Wednesday 4 May 2016 4:44 pm

Work in tech, bored of London? Forget Silicon Valley, try Australia

Tech entrepreneur Oli Madgett and his wife Tara recently decided to swap London for South Australia. The weather, beaches, and wine played their part but the city’s growing reputation as a tech hub was crucial.

As London’s ‘Here East’ starts to establish itself here’s how our Aussie cousins are doing it.

Go big or go home

For the average Brit, South Australia is known for one thing – wine. The industry is worth a cool £9bn a year. But after the devastating collapse in mining and manufacturing, the other mainstays of South Australia’s economy, and with unemployment at 7.7 per cent the South Australian government is betting big on tech and innovation to drive the jobs of the future.

The government has opted for a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy, investing a huge AU$253m to build a world-beating tech and innovation hub on the outskirts of Adelaide. Similar to London’s ‘Here East’ which is transforming the former Olympic Media Centre, with it’s cutting-edge communications infrastructure, Adelaide’s Tonsley centre has taken the huge 11 hectare former Mitsubishi manufacturing plant and transformed it into Australia’s most advanced tech and innovation hub.

Concentrate on what you’re good at

Unlike London and the other big tech players like Berlin, Stockholm, and of course Silicon Valley, Adelaide is starting largely from scratch. Where as the tech and innovation scene in cities like London emerged organically in the back streets of Shoreditch and Old Street, Adelaide’s tech and innovation industry is being built with laser-like focus, concentrating on the five areas where they believe they have genuine market advantages – those being health, medical devices and assistive technologies; cleantech and renewable energy; software and simulation; and mining and energy services.

The focus seems to be delivering – the hub now boasts a stable of startups and small businesse plus Siemens, the German engineering giant, has already moved much of its regional R&D team into the site, with at least one other major global business on the verge of announcing its relocation to Tonsley imminently. Flinders University has also opened a campus onsite focusing on engineering and technology innovation that can directly impact the sectors Tonsley is supporting. The partnership has yielded breakthroughs in everything from portable x-ray units, and hand-held ultrasounds to nano-technology to help surgeons with their training.

Its not all about the money…

When it comes to money, Adelaide has a long way to go to catch up with London – our tech firms raised a whapping £1.1bn in investment in the first nine months of last year alone. But while London is awash with seed funding and tech hubs, powering an amazing startup scene in the capital, our record at building big, sustainable tech businesses is patchier. Adelaide wants to avoid that model and Innovyz, hopes to be one of the antidotes.

The incubator doesn’t just offer seed funding or free office space and connections, it helps small businesses develop their product and build a successful team to bring it to market from start to finish. The organisation has moved onto the Tonsley site and has helped over 45 businesses to develop with probably their biggest success to date being the global welding company K-Tig. Innovyz worked with the business from idea stage building it up into a multimillion-dollar business. For the South Australia Government this is the dream, to create the environment where small ideas can turn into huge business and huge employers.

From Tooting to Tonsley

For Oli and his family the opportunity to live in South Australia and yet still be at the cutting edge of tech and innovation was too good to miss. From co-founding the pioneering social entertainment company We R Interactive here in London he now spends his days working at Tonsley where he is building his next venture, a new agritech startup called Platfarm, which is developing a range of high tech greenhouses that use a combination of solar energy and sea water to create the best conditions for growing crops in arid coastal areas. He misses things about London but the blend of lifestyle and business opportunities more than makes up for it.

The Tonsley model is by no means an outright success story. The site aims to employ over 6000 people with thousands more indirectly employed as part of the hub’s ecosystem. They are nowhere near that target yet. The investment climate is also simply not as big as that in Europe or the US. And Adelaide, with its tiny population, is still struggling to lure the kind of top-talent that drives innovative companies. Melbourne and Sydney let alone London and Silicon Valley still have thousands more minds to draw on.

But the Tonsley project and the scale of it is already hugely impressive – the leaders of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project could do worse than take a few tips on how to re-ignite an economy from their South Australian counterparts. And who knows, in the future we might be using their apps as well as drinking their wine.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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