Reverse Brain Drain: Searching the world to bring student entrepreneurs to Aussie shores

I have two really strong passions in my work life. One is student entrepreneurship and the other is international education. When these two worlds cross, I get excited.


There has been endless talk of the problems and issues related to young Australian entrepreneurs leaving Australia – usually the most exciting startups prove their business models are able to scale beyond our shores. Two startups I have worked closely with in the last 18 months, Conscious Step and Couchelo have done just this – to New York and Singapore respectively.


But what can Australia do to attract talent back to its startup ecosystem? And how?


With recent government cuts to funding programs, it may be a stretch to rely on financial incentives. Our accelerator and incubator scene is getting stronger and stronger with time, but this is happening across the globe simultaneously too. So there is limited scope for building new, uniquely Australian competitive advantages with new programs.


We do have a reputation for nice weather working in our favour.


But are sun, surf and sand alone enough to attract seriously talented entrepreneurs or startups to Australia? Probably not.


So if the money is not here, the support programs are yelling “me too” and our beautiful beaches are not enough to attract top-notch startups, then perhaps we are looking for solutions too late in the cycle. Perhaps we should take a step back and look at who IS actually coming to Australia and why.


This is where my two worlds cross over because I can see potential opportunity for our Australian startup ecosystem in tapping into an incredibly successful machine that exports Australian education programs by recruiting international students to study at our tertiary education institutions. That machine lives in the international marketing and recruitment efforts of our universities, TAFEs and other private tertiary education providers.


We have an opportunity to translate international student recruitment into “global startup talent scouting for startups”. The best thing about this concept for me is that we are already trialling it – and it works.


Earlier this month, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) ran a roadshow of events across several cities in China. One of the key themes marketed in the lead-up to, and during, the events was the opportunity to tap into a deep and sincere support service, programs and events aimed at giving students who move to Sydney for their study the best possible chance of succeeding as an entrepreneur (or failing fast) and most importantly “learning by doing”.


We ran a competition for potential students who were given an opportunity to pitch a startup idea and the winner was awarded with thousands of dollars in services available for use once the startup is up and running on campus.


The competition encouraged students, some of whom were already running startups, to consult with us regarding what type of support and what opportunities were available for them if they were to pursue the big move over to Australia. And some of these students were brilliant.


The result of this exercise is two-fold. For the university, services and programs for startups are being leveraged as a carrot to attract more students, more entrepreneurial students and to help solidify the university position in the market as “the place to go for entrepreneurial students, regardless of study focus area”.


Secondly, for the local startup ecosystem we are, in effect, scouting for global talent that will enhance the ecosystem in which the university is so entrenched. A live example of this is the young man I presented a prize to in Shanghai last week for his startup idea, which is based on a successful business he is working on in China for several years to date. I look forward to being a part of a process that plugs him and many others into our startup ecosystem over the coming years.


Does this model counter the many Australian startups we have lost to Silicon Valley? Not yet, but we’re just getting started.


Joshua Flannery is the manager of Student Entrepreneur Development, International Education, UNSW


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