do something more interesting? Why don’t you think about some stuff?” And so, I met some interesting people when I worked in a casino in Vegas for a while. I went around and there was this idea that streamlined pathways aren’t the norm, and I think that’s the first exposure to an ecosystem where you are in this world where going and working for someone else in a well-established business isn’t necessarily your path forward. That’s the ecosystem that I think about in terms of startup. We’re going to have a crack. We’re going to think about it differently. We’re going to try and do it ourselves. That notion, I think, started probably when I was 18, 19, but in terms of the Brisbane piece and the formal exposure to what is a startup, how does it work, what am I going to do next, middle of med school when we were doing the MBA piece.
James Fielding: And then, do we have any cool ideas? What are we going to do with them? That was probably… Yeah, 2012, 2013. And then, iLab was the official, “We are in it now. We’re signed up. We’re in an accelerator. What is an accelerator? Okay, I get this now” kind of stuff, because we were all far too clever for ourselves anyway. We were working hospitals and we’re [inaudible] . And now, we’re coming and asking us to do… “Incorporate this” and “Do a pitch deck.” People much smarter than us were challenging our ideas and turn us away [inaudible] . How dare they? And then, that’s when we knew that there were all these really cool people that were going to change how we were going to live our lives, and we just never looked back.
Adam Spencer: You said one of your mates come to you with this idea to help people with hearing. Is that the business idea that turned into Audeara?
James Fielding: That’s right. Yeah. We were at the graduation ceremony of our MBA piece and Dr. Chris Jeffrey, who’s now the [inaudible] Field Orthopaedics, we divided the empire. He took orthopedics, I took headphones, because we just couldn’t keep doing both to the credit that they be deserved. Yeah, he said, “Hey, I’ve had this idea. Could you help me with it?” I said, “Yeah”, and that was that.
Adam Spencer: How far into that ideation, figuring out the technology, did you go, “We need help with this. Look around. Where can we get help from?” How far into that? Was it iLab straight away or was there some other stuff that you went through first?
James Fielding: It was pretty much iLab straight away from my point of view, because the day after that, I went on my honeymoon for five weeks before coming back and starting as a junior doctor and Chris went off with two other junior doctors, another engineer mate. It’s important to understand that Chris is an R and D mechatronics engineer for the military who was on deployment, bunking with the trauma surgeon, said, “What you do is more interesting that I do”, came back, got into medicine, and then I met Chris. This is not a normal doctor mate going, “Hey, I’ve had an idea.” This is one of the smartest people on the planet who was deploying engineering solutions live in combat saying, “Hey, I’ve had this idea. Cool. I reckon you could make a thing that goes ‘Beep’. Let’s play that game.” We had a signal engineer from Boeing who’s gone on to become a cardiologist.
James Fielding: We had junior business leading executive who was doing this MBA course with us who’s now doing obstetrics in New York. We had these very interesting culmination of human beings.
Adam Spencer: Yeah.
James Fielding: And so, I just had complete faith we were going to do it. When I was off my honeymoon, we were over in New York, I was talking to people about financing and funding and keeping up to date with all the stuff that they were doing here. And then when I got back, we just hit the ground running. It’s the same notion, but it changes exponentially when you’re in that ecosystem where all the ideas are challenged. We made our pivots and pivots and pivots, but yeah, we just kept saying, “Let’s go” and haven’t stopped.
Adam Spencer: What year are we talking that you got back?
James Fielding: That was 2014. We had the chat in November. 2015, on the 14th of January, I came back because the first day of being a junior doctor was the 15th of January. Got back from the honeymoon, started as a junior doctor, and the next day was in iLab.
Adam Spencer: 2015, apart from iLab and UQ ventures, looking around the Brisbane landscape, what else was visible to you in terms of community and support infrastructure to help startups and founders?
James Fielding: The Innovation Nation piece had just kicked off. There was a lot of talk around startups and funding in these R and D grants [inaudible] . There was a looming government piece. I don’t think the office of the chief entrepreneur in Queensland had started just at that point, but it was the next year that kicked off. River City Labs was there and Steve Baxter was running around.
Adam Spencer: Interviewing him next week.
James Fielding: Yeah. He’s an absolute legend. I’ve got a lot of time and respect and genuine appreciation for Steve. He’s a really genuinely decent bloke with a very, very, very sharp mind. But yeah, he was around and he was a shark tank guy who was in Brisbane telling companies to get on with it. The tagline “Execution is everything” was the River City Lab tagline. And then, that got incorporated into this central precinct thing in 2016, I think. For the 2015 year, iLab, we were doing our thing. There were a few other pieces that were coming along as well. There was Little Tokyo Two. There were these work spaces that were kicking off. It was a really interesting time to be in Brisbane with all these pockets that we were talking about at the beginning. It was starting to take shape.
