Sometimes inspiration strikes early. Solange Cunin’s love affair with the night sky began while growing up on a eucalyptus plantation in northern New South Wales. “I was the eight-year-old who asked Santa for a telescope,” she laughs.
Now 22, the UNSW aerospace engineering and maths student wants to make access to space more affordable by organising ride-sharing for experimental payloads. And her big idea involves satellites so small they can fit in the palm of your hand. Cunin recently co-founded a startup called Quberider and hopes to start organising launches next year. It’s a risky move, but Cunin is undeterred. “When you’re young you can fail hard and fail fast, and you can pick yourself back up again,” she says.
Likewise 23-year-old mechanical engineering and commerce student Nathan Adler is thinking like an innovator. In 2012 he helped found Create UNSW, a student club that teaches members how to program and build devices, ranging from robots to drones, and offers 3D printing services.
After signing up more than 500 members during O-Week, Adler took his first leap of faith: he started a small, online retail business for electronic components, sourced from China, which has been hugely successful. The turning point for the club came when UNSW Art & Design provided a workshop space last year, which meant Create members could start investing profits into their own ideas and projects.
Today, Intel and Cochlear sponsor the club, and its members are hired as consultants to lecturers, student entrepreneurs and external companies. “Through this process the wealth of knowledge in our group grows exponentially,” says Adler.
Tapped into a growing network of student innovators, Adler is considering his future. For his thesis, he’s developed a portable GPS device that can pinpoint user location to less than five centimetres. The proof-of-concept is finished and an entrepreneur friend – who he met through Create – is in San Francisco meeting with potential investors.
The age of the innovator
Students like Cunin and Adler are increasingly developing innovative ideas and products, chasing startup dreams, taking risks, and trying to carve out their own opportunities all before they graduate. Underpinning it all is the confidence to think creatively. Nurturing these big ideas and a culture of innovation in all aspects of student life is the next big challenge for universities worldwide.
Martin Bliemel, an award-winning lecturer in innovation and entrepreneurship in the UNSW Business School, says the shift is being driven by new technologies and popular media – which celebrates young tech entrepreneurs like they’re rock stars – to the economic uncertainty caused by the global financial crisis. “It’s a myth now that you’ll have a job for life,” he says. “So more students are thinking, ‘Hey wait a sec, why not become an entrepreneur right off the bat?’ ”
UNSW software engineering student Hayden Smith believes it requires an attitude shift for students to make the leap from ordinary to extraordinary. “There’s a culture of mediocrity you can sometimes feel at university – an idea that until you graduate you’re not able to accomplish anything of value,” Smith told a recent TEDx event.
After spending the first half of his degree on “cruise control”, Smith made that leap. He began working on the UNSW solar racing car, SunSwift, and after six months was leading the project.
In October 2014, the team obliterated the world record for the fastest solar-powered car over 500 km, maintaining an average speed of 107 kmh. The previous record of 73 kmh had stood for a quarter century. The team is now poised to develop the first roadworthy, solar-powered passenger vehicle in Australia.
“University is not some obstacle to overcome. It’s a platform on which you can do some of the most important work of your life,” Smith says. Students should seek out opportunities to work in teams and be part of something cool, he says, because those opportunities do exist. “And I’m not talking page two of your resume cool. I’m talking world-altering cool.”
Today, 90% of Australian universities are offering credit courses in innovation and entrepreneurship, and many of them are also rolling out extra-curricular programs, such as incubators, accelerators, hackathons and maker spaces. UNSW is a leader in the field: among its initiatives are a raft of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, including the first online MBA with a focus on technology and innovation; a venture incubator space in the School of Computer Science and Engineering supported by Google and the NSW Government; the Business School’s Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, which runs the Peter Farrell Cup – a whole enterprise competition for students; and Enactus UNSW, which helps support social entrepreneurs.
There is also the University’s technology transfer and innovation office, UNSW Innovations, which runs the Startup Games competition, and has a whole department dedicated to supporting student innovators. So far they’ve offered legal and technical advice to more than 300 student teams with business ideas.
But increasingly, there’s a push to provide physical spaces where students can network, collaborate and access technical resources and equipment. “The spaces are the one thing that’s been missing,” says Adler.
Finding a better way
“Everybody is an innovator, and should be an innovator,” explained Michael Crouch, the executive chairman of Midgeon Holdings in a conversation with UNSW Chancellor David Gonski on why business should support universities to produce creative thinkers.
