From zero to 200 startups in 24 months at UNSW

The title of this article is a little misleading as start-ups have been coming out of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) for many years.


However, in the last two years something different has been going on at UNSW to encourage, support and champion over 200 new start-up projects led by students or recent alumni.


There is no solid data to know for sure, but we have a hunch that this is the highest number of start-ups from any university during a two-year period nation-wide. It’s almost certainly more than any other two-year period in the history of UNSW.


So what are we doing differently?


1. Know the role of the university within the start-up ecosystem


There is a trend in Australia to take a proven or traditional accelerator program model and replicate it on a university campus. Now this model certainly has merit and has its place in the ecosystem.


In our case, we saw an abundance of excellent accelerator programs within 15-minute drive of our campus, so recreating the same model on campus would not be creating a new value proposition for our student entrepreneurs.


More likely, it would attract the start-ups who did not get into the city-based brand name programs and the mentors that did not get chosen by the well-established programs using the same model.


We see the role of the university in this ecosystem as primarily for providing cross-faculty (read complementary skill sets), “learning by doing” experiences for self-selected students with a real interest in entrepreneurship. It is to fill the gap between first-time entrepreneurs still studying (or recently graduated) and teams with validated ideas who are at the point where they are finally ready to pitch for entry into an accelerator program.


No one is knocking an on-campus accelerator, but if a university doesn’t have resources and programs in the “pre-accelerator” space I describe above then the university is trying to pick winners and focus on the six or 12 start-ups that win entry into the accelerator model program each year whilst excluding the hundreds – or thousands – of other students from much more than an invitation to demo day.


2. Student entrepreneurs need a few basic but solid things to work towards their first failure, aka real learning


(a) A sounding board (not consultant) with a network to introduce mentors, service providers or other useful people and organisations


(b) To feel part of a larger community, a micro-ecosystem that is full of students at the very same stage, facing similar challenges along the entrepreneur journey, but also someone a little behind or further ahead in this journey for casual communication of real value to take place.


3. Student entrepreneur wins and challenges need to be celebrated as a group


One of the best things we ever did was create a closed social media group exclusively for student entrepreneurs working on live projects. We are participants more than administrators and with a few hundred members the group is now a go-to place for help requests, co-founder hunting, mentor requests and other exchanges that may not be as appropriate in more public forums. It took some encouragement but now the group has a life of its own.


This list is just touching the surface, but it’s where we started. It’s an experiment for us that is working well and it feels like we are just warming up.


Joshua Flannery is Student Entrepreneur Development, International Education


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