Zrinka Tokic on the emergence of modern cloud tools
Zrinka Tokic is the director of ThincLab, the University of Adelaide’s business incubator that has its headquarters in Adelaide but also has locations in Singapore and New Zealand. Zrinka is also director of the Australian eChallenge, a pre-accelerator program which aims to take a startup from initial idea to market ready or incubator ready. In her conversation with Adam, Zrinka discusses how her previous experience working as an interior designer helped give her an appreciation for design thinking, and how important the emergence of modern cloud tools have been for enabling startups to grow quickly.
Australian eChallenge: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/echallenge/
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer, and Welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organisations 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:
Zrinka Tokic: My name is Zrinka Tokic. I am the director of ThincLab and the eChallenge at the University of Adelaide. So ThincLab is the University of Adelaide’s business incubator, so we have locations in Adelaide. We’ve got headquarters here in Adelaide. We have a location in Singapore, New Zealand. We have regional locations in Loxton, and we have a ThincLab at Waite, which is our Waite campus, which is really around agrifood and wine.
Adam Spencer: We’ll probably go a bit deeper on this when we get really into the interview, but just as a bit of a summary, what’s the eChallenge?
Zrinka Tokic: So the eChallenge is a pre-accelerated program and it’s been running for 21 years and it really is a program that takes you from idea to market ready, or as we put it, kind of incubator ready. So we use the eChallenge as a program to feed into our ThincLab. So it is the first step. So, ultimately you come in with an idea and you spend three months working on that idea so that you are incubator ready, and that goes from testing the market to really looking at whether there’s a need for this product or service. And then you get mentoring and support the whole way, so it’s a three month program.
Adam Spencer: What was your first exposure to the Australian Startup ecosystem?
Zrinka Tokic: I started working at the university in 2005. I really just started working at the university and it was the Entrepreneurship Centre. And at the time, I really didn’t even know what entrepreneurship meant. I actually just came into work there for a few months, and I was an interior designer, so I didn’t know anything about business. I thought, look, I’ll give this a go, this sounds interesting.
Zrinka Tokic: So it was the Entrepreneurship Centre for Innovation and Commercialisation. It was a big mouthful and it was a small centre that had three people working there, and basically, we used to run programs that were involved with commercialisation. So we had a master of technology commercialisation and a master of entrepreneurship. And that was where I really, basically learned about entrepreneurship and what it was.
Adam Spencer: What lesson have you brought across from your interior design background that’s helped you in this world of entrepreneurship and startups?
Zrinka Tokic: So, that’s really interesting that you say that, design thinking in particular, that was something that I brought from interior design. And I found that having that background, when you’re working on projects, designing for people, you really have to listen to the customer and really see that you’re designing for them. And that’s basically what I brought to the university, with me. Without realising it though, because design thinking wasn’t a really big, big kind of buzz thing at the time, and it is now.
Zrinka Tokic: And so, I went to Stanford later on in life, in 2018, to actually learn more about design thinking and to actually bring that into everything that we do. So that’s probably what I bought, but you know, ultimately working at the university and being involved in entrepreneurship gave me a lot more.
Zrinka Tokic: I was handed at the eChallenge program, which is our current pre-accelerator. It had been running for a few years and the school didn’t want to run it anymore. And they said, “Zrinka, do you want to look after it?” So I said, “Look, I’ll give it a go.” And I didn’t understand anything about business plans or business at the time.
Zrinka Tokic: So it was quite an interesting due journey for me, because I had to find presenters for different topics around intellectual property and marketing and opportunity assessment, at the time. So I had to find all these different kind of business professionals, which actually launched me into the world in a great way actually, because I actually met all these amazing people that could actually help entrepreneurs.
Zrinka Tokic: And then we put this three month program together. And the most wonderful thing about it is, I’d see the students actually take part in the program and see the change that it brought in them. They’d come in with an idea, but then they became… they did all this research and they became the experts. And that’s what I really loved about the program is, they became these experts and they actually pitched, and we all learned from them.
Zrinka Tokic: So I actually learned more from them than I think they probably learned from us. And over the, probably a five year period, I actually picked up so much myself that now I run a number of businesses outside of work and I’ve launched products into the US markets and other markets.
Zrinka Tokic: So it actually has made me more relevant being an entrepreneur myself, because I’m no longer someone that just talks about entrepreneurship, I’m doing it and I’m relevant, and I can actually pass on my current knowledge to the participants. And I think that’s where I have actually learned so much from the program and I learn so much every day from the students that are involved as well.
