Australia-first FounderLab throws lifeline to student startups

A unique program designed to extend the lifespan of student startups by taking them to the next level is now up and running at UNSW. 

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UNSW student entreprepreeurs. Photo supplied

An Australia-first program designed to extend the lifespan of student startups is now up and running at UNSW. 

More than 500 student and alumni-run companies have been supported by UNSW initiatives since 2014. The UNSW FounderLab and MVP Grant Fund are a new approach and will provide students with an unprecedented level of support.

FounderLab is run by UNSW Innovations and Arc, the university’s student organisation. It provides consulting services to startups and, more importantly, employs in-house developers to work with student entrepreneurs lacking technical know-how.

The goal is to help students build a minimum viable product – a platform or website with just enough features to satisfy early adopters. It enables businesses to run testing, gain feedback from users, and improve later versions of their product.  

“This could be the difference between a startup dying and surviving,” says Josh Flannery, director of the FounderLab and head of UNSW Innovation’s Student Entrepreneur Development team.

“In the Australian context, this is definitely a first.”

At UNSW Innovations, we see some absolutely brilliant ideas and founders with incredible hustle. But it’s very hard for them to identify and attract people with the right skills.

Importantly, FounderLab is also helping engineers and computing students at UNSW get exposure to the startup ecosystem, working as interns with the in-house developers.

At its core, FounderLab is designed to address one of the most daunting challenges facing entrepreneurs: recruiting talented team members with the right technology skillsets to take their business to the next level.  

“Other than money, the main issue that stifles a really high-potential startup founder is not having the technology expertise to keep their idea alive,” says Flannery. 

“At UNSW Innovations, we see some absolutely brilliant ideas and founders with incredible hustle, who go out and do market research and validate solutions. But it’s very hard for them to identify and attract people with the right skills.” 

The objective of FounderLab is to give student startups a lifeline: “If we can help them survive that little bit longer, it’s more likely they’ll begin making sales, get funding, grow their team and ultimately have an impact on the economy,” says Flannery.

UNSW Innovations and Arc have also established an MVP fund, which will provide one-off grants to student entrepreneurs, worth between $5,000 and $20,000. Flannery says the MVP fund will award about $100,000 in the first year. 

How does it work?

FounderLab currently has a three-person development team that will support up to 15 startups over the next 12 months.   

To be eligible, student entrepreneurs must be first recommended to UNSW Innovations and go through its “startup triage” program. This is designed to assess the viability of a business idea and help guide founders toward success. 

After completing an online application form, shortlisted student entrepreneurs get the chance to competitively pitch for access into the FounderLab. Successful applicants will get support for a period of around four months, says Flannery.  

But there’s a slight catch: while the in-house development team builds their product, the entrepreneurs need to recruit a chief technical officer (CTO) from the UNSW student body. FounderLab and its backers will host events, workshops and coding clubs to help facilitate these partnerships. 

“The new CTO will come on board while the company is still in the FounderLab, and they’ll get trained by our in-house developers,” says Flannery. “This will free up the founder to focus on the business side of things.”  

Helping STEM students too

On the surface, FounderLab may seem like a solution tailored for students lacking technology skills but Flannery says it’s also helping to engage STEM students in UNSW’s startup ecosystem.

“One of the things we’ve found is that there isn’t always a natural attraction for technology-minded students to gravitate towards startups,” says Flannery.

He believes the presence of in-house professionals will be attractive to computing students. 

“It de-risks the time they’ll have put into the business,” says Flannery. “They’ll at least come away with that experience of working on a startup on their CV, and they’ll have been mentored by a professional during that process.”

Four companies have already gone through FounderLab’s pilot program. Among the entrepreneurs was Max Glanville, an industrial design student who developed Firefront, an award-winning bushfire detection system for residential properties.

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Industrial Design student Max Glanville

“I think it’s nice to have fresh eyes,” Glanville says of his experiences in FounderLab. “It aided me in how I could bring this to life and freshen it up, and not just leave it as a university assignment.”

James Smith, another FounderLab veteran, is the co-founder of Chatterbox, which is developing digital education tools for public speaking and debating. “No longer are we selling ideas that are half-baked, we’re selling a tangible thing that teachers can use, and view some basic videos. 

Flannery says the success of FounderLab will be measured by the success of the startups, before and after they go through the program.   

“We’ll be hoping for big numbers in terms of new customers, media exposure and the investments they receive. It would be nice to get a few big exits at some point, too.”

But it’s also about being inclusive and encouraging students from all backgrounds to get involved: “We want to motivate more students and alumni to have a go at becoming entrepreneurs, and doing something they might otherwise think was impossible.” 

Eric Souksai, the Arc Student Engagement Manager, agrees: “For students who may not understand what entrepreneurship is, we want to be able to give them a taste of what opportunities are available.”

“We’re looking to grow FounderLab to have more developers there to support students from the technological perspective,” he says. “We also want to move towards being able to help student innovators and entrepreneurs produce not just technological, web-based ideas but physical products.”  

Souksai says the pilot program was very successful: “If we can keep up that momentum, and continue to expand to support new student startups, that will be very exciting.”