LaunchVic’s $2.4 million boost to regional startups could kick-start Ballarat’s tech boom

Dark Shadow Studios co-founders Reece Griffin (far left) and Casey Thomas (far right) with gaming veteran Andy Hess lanuchvic

Dark Shadow Studios co-founders Reece Griffin (far left) and Casey Thomas (far right) with gaming veteran Andy Hess. Source: Supplied

LaunchVic is investing $2.4 million to accelerate startups based in regional and outer-metropolitan parts of Victoria, and one founder says it could be the beginning of Ballarat’s startup boom.

The $2.4 million from LaunchVic, the state government’s agency responsible for supporting the startup ecosystem, will fund 15 projects spanning 26 local government areas, including bootcamps, mentoring programs, meetups, hackathons, masterclasses and workshops.

The projects are intended to boost innovation in regional Victoria, partly as a response to LaunchVic’s Mapping Victoria’s Startup Ecosystem report from last year, which found that 97% of Victorian startups are based in inner-city Melbourne.

Casey Thomas, co-founder of Ballarat-based virtual reality gaming startup Dark Shadow Studio, tells StartupSmart that being in the 3% is no easy ride.

Dark Shadow was founded in 2016 by Thomas and co-founder Reece Griffin off the back of a university project, and has been bootstrapped since.

While Thomas had previously worked as a hairdresser, a tattoo artist, a massage therapist and even a dental assistant, she says she always found herself getting bored and “nothing would stick”.

“It was very repetitive,” she says. “In game design, it’s a completely different world. You can build anything, create anything — the sky’s the limit.”

What startups want

Having completed an online games design course with the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, Thomas then travelled to Melbourne to do an additional business management course with the academy. It was here that the founders first created their flagship game Drone Legion: a virtual-reality enabled drone racing game.

But back in Ballarat and after trying to get her fledgling startup off the ground, Thomas found that while there were a few courses available for founders, for her, they would have covered a lot of old ground.

Earlier this year, LaunchVic announced a $2.9 million investment into educating and upskilling Victorian startup founders, however Thomas says in the areas she felt she needed support, she couldn’t find it.

“I would have loved some more support around legal advice, IP and how to protect your company,” she says.

Equally, she says, sometimes it comes down to cold hard cash. Evan a small cash injection would have been helpful, she says.

“I’m not really money-driven, I just want to get a great product out there,” she says.

“If it came down to it and my team got paid but I didn’t, that would be fine.”

Thomas says she has “a knowledge gap” when it comes to writing submissions for other available funding opportunities, and could use some advice on “the things you need to have, or need to say”.

In gaming startups particularly, “you don’t really see any profit until the game is released”.

“You’re not just making a product and selling it to people,” she says.

“You don’t want to hold on to your project forever … but you don’t want to release it too early and have it be terrible.”

It’s this that has stopped Thomas from working shared office space or entering accelerator programs, which can quickly become costly.

“If it’s coming out of my back pocket, it’s going to be really hard,” she says.

That said, Thomas does see the value of bringing hackathons and workshops to Ballarat, and “trying to do a mini version of what Melbourne is doing”, in order to “bring more people into the tech world”.

Speaking to StartupSmart, LaunchVic chief executive Kate Cornick says the new funding program is not about investing in individual startups, but about investing “in infrastructure that supports the growth of the ecosystem”.

“We want to build local entrepreneurial communities across our regions through this funding, to ensure Victoria has the most connected entrepreneurial ecosystem in the country,” she says.

Launch Vic Kate Cornick victorian economy

LaunchVic’s Kate Cornick. Source: Supplied

Building a community

In Ballarat specifically, LaunchVic is planning to launch a program of meetups, hackathons, classes and co-working trials, under the banner of STARTUP BALLARAT. Aimed at early-stage startups, the program is designed to help build a community, while also attracting more founders and investment.

Thomas says a stronger community would be very welcome. As a female startup founder in Ballarat, she says she can get “very lonely”, with “no one I can really talk to”.

While Melbourne is home to female-focused startup initiatives such as Sarah Moran’s Girl Geek Academy, which organises events and catch-ups, “you don’t get to do that in Ballarat at the moment”.

The same goes for finding support from specialist lawyers or advisors — most of these people are in Melbourne, Thomas says.

“There’s no one I can just go to down the road and ask for help and catch up for a coffee like you can in Melbourne,” she says.

Cornick says this is partly what the funding intends to address.

“Connectedness is a big issue,” she says.

“We are investing in programs that will support regional entrepreneurs to connect to other entrepreneurs, as well as meet mentors and investors.”

According to Thomas, having more of a startup community in regional Australia could ultimately lead to more support from venture capital investors, most of whom are also in the capital cities.

With a limited track record to speak of, VC firms are likely to see Dark shadows as “a risk”, Thomas says. A kind word or endorsement from someone who knows the startup could give it a little more credibility, she says.

But, Thomas has high hopes that the new LaunchVic programs will improve the startup ecosystem in Ballarat, saying there’s “going to be a startup boom here”.

“Victoria leading the way in technology is great. Keeping it where we live is great,” she says.

Cornick says the ideal situation would be to see the number of entrepreneurs in outer-metropolitan and regional areas reflect the population in those areas, bringing that 3% up to about 30%.

Already, at the Ballarat Tech School, which opened earlier this year and where Thomas works part-time, students have the opportunity to learn about technology, virtual reality and the possibility of creating a career in whatever they’re passionate about.

“Startups are really amazing because someone has a different or unique business idea that makes jobs for other people in the industry,” says Thomas.

For children who are good at art, there’s an opportunity to work as an animator or digital artist, and those who ace IT aren’t limited to tech support, they can be programmers or code video games.

“We’re giving them the opportunities we didn’t have when we were younger,” Thomas says.

NOW READ: LaunchVic awards $1.4 million in funding to startups supporting migrants and refugee entrepreneurs


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