Adam Spencer: Jumping back for a second to Stanford University and the design thinking course there. What do you think the main takeaway that you brought out of that was?
Zrinka Tokic: I think we spend a lot of time thinking and overthinking our designs. And I remember the first day we got there, no computers, no phones for four days, four days straight. And we actually worked from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM, and everything we did was in eight minute blocks. And I was exhausted after the first day because we would actually do activities. You’d have to draw something, build something, in eight minutes.
Zrinka Tokic: And, I used to panic, I was thinking, oh my goodness, how am I going to do this? After the end of the kind of four days, I was finishing tasks in five minutes. And so I really think that’s what I took away, is that we spend too long overthinking, overthinking things and designs, and the way we’re going to draw things, just do it.
Adam Spencer: You joined the uni in 2005 and you mentioned, and I can’t remember the full name of the department… Entrepreneurship Centre for Commercialisation or something like that?
Zrinka Tokic: Yes, it was called the Innovation Center for Entrepreneurship and Commercialisation. Then it changed to ECIC, so the Entrepreneurship Center for Innovation and Commercialisation. So it was always this big mouthful and no one really understood what it meant. So I spent a lot of time explaining what we did.
Adam Spencer: I’m assuming that was rebranded and repackaged into what we know today is the ThincLab, or am I wrong about that?
Zrinka Tokic: No, the ThincLab was actually part of ECIC at the time. So it was designed, and this was in 1993, so ThincLab is one of the oldest incubators, I think, in Australia. So in 1993 it was launched and it was designed to support students so that they could actually work on a business and do a degree at the same time. So they’d do a master of entrepreneurship or a master of innovation commercialisation, and they would actually walk away with a degree and a business.
Zrinka Tokic: So it was very, very clever at the time. And it wasn’t called ThincLab at the time, it was just called Thebarton Incubator and we shortened it to ThincLab. So it was at Thebarton, it was based at Thebarton, and it was an incubator, and then laboratory. So, that’s pretty much how the name was born. And it was soon after that, that it actually was more and more embedded in the university around commercialising innovations, commercialising research. So it was really around education. ThincLab was around education and working on a business, with support, while you are working on your degree, and still is the same thing.
Zrinka Tokic: So to this day, it’s about having a degree, and working on your business, and finishing, and leaving the university, with a degree and a business. And I think that’s a really, really special thing. That’s a special thing about ThincLab.
Adam Spencer: I’m sure it’s very challenging running, is it five different locations?
Zrinka Tokic: Five. Yeah, we had six up until last year. So last year, we had a location in France. Obviously, COVID hit the region very hard. So we’re still looking at heading back to France and having a location there. So we had six prior to that.
Adam Spencer: What’s the most rewarding part about your job?
Zrinka Tokic: You know, what I love about it is each time that we enter a new location, for example, France, it’s… we’re a startup. I feel like I’m constantly in startup mode, constantly learning, constantly looking for new markets, constantly testing as well. And I think that’s the most rewarding part. It keeps me interested in the job. That’s what I love about it. It’s actually quite thrilling, launching a new location, meeting new people, working out whether there’s a need for ThincLab in a certain location. Where does it fit? How does it fit into the local ecosystem there? You know, there are lots of culture issues and how do we fit in there as well?
Zrinka Tokic: It is a really fascinating thing to actually launch a product or a new service or a company in a new location. And for example, in France, it took… probably took me about three years to actually build it there, to actually get it off the ground. But that was through our eChallenge program. So we started, actually, teaching the eChallenge program in Nice, Leon and Paris, and all these business schools.
Zrinka Tokic: And they actually said, “Look, we don’t really have anything like this here. Would you like to have a ThincLab here as well? And so, basically, that’s how ThincLab was born in France as well. It was a very exciting time. And at the time, entrepreneurship wasn’t that big in universities, this was around 2015, in France. So we actually hit a market that there was a real need.
Adam Spencer: You know, speaking about entrepreneurship wasn’t really as big of a thing back in 2015, you’ve be involved in the Uni since 2005, has the Australian startup scene, for lack of a better word, didn’t really start getting going until 2010, 2011, 2012.
Zrinka Tokic: Exactly.
Adam Spencer: Going back to 2005 in Adelaide and in South Australia, can you paint a bit of a picture about what did the community look like in terms of people, who did you look to, who were kind of those beacons, what organisations were there that were doing great things in the space?
