Griffin hopes to be the catalyst for new accelerators in Canberra startup ecosystem
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Craig Davis meets with visitors at Entry29, home of the Griffin Accelerator, in 2015 (image, @GRIFFINAcc on Twitter)

The Aussie capital is more than just a political center, with four major universities and a city government dedicated to raising the town’s tech profile

Canberra doesn’t typically get mentioned among Australia’s hippest startup centers. The bulk of tech is in Sydney and Melbourne, followed then Perth along with some representation from Brisbane and Adelaide. But now it seems like the Australian Capital Territory is playing catch up and getting its feet firmly planted on digital ground.

The Griffin Accelerator may be an indication of some of that progress. Having just closed the application process for its third cycle last week, Griffin is the most established resource center for startups in the Australian capital.

“A couple of the other founders came up with the initial idea. There are a lot of good things happening in Canberra,” Craig Davis, co-founder at Griffin, tells Geektime. His foray into entrepreneurship started thanks to an online business his wife launched. That slowly pulled him away from his educational background in physics and propulsion and their success eventually led him to be one of the leaders of Canberra’s angel community. He is now the director two years running for Canberra’s Capital Angels.

“I think Canberra is in a long-term transition away from being exclusively government (B2G). There is a dynamic public sector based on smart people from four high-quality universities. There’s always more you can do but actually I’m pretty excited by the progress.”

Eyes to the sky and digital government


Indeed, Canberra is trying to diversify its local economy. Government services are a clear winner here, and some companies would be hard-pressed to have their first or primary office located in another city if that’s their business. The city is focusing on a few industries: space and satellites; defense and security; digital economy and e-government; health and sports science; and tourism infrastructure.

Municipal trade promo arm Invest Canberra promises virtually all Australian citizen services will be digitized by 2017 and also boasts the city has 13,500 jobs in digital solutions and e-government. Twenty-five percent of national government expenditure in digitizing public services is in companies within the capital according to the city’s trade promotional arm Invest Canberra.

A small tech scene with a capital vibe

Once a month, the city’s tech scene lights up with First Wednesday Connect. Some 200 people typically show up, claims Davis, but there isn’t much traffic from other accelerators. Why? Well, Griffin is the only one. Specifically startup-oriented resources are still scarce. Griffin is flanked by the Kiln Incubator, the Lighthouse Business Innovation Centre, CBR Innovation Network and EntrepreneurshipUC.

“There’s been a fairly active angel investing team in Canberra for 10 years actually, as well as a couple quite well-established boutique VC funds.” Those schools Davis mentioned earlier include National ICT Australia (NICTA), the University of Canberra, the University of New South Wales and Australian National University (ANU).  ANU itself is a prolific investor with both ANU Connect Ventures and the Discovery Translation Fund active in the community.

The city’s priorities aren’t the accelerator’s, however.

Griffin’s best include Enabled Employment, a placement agency dedicated specifically to disabled veterans and advocacy. Their portfolio also includes computer vision startup OzGuild, designer marketplace Made for Me, Indigenous-owned cosmetics company Dilkara Essence, big data storage and analysis startup SymberraHact, myBUZZ App, SignOnSite, Solar BareQuizling, and Snapknock.

Davis would love to go back to his roots and get more space-oriented companies into the fold, which dovetails with the city’s priorities.

Adelaide hosts the 2017 International Astronautical Congress, making it a good time to get in on that scene. But if you didn’t notice, these aren’t all startups relying on hi-tech algorithms and the latest cyber security solutions.  The accelerator is not willing to prioritize any industry over another at this point. Who passes muster at Griffin depends on the merits of the applicants and their potential for success.

“We looked at some verticals and have particularly strong areas, like B2G and the sport industry with the Australia Institute of Sport in Canberra. My view is it’s better off focusing on the stage and the business value added.”

Sydney and Melbourne’s venture capitalists make it out to Canberra more often than you realize

Canberra Civic viewed from Mount Ainslie with Lake Burley Griffin and Mount Stromlo in the background. (CC BY SA 3.0 Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons)

Canberra Civic viewed from Mount Ainslie with Lake Burley Griffin and Mount Stromlo in the background. (CC BY SA 3.0 Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons)

The new accelerator cycle will add between five and eight new companies to its 11 alumni, but the indefinite number owes to the decision resting with the investors and mentors themselves on who gets in. It is still a small ecosystem, and the challenge is finding companies that are going to be worth the time and money.

Each participant that makes it in will receive AU $25,000 at the cost of the accelerator taking 10% equity in each company.

In a city of 400,000, it is picking up on a lot of the same advantages that Washington D.C. has for its businesses: plentiful traffic from investors and people connected to the government. He says there are two main things to keep in mind that give Canberrans an unusual point of strength for such a small ecosystem (and small city in general). Firstly, a lot of investors come through Canberra for other purposes, usually government business. Secondly, when there’s a quality deal, those investors will go out of their way to invest.

“It’s slightly controversial, but if you look at the numbers, the capital amounts in Australia are pretty low. I’m really focused on developing the best deals and that’s a harder challenge than finding capital.”

Why is that significant? Australia overall is a small ecosystem, so VCs are on the prowl across the country.

“I think the high-quality startups are attracting enough funding and some of that is coming from here in Canberra. It’s probably more often we take them to the investors in Sydney or Melbourne,” than we invite the investors here, Davis iterates.

But, “We get quite a few people.”

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