Aussie accelerator Startmate is seeing an uptick in applicants and participants as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive activity in the tech sector. And as the team unveils its ambitions for the Startmate City of 1 million inhabitants, it’s becoming clear they’re only just getting started.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Startmate chief Michael Batko says the accelerator is fielding more applications than ever before, as well as increasing demand for its newer fellowship programs, designed to get people into startup jobs.
Pre-COVID, the accelerator was receiving about 600 applications each year. Now, that’s more like 1,000, he says.
Startmate used to invest in about 20 companies each year. Now, that has doubled.
The fellowship programs are also growing. The Women’s Fellowship cohorts used to be between 10 and 20 people, he says. Now they’re running with 100 people per cohort, and two cohorts per year.
The newer Student’s Fellowship is also growing, and the Founders’ Fellowship has just launched for the first time.
Within the next year, between 1,000 and 2,000 people are expected to come through a Startmate program of some sort.
With regards to the core Startmate accelerator program, Batko partly puts the increase in interest down to the fact that COVID-19 forced the program online, which actually made it more accessible to more people.
But he believes there are also more businesses out there launching startups and looking to take them to the next step.
There are also more people hoping to find a career in something they’re passionate about, which is driving demand for the fellowship programs.
But all of this is just small fry. Batko and the team have revealed ambitions to build what they are calling Startmate City — a community of innovators and investors working together to grow the tech ecosystem and the economy more broadly.
And when Batko says ‘city’, he means a literal city. A physical metropolis that’s home to 1 million people (for starters), with its own local governance and legislation.
The plan is to start laying bricks within the next three years.
“The whole idea is to bring the three core ingredients of the startup ecosystem into one place — the epicentre of startup ambition.”
Those ingredients are the founders themselves, the ‘operators’, or the people working within those businesses, and the investors.
“If you bring them nice and close together … the ideas collide, ambitions collide and good things happen.”
“Conversations are starting”
Batko does acknowledge that creating a physical city may seem a little counterintuitive right now, given that half of Australia is in lockdown and largely working from home.
“But the fact still remains that the physical infrastructure around you makes such a massive impact on your life,” he says.
It’s about building networks and connections, and being in the proximity of innovation, he explains.
Also, working from home means it’s easier to choose where you live based on the lifestyle you want. It makes sense to relocate in order “to form those kinds of networks and connections”.
A city also requires a local government, which in this case would be designed to make business easier, to make experimentation for startups easier, and to bring in strong immigration rights, making it easier to bring in international talent.
When asked whether this is something of a comment on existing state and federal legislation, Batko assures me that it is not.
Australia is not necessarily a difficult place to run a business, he says.
“But what if we can make it even easier?”
And he hasn’t met with any resistance yet. In fact, Batko says that within the past couple of days, he’s had more than one state or territory reach out to start discussions about hosting the shiny new city.
“The vision is out in the world,” he says.
“The conversations are starting.”
The COVID-19 effect
It’s been an interesting 18 months in Australia’s startup ecosystem. While we know many businesses are struggling to stay afloat, many tech companies are thriving.
At all stages, VC money seems to be pouring in.
Partly, Batko puts the growth in the sector down to tech companies providing some of the core infrastructure that keeps other businesses up and running, as well as providing innovations that can help them streamline operations or cut costs in a difficult environment.
We’ve also heard stories of people who lost permanent roles due to the pandemic, and doubled down on their side hustle or launched something completely new instead.
That trend is evident in Startmate’s Founders Fellowship program, Batko notes.
It’s a new program, with a cohort of about 100 people looking to meet co-founders and bring their business visions to life.
“It shows you that people are seeking those opportunities and businesses are actually starting within the pandemic,” he says.
“There’s never been an easier and better time to start a startup.”