That doesn’t mean students and staff need to start a business, said Crouch, who in 2013 funded a research Chair in Innovation at UNSW. It just means they have to want to improve processes and not accept the status quo.
Going about things differently is part of the thinking behind the new Michael Crouch Innovation Centre (MCIC). Unique within an Australian university, the centre will open inside the state-of-the-art materials science building later this year. Open to students from all faculties, the MCIC will provide access to free, co-curricular foundational and experiential learning programs, facilitated by experts from UNSW and a network of corporate partners.
“We’re a new kind of student experience,” says the centre’s chief operating officer Brad Furber. “We’re a showcase for innovative ideas. We provide a platform for faculty and industry partners to engage with students, and a pathway to complementary support services.”
Furber says the centre’s measure of success will be getting students with great ideas through the door. From there, the focus will be on removing barriers so students can collaborate across disciplines, and access resources to develop those ideas as quickly as possible.
Making clear the distinction between innovation and entrepreneurship is also important to Furber and principal donor, Michael Crouch.“When we allow innovation and entrepreneurship to be interchangeable we run the risk of excluding the majority of staff and students whose innovative ideas and practice will not result in an entrepreneurial outcome, like a startup,” Furber says.
Professor Joe Cheng, the Michael Crouch Chair in Innovation based in UNSW’s Business School, agrees. “If we can just get students to be creative we are already on the right path,” he says. “A lot of students are still afraid to be innovative because they have all these pressures placed on them to meet certain standards and to conform to existing norms. We need to teach and encourage them to think in new ways and not worry about whether their new thinking will lead to a successful product or business.”
One permanent feature of the MCIC will be a maker space with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other machining tools, where teams of students can design and build physical prototypes.
“The University is getting on board with the idea that it’s good to have students able to access resources and facilities, to experiment, to design, and to conduct their own research and development,” says Create’s Adler. He thinks the MCIC will attract a lot of “outside interest from companies that want to find innovative students to test and develop their ideas”.
Martin Bliemel agrees and says it’s perhaps the biggest benefit. “It’s a win-win,” he says. “It’s low-cost consulting for industry, and it’s great experience for students. It will make it blatantly obvious that there are pockets of initiatives happening on campus that can be amplified.”
While students and their universities are taking the lead on innovation, they can’t do it alone. The 2014 Australian Innovation System Report, compiled by the federal Department of Industry, highlights some glaring weaknesses for Australia. Despite travelling in the middle of the pack compared with other OECD countries on most indicators, our number of new-to-market innovations has declined over the past decade, due, in part, to poor engagement between industry and publicly funded research, and a lack of financial incentives from government.
“One of the risks for Australia is that we don’t get right the connection between government, industry and our universities,” UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs said during the recent Risky Business public forum.
Professor Jacobs, who steered several of his own commercialisation projects relating to cancer treatment in the UK, says there’s “wonderful discovery work” in Australian universities. If this can be harnessed and commercialised, then “the opportunities for diversifying the economy to get beyond a mineral base are absolutely enormous”.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb, who has repeatedly warned we are falling behind on return from R&D investment. “The number of patents issued per dollar spent on R&D is nearly four times greater in the US and UK than Australia,” he said. “The number of startup companies founded per dollar spent on R&D in the US is nearly four times greater than in Australia; and in the UK, it’s over nine times that of Australia.”
Recognising this need to improve, UNSW Innovations has been helping researchers connect with industry. It ranks first out of 24 institutions in the world in Easy Access IP deals and has brokered creative, problem-solving “Sandpits” with Australian and international companies, leading to three research agreements with Cochlear, drug development firm Novogen, and building firm Boral.
“The University is a large organisation and often industry may want to innovate with us, but don’t know where to begin,” says Kevin Cullen, UNSW Innovations’ CEO. “Sandpits are a process of discovery to find out where our research interests overlap with the problems industry is facing.”
As to why Australian researchers are less willing than their US counterparts to engage directly with industry, UNSW Business Professor Joe Cheng suspects it is in part a silo mentality and also fears about compromising research integrity. But, he says, this attitude needs to be re-adjusted if Australia is to be more competitive.
Cheng has launched the Australian Innovation & Competitiveness Initiative at UNSW, which seeks to identify ways businesses can work with universities and government to innovate. On 18 September it will hold a summit to develop a research and engagement agenda to coincide with the official launch of the MCIC.
“This is the most excitingly disruptive, intriguingly subversive time to be alive,” Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the recent Risky Business forum. “We have never had so much uncertainty in our economic, geopolitical environment … and it’s driven in large measure, by the rapidity of technological change.”
