Sun shining on innovation on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast

Mark Paddenburg, CEO of the Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast, on the importance of connections, hosting Hot DesQ artificial intelligence recruitment company Wazlo and the future of regional Queensland.

Mark Paddenburg

You could be mistaken for thinking that the Sunshine Coast’s best features were its pristine white beaches, stunning weather and breathtaking hinterland. But look a little deeper and you will also find a thriving innovation industry supporting local ideas and attracting international talent to its’ shores.

“The Sunshine Coast is special, the ecosystem and support for local entrepreneurs is very deep,” says Mark Paddenburg CEO of the Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast.

“We have an amazing depth of local talent and resources here which has helped to position the Sunshine Coast as a destination of choice for entrepreneurs. We are also benefiting from people moving from interstate and overseas. A great deal of our founders are born overseas and I think that’s a factor that helps enrich the local ecosystem as well,” says Mark.

Mark has been the CEO of the Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast since 2012. He explains that The Innovation Centre, which was set up by the Sunshine Coast University in 2002 with local, state and federal government support, was created originally to foster entrepreneurship and retain local talent within the Sunshine Coast region. 
 
Mark believes his staff and mentors key role is to connect ideas, founders, entrepreneurs and capital by acting as a catalyst for their businesses success.

With his focus on the importance of connections, and his knowledge of how international talent can enrich local startup communities, it’s no surprise that when he heard about Advance Queensland’s Hot DesQ program he jumped at the opportunity to host a company at the Innovation Centre.

The Hot DesQ program attracts international and interstate entrepreneurs to relocate their ideas and business ventures to Queensland for at least six months. The entrepreneurs are hosted by different startup organisations in locations throughout Queensland.

Mark explains that he had read about the success of similar programs overseas, and was keen for the Sunshine Coast to get a slice of the international talent and experience that Hot DesQ offers.

The Innovation Centre was chosen by Hot DesQ Round 1 artificial intelligence recruitment firm Wazlo founders Joshua Brown and Dhrubajyoti Das who arrived earlier this year.

Mark explains that Wazlo are a great fit for the Sunshine Coast. Local agricultural companies need to recruit high volumes of seasonal workers and Wazlo want to validate their artificial intelligence recruitment platform that targets this market with speed and precision.
 
The situation so far has greatly benefited both parties, with Wazlo founders Joshua Brown and Dhrubajyoti Das getting involved directly in the local food and agribusiness network, helping them learn from the customers and in return they are helping the industry towards recruitment targets that have not been met before.

“This year, with the support of Wazlo, we think we’ll get a lot closer to placing the target of around 6,000 workers in,” Mark explains.
 
Marks says that while Joshua and Dhrubajyoti have been based at the Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast they have really involved themselves in the local startup and innovation community, by mentoring local companies and have run guest lectures at the Sunshine Coast University.
 
“Wazlo have done some valuable mentoring with our members who are involved with online platforms, AI and blockchain technology where they have been exploring new enabling technologies to enhance the user experience. We’ve also hosted a public forums and meet up groups here, the last of which was around artificial intelligence and data analytics with over 30 people attending,” says Mark.

“The Wazlo Founders are incredibly talented and energetic, and I’ve just been really impressed with their ability to build their business whilst also getting out and tell their story and collaborate generously,” he says.

Mark adds that the connections Joshua and Dhrubajyoti have back in California have also been extremely valuable, and he expects these will help Queensland immensely going forward.

“I know Joshua and Dhrubajyoti are also thinking of retaining a presence in the region as they scale their business globally so the HotDesQ program is certainly fostering new connections and beneficial exchanges,” says Mark.

Mark says overall that Hot DesQ is a great opportunity for stronger collaboration, new investment and diversity in the regions. 
 
“The networks, experience and talent that is brought into Queensland through the program is immense,” he says.

The Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast has also received funding as part of the Advance Queensland Industry Accelerator Program. The Industry Accelerator Program provides industry-focussed accelerators connecting Queensland entrepreneurs with established industries and businesses to drive innovation.
 
 The Innovation Centre partnered with the Food and Agribusiness Network (FAN) to deliver a three month accelerator program for 12 ‘foodpreneurs’.

Mark explains the accelerator program, which finishes on 14 June, has exceeded their expectations with all companies taking their business to the next level and graduating with flying colours. 
 
 “It has really surpassed our expectations, probably by a multiple of three,” he says.
 
“We were discussing some food and agricultural business statistics recently with ABS and FAN and it looks like there are more food and beverage innovators on the Sunshine Coast per capita than any other part of Australia,” says Mark. 
 
 Mark explains that going forward the Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast is going to continue focus on industry sectors that offer real opportunity in the region.

“We are also going to have a stronger focus on the med-tech, health and wellbeing, sport science, functional foods, digital and serious gaming, and we also have strong demand for our in-house film studio and design prototyping lab,” he says.

Mark thinks that there is no better time to be an entrepreneur, not just in the Sunshine Coast, but also in wider regional Queensland.

“There is no reason why you can’t be a successful entrepreneur from a regional area of Queensland, with the support of the Advance Queensland programs, and with the infrastructure through incubators and accelerator programs that are prevalent now throughout Queensland,” he says.

“Townsville, Cairns, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, Toowoomba and Ipswich have all proved that they can help support and launch very successful start-up entrepreneurs and they’re making a difference,” Mark explains.

“There is no better time to be an entrepreneur and you can do that from anywhere in the world but particularly regional Queensland,” he says.

Mark recognises the importance of developing a diverse economy, and thinks the future relies on inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs to think about what can be changed, what problems can be solved with innovative solutions, and to find new opportunities to grow the Sunshine Coast economy.

“The next generation of entrepreneurs are going to play a huge part in creating a better society and new opportunities for people in regional areas,” he says.

Update: 
On 7 June 2017 the Sunshine Coast was announced as the first region to benefit from Advance Queensland’s Advancing Regional Innovation Program.

The Sunshine Coast Regional Innovation Pipeline Team, led by the Sunshine Coast Regional Council and including the Noosa Shire Council and 25 other partners from across the ecosystem will receive matched funding of $500,000 over three years to work together to innovate and strengthen the region’s economy and create jobs.

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