James Fielding: When we were out and about and doing funding pitches and doing all these things, it felt like it was a normal thing to be doing, which I think is very important when you’re taking huge risks and changing your life entirely. There was this idea that it wasn’t nuts. It was a cool, exciting thing to be doing it. Wasn’t a scary “What will we do next?” thing to be doing.
Adam Spencer: Talking about present day now, what are some of the gaps that you observe either in the Brisbane, Queensland ecosystem or nationally? Where can we improve?
James Fielding: The one that everyone always talks about is this mid range between a couple hundred grand, high net worth seed funding and the 10, 20 big boy rounds. This 500 grand to five mill piece is a big area of enormous opportunity that I think is currently being under serviced, as well as the impact space. I think we’ve got huge capacity for impact investing. That’s come an awfully long way, but people… People still don’t really know what it means. I think a lot of investors want to be part of it. We’re very lucky that our [inaudible] investor who backed all five of our ventures was an impact investor without really knowing it. And now, we’ve got labels for it. This profit for purpose piece with a long term view, I think, is interesting as well as supporting what Australia seems to be very good at, which is high tech style platforms, as well as, obviously, hardware in our world where we make devices.
James Fielding: Hardware is hard, and a lot of investors really shy away from that. They want the next [inaudible] . They want the next Atlassian. They want this big SAS, immediately globally scalable models, which make perfect sense, but there’s more than enough opportunity for hardware solutions, AG tech, in this space where… Yeah, it’s not a friends and family piece and you’re not down with Air Tree getting big bucks. You’re in no man’s land, and it’s the no man’s land that is strengthening, but is the area where I think we’ll get the biggest bang for our buck.
James Fielding: I mean, I’ve started playing in that space. I’ve had a bit of extra cash, so I can back some of these things with a bit of cash now, not just sweat equity approach to things. Yeah, it’s interesting looking at companies that need a million bucks. They don’t need a hundred million. We don’t have that Silicon Valley mentality of raise a hundred million art didn’t work. That’s just not an Australian way of doing things, which I have a lot of respect for. I think the hundred mill [inaudible] will give it a crack next time approach. It just doesn’t suit the way we like to get things done. And so, it leaves people in limbo a bit and there’s some work to do there.
Adam Spencer: If a brand new founder came to you tomorrow, what one piece of advice would you give him or her to help not fail?
James Fielding: Actually do it. It’s the one thing I say. You have to actually do it. Planning it and thinking about it and doing all of the different elements and breakdowns and stuff, at some point, you’ve got to actually do it. The crude version is the [inaudible] method, “Shut up and get on with it”, which is the same notion, but I… Mate, I had a founder come to me yesterday and asked me for my [inaudible] . I said, “You’ve got to actually do it.” Because if not you, then who? Get on with it.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. I love that.
James Fielding: You’ve got a problem worth solving, solve it.
Adam Spencer: With these last few minutes that we have, I want to just leave the floor open for you to talk about just whatever’s on your mind, keeping in mind that what we’re trying to do here is create a documentary that is going to accurately tell the story of the Australian startup ecosystem and how we got to where we are. We want founders, investors, academics, and policy makers, everybody, really, in the startup community to listen to this series. What do they need to hear? What do we need to be talking about maybe that we’re not?
James Fielding: I think we need a resounding confidence in the fact that Australians are as smart, as talented, as hardworking and as capable as any people on the planet. You don’t need to leave to make it work. You need to stay and back your own people to get it done and prove that we deserve to be on a world stage. That mindset, I think, will change the way we approach a startup ecosystem.
James Fielding: This idea of backwards [inaudible] , I think, is just complete rubbish. I think we’re the smartest people on the planet. There are people just as smart, sure, but there aren’t any smarter. We have the capacity, and by we, I mean Australian startup people, Australian engineers, Australian talent, is just as talented as anywhere else in the planet. The difference is resource and connectivity. I think instead of saying, “I’m going to go to London, New York, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley, because that’s where they have it”, stay here and build it because then we’ll have it. Once we have it, we’ll have more of it and more of it and more of it, and keep proving it. And then, the world will be better off because people will feel they can get it done in a way that’s going to be bigger, faster, and better.
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.