Zrinka Tokic: Yeah so, back then there was a venture capital board and that was a South Australian government initiative. So they kind of would sponsor and give us some money. Our main money came from Hewlett Packard. So Hewlett Packard was really looking to engage students and they were looking to be attached to innovation and entrepreneurship. And so, they were actually really wonderful to work with in those first few years, because they really were supportive of innovation, entrepreneurship and new product design and development.
Zrinka Tokic: Locally, there were pockets of people that were interested in investing. We had Playfair Capital around, there were other investors, private investors, it was very ad hoc. It wasn’t like there was… the only kind of real body that was around that would actually, that I had a fair bit to do with, was the Venture Capital Board of South Australia. So otherwise, you’d have your law firm, some of those kind of were interested in entrepreneurship as well. I would say that’s probably about it. That’s probably about it at the time.
Adam Spencer: At what point, that you started to notice things were shifting. This is more of a community developing, a lot more started to happen. Can you pinpoint any time?
Zrinka Tokic: Yeah, look, I remember, I think it was Paul Daly and a couple of other people, they decided to map the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I can’t remember what year that was actually in, that may have been way back in 2012, ’13, or maybe more recently. I can’t remember the year actually. When they started to map the entrepreneurial ecosystem in South Australia, we realised how many things were happening in the entrepreneurial space. And I think that was a turning point, because people actually started noticing each other.
Zrinka Tokic: We were kind of doing our own thing in silos and as soon as they mapped this ecosystem and they brought us together for meetings, we started meeting each other. And so we… it wasn’t such a lonely journey. The group grew, and then we had the Margarine Distillery. I think they also started that kind of incubation space as well. More incubators started turning up around Adelaide, but ultimately, ThincLab was around on its own for quite a while.
Adam Spencer: You mentioned silos and that’s a theme that comes up quite regularly in these interviews. Do you have any idea around why silos develop?
Zrinka Tokic: You know, it’s competition. And I think South Australia in particular is small. And as soon as universities start competing, it’s competition for students, it’s competition for kudos as well. It’s like, who’s doing it the best? You know, it’s a really interesting thing because ultimately I haven’t felt like we’ve had to compete so much with others because we do have… we have students. ThincLab is designed to support staff, students, and alumni of the University of Adelaide. So locally, right?
Zrinka Tokic: So we do take companies and startups from outside the university, but not that many, and we select those carefully so that they add to the community. So we have a constant influx of students and alumni and staff that are wanting to enter ThincLab. So we don’t so much have to be as aggressive on the outside to get all these startups in.
Zrinka Tokic: And I think that’s where the competition really starts, because if you’re competing for great startups and you want to be seen as the best, that’s how those silos sort of form, and you get a bit competitive. But ultimately we have these wonderful students that we work with. I haven’t felt like I’ve had to compete on that sort of stage and I’ve always felt very happy to collaborate because it’s always helped us grow and helped the university grow and help students, open opportunities for students as well.
Adam Spencer: Fast forwarding to present day. What are some of the biggest gaps that you’ve observed today? Where can we make the biggest improvements?
Zrinka Tokic: It’s that early stage funding. You know, I deal with lots of startups at the early stage, and I don’t think it’s about government funding. It’s not government funding that they need. They really need to just get $50,000. That’s all they need. Some of them really just need that start. And the big gap is no one wants to invest in you until you’ve got some traction, basically. So, how do you get that traction with no money? It’s hard. So that’s the biggest gap. It is ultimately, you can’t get investor on board here in Australia until you have traction, you’ve got customers, until you’ve really proven yourself. And how do you get there without money? And that’s where a lot of them actually fail.
Zrinka Tokic: And I remember years back, we had this amazing innovation that would… this was back in 2010, a vine pruning AI kind of machine. I had phone calls from all over the world, as soon as they heard about this team. And no one would actually invest in them, no one would put any money in them until they could prove that this thing could work. And the only way they could get it to work was under really controlled conditions. And at nighttime, under lights, because daytime would actually affect the movement of the robot.
Zrinka Tokic: So, this was an amazing South Australian innovation that was never going to take off because they couldn’t get that early stage funding. But you know, everyone all over the world was ringing saying, “We want this. If you can make it work, we want it. So, that’s just an example of an innovation that was just actually, just kind of left to sit, because it couldn’t get that early stage investment.
Adam Spencer: If a brand new founder came to you tomorrow, what one piece of advice would you give them to help them succeed?
