What can Sydney do to be the next innovation hub?

Earlier in 2016, Monique Potts the Deputy Director of UTS ICI traveled to Boston to do ‘a bit of a recce’ of what other university innovation/entrepreneurship teams were doing. She wanted to know how they were set up, funded, organised; how they engaged with faculties, industry, government and how UTS could apply Boston’s success to Sydney?

MIT seemed a good place to start. My first visit was with Madeline Meehan, Director, of Operations at Harvard Innovation Lab. She took me on a tour of the Innovation Lab space and Launch Lab. The Harvard iLab is a large open plan space where any students from Harvard can drop in and learn more about entrepreneurship and work on their ideas.

Across the road is the Harvard Launch Lab, a ‘curated co-working space’ for Harvard alumni startups. Each team has dedicated workspace and access to facilities and mentors for up to two years. There are approximately 30 teams there now. This is a prototype for a larger lab in the planning. It’s reassuring to know we are on the right track, as many universitites in Sydney have began programs to facilitate their students and alumni with their startups. Although, two years is a much longer span of time than we currently invest.

Next was the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (now Berkman Klein Center) where I met with Becca Tabasky, Manager of Community Programs, who gave me some background on the history and set up of Berkman.

The suburban looking Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. Photo by Monique Potts

The Center is in a suburban looking house next to the Harvard campus and is part of the Faculty of Law. They have a regular team of researchers, about 30 strong, and a visiting cohort of fellows each year. Becca and I discussed strategies for building a culture of creative collaboration and some of the strategies and challenges of this. This is a great report that outlines some of the lessons learned from the Berkman Center over the years. 15 Lessons of the Berkman Fellows Program. They also have an open access approach to fellowships as you don’t need to be an academic to apply.

The next day I visited MassChallenge down at the docks in Boston. MassChallenge is one of the biggest startup accelerators around and currently has outreach programs to other part of the world including Sydney. I met with Andi Dankert and Alessandra Kopp who look after the global partnerships for MassChallenge. We’re currently scoping out the feasibility of doing the same sort of out reach close to home in the Asia-Pacific, watch this space.

The MassChallenge office on the Boston wharves. Photo by Monique Potts.

At the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) I was able to sit in on a Code for Boston group meeting. Code for America is a group of about 20-30 people who work on a variety of civic apps and projects as volunteers. As it turns out there is also a Code for Australia group based in Melbourne that has been running for about 18 months. They run a Civics Lab and Fellowships program and are looking at setting up something in Sydney.

Lastly I squeezed in a visit to the legendary MIT Media Lab. This really is next level, and the labs are well set up with top of the range gear. There are about 25 labs including lifelong kindergarten, the future of opera and biomechatronics just to name a few. Each lab is headed up by a professor and works with a range of researchers and postgrads.

Inside the MIT Media Lab Personal Robotics Group. Photo by Monique Potts.

The Media Lab seems to operate fairly autonomously in relation to the rest of the university and I got the impression it is viewed as being, ‘a bit elitist’ or ‘self serving’.

This seems to be a constant challenge for innovation teams in large organisations; how to remain accessible while at the same time having the independence to do different and challenging projects.

Sydney is well placed to become a vibrant home for innovation and entrepreneurship in the Asia Pacific region with excellent universities, a vibrant creative culture, a diverse population and great beaches! While some people might question if the laid back lifestyle of Australians is suited to entrepreneurship I think we are developing our own style of startups which are successful, diverse, socially innovative and Asia-ready with a strong dash of laconic humour.