Rather than being scared of this change, Turnbull urged the audience to embrace it. “That means we have to be smarter, more competitive, more productive, more technologically sophisticated, [and] better informed by science. If we equip ourselves in that way … then volatility becomes your friend, not your foe.”
One strategic area in which Australia has failed to engage is the space sector. “India sent a satellite to Mars for less than the cost of producing the film Gravity, and yet Australia hasn’t even launched a commercial CubeSat,” says student entrepreneur Solange Cunin.
She has support for her satellite ride-sharing company from Microsoft, through its BizSpark program, and is finalising her first major customer, but she’s facing an uphill battle.
It’s a struggle familiar to Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research director Professor Andrew Dempster. “Right now there’s no space industry, and there should be. There’s no electronics industry, and there could be,” he says. In partnership with Saber Astronautics director Jason Held, Dempster recently launched a business accelerator for space-related start-ups called Delta-V. The venture now has support from UNSW, the University of Sydney and NSW Trade & Investment.
Dempster says the goal is to create a space industry ecosystem in Sydney, and across Australia. “We have quality and quantity when it comes to engineering students and researchers,” he says. “We should be developing these students so they can create their own opportunities and businesses.”
Cunin is the prototype. “She’s exactly the type of person we’d love to support.”
UNSW’s creative legacy
Universities in the US, like MIT and Stanford, have set the gold standard for supporting innovation. In Australia, UNSW’s research strengths mark it out as the university most likely to succeed in a similar mould. UNSW has led the world in developing photovoltaic technology under the leadership of professors Martin Green and Stuart Wenham, resulting in a number of spin-off companies. The university also has strong programs in the fields of implantable prosthetics, materials and polymer sciences, and UNSW physicists and engineers are pioneering the world’s first scalable quantum computer.
UNSW has also established itself as one of the nation’s top universities when it comes to producing wealthy graduates and high-performing student startups. In 2013, data compiled by consulting company WealthInsight and Spear’s magazine revealed UNSW had more millionaire graduates than any other Australian university.
The “who’s who” of entrepreneur alumni includes Ori Allon, who sold his first two ventures to Google and Twitter respectively, and Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, the founders of software company Atlassian, who met at UNSW and are now estimated by Business Review Weekly to be worth more than $1 billion each. There’s also Danny Kennedy, a long-time environmental activist and the founder of clean energy company Sungevity in the US, and social entrepreneur Dorjee Sun.
An impressive list of rising stars is following in their footsteps. One is Alfred Boyadgis, a former Built Environment student whose Robocop-inspired motorcycle helmet won a silver medal at the 2013 James Dyson Award, a global competition dominated by UNSW design students. The 25-year-old is now commercialising another ‘intelligent’ helmet for the ski slopes. With the help of UNSW Innovations, Boyadgis and his team secured a government grant to establish Forcite Helmet Systems.
The friends also participated in the UNSW Startup Games, which helps bring student business ideas to life. “We learned how to pitch and develop a business plan and discover what investors think,” Boyadgis says.
Innovation: Can it be taught?
Innovation and entrepreneurship are engines for growth and job creation. But how do you teach them? An OECD report on Entrepreneurship in Education found some programs focus on starting businesses, while other programs strive to make “students more creative, opportunity oriented, proactive and innovative”.
UNSW’s ethos is to combine both. But defining, structuring and teaching these courses can be difficult, says Martin Bliemel, who lectures in Innovation and Entrepreneurship within UNSW’s Business School and who is the faculty’s liaison with the new Michael Crouch Innovation Centre (MCIC).
“It’s not like learning to build a bridge where you need to understand the mechanical properties of the materials and each component, then learn how components fit together and build up your knowledge layer by layer,” Bliemel says. “You need to know everything in almost equal parts … marketing, finance, HR, product development, and you need to know a little bit of psychology as well.” To get around the challenge of sequencing the course content, Bliemel is making all material available from week one, and has adopted a more dynamic “flipped-classroom model” where students learn by doing.
Class activities usually involve input from an industry representative, to reinforce that the concepts and tools they’re learning are relevant, says Bliemel. His course is a popular elective and will be complemented by a new Global Entrepreneurship course he is launching in the second half of the year.
Also in the pipeline is a massive online open course (MOOC) in innovation and entrepreneurship, developed by a team Bliemel is leading, which students can be directed to by the MCIC as a fundamental starting point.
Read more about UNSW's successful student startups.