Zrinka Tokic: You’ve got to stay hungry. You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to be committed. I see time and time again, if you are not committed, and you don’t love what you’re doing, and if you’re not agile as well, you have to really ultimately go into this process with an open mind and think this may or may not work, but I’m ready to change direction. And so, I think that’s my big, big takeaway is, go into this loving what you’re doing, but also be ready to change direction.
Adam Spencer: Do you have an unpopular opinion about the startup ecosystem or startup community, either positive or negative, just something you firmly believe, but you find yourself having to convince everyone about it?
Zrinka Tokic: Okay. The startup community, I think, can be a bit cliquey. And this is, we’ve noticed recently there, there are more kind of groups coming and forming. And I have spoken to a lot of our startups downstairs in ThincLab, and a lot of them say it’s hard to penetrate the startup community sometimes. So that’s, I found really interesting because I’m in there, and so I don’t feel like I have to penetrate it, but then on the outside, looking in and wanting to enter this community and be embraced by this community as a startup. And sometimes they’re not welcomed with open arms.
Adam Spencer: Does anything come to mind in terms of a broad sweeping, or a big movement that you have seen in your time in the space that really helped push the community forward or get us to the next level, stage, whatever that is?
Zrinka Tokic: So when I started way back in 2005, we’d take students or participants through a three month program and, very rare, would they have a website at the end. Very rare would they have a proper logo. Now, I think with the adoption of these open source, online tools, every single student, every single participant, every single startup has a logo, has a website, at least a landing page, or even an app that you can click through.
Zrinka Tokic: So I think the emergence of these amazing online tools have changed the startup world and made it faster. And, you can actually go from idea to your prototype in days. And I think that is a most amazing aspect of what’s happened to the startup ecosystem as well, that things are moving a lot far faster, and you can actually create and change and make things very quickly.
Adam Spencer: That’s so true. Like the cloud hosting services where you can get a website up now for a few dollars a month, as opposed to having, you know, 20 years ago, having to buy all the hardware and it’d cost $10,000. You’ve got all these amazing in tools like Canva, whereas, previously you would’ve had to spend thousands of dollars on a graphic designer to do something.
Zrinka Tokic: You can do logo generators, anything.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. So all of these things that have taken away roadblocks and made things a lot easier, what’s the next roadblock that you think that we need to kind of work on smoothing out?
Zrinka Tokic: That’s an interesting question. I think that ultimately it is investment perception as well. So ultimately we are in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, so we kind of… we get it, right? But I still speak to parents of students that will come on campus and they still don’t get it. They want their kids to be lawyers, accountants. They don’t realise that these jobs are disappearing. That they’re no longer existing, and that the kids have to be agile.
Zrinka Tokic: And one thing that entrepreneurship teaches them, and if they do an entrepreneurship course at university, is it teaches them to look at opportunities, to understand what is a good opportunity and how to pitch that opportunity. So ultimately whether they work on a startup or not, they’re gaining amazing soft skills that they can take to an employer. So they’re actually entrepreneurial within an organisation, they’re intrepreneurial. And I think perception has to change outside of the startup community as to what entrepreneurship can do for a person and for their personal growth.
Adam Spencer: Keeping in mind that what the team and I are trying to do is create a documentary that will as honestly, and holistically, as possible, tell the story of the Australian startup ecosystem over the past few decades. We want people from all corners of the ecosystem to listen to this story, founders, investors, academics, policy makers, either thinking about any one of those categories or all of them, what message do you have for them? What do you think people need to hear?
Zrinka Tokic: I suppose, I have been doing this for a very, very long time and I found it absolutely thrilling and exciting, and I learn more every day from the participants than anything else. So I think governments are starting to realise the value of entrepreneurship, the value of small business. And I actually think that’s probably the biggest thing that has kind of emerged over the last few years, is finally, finally entrepreneurship has its place. And I hope it will actually continue to extend and be, and grow, and that the entrepreneurial ecosystem will grow. There are some amazing accelerators and incubators all over the world. And, I think, we also need to link in more.
Zrinka Tokic: And, as soon as I go overseas or to our other locations, I realise there’s a massive world out there and there’s so many new connections we can make. And sometimes we do kind of stick very close to home. And I think it’s time to really branch out as much as we possibly can. And we may need a bit more help with that. And it would be great to see more Australian startups, heat international markets, and have assistance to do that.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast, wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews, with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.