If you were to pick a place to launch an augmented reality startup six years ago, there’s a good chance the remote Australian town of Jabiru — hours out of Darwin — would not have been your first choice.
But that didn’t deter Mikaela Jade from establishing her startup Indigitial in 2012. The goal was to bring augmented and mixed reality to Australia’s Indigenous communities, telling their stories on country through these new and emerging technologies.
Indigital’s products include a line of t-shirts and postcards, emblazoned with Aboriginal art that comes alive when paired with the startup’s mobile application. But the company also creates applications for other businesses and is currently working with Microsoft to tell the story of Namande — the 60,000-year-old figure of the Kakadu national park — using the tech giant’s HoloLens product.
“When we started we did everything with mobile tech as it’s the most accessible platform we have access to in Kakadu, and while we’re continuing to develop with mobile with the support of Microsoft, we’re able to put these 3D lifesize holograms on country,” Jade told StartupSmart.
The startup is also working with traditional owners in the community to create holograms of themselves talking about their stories in their own language, and Jade says Indigital’s overarching goal is to constantly push the boundaries of what mixed reality technology can do.
“I’ve always wanted to tell stories on country through augmented reality, it’s just taken a while for the tech to catch up with my vision,” she says.
Technology’s limitation hasn’t been Indigital’s only stumbling block. Working to bring the startup to life in 2012 saw Jade faced with the huge mission of explaining to the Indigenous communities she worked with how mixed reality works and how it could empower Aboriginal storytelling.
“That’s one of the biggest limitations of the tech, you have to see it to understand it. That also makes it really hard to go viral,” she laughs.
“You need to either have access to the site or access to one of our postcards or shirts. That’s why we created the postcards in the first place to help it get more adoption in the broader community.”
Although she acknowledges it’s been a long journey, Jade says she thought it would have been all up and running long before now.
But even as more Australians became familiar with augmented and mixed reality technology, Indigital ran into another hurdle midway through 2016: the release of massively popular mobile app, Pokemon Go.
“Suddenly everyone was pointing our app all around the landscape and expecting to see things pop out, and they were getting confused with how to use it,” she says.
“I do think the widespread use of Pokemon Go did help with mixed reality adoption a bit. Even up here you’d see people looking for Pokemon in cultural places like Kakadu, which made me think about the cultural context of mixed reality.”
On building a startup remotely…
Jade had worked in the public service since she was 18, working with various conservation services around Australia including Queensland Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Agriculture. During that time she began developing Indigital’s mixed reality technology, before finally leaving her roles in the public service in 2012 to focus directly on the startup.
From the start, Indigital was just like any other early-stage startup, hungry for funding and eyes firmly set on growth. But Jade was left frustrated with the process of getting investment, as numerous investors told her the company was “high-risk” for being a remote, Indigenous-focused company.
Today she’s less fussed and recognises why investors turned down her pleas.
“All I had was a prototype, and I barely had the confidence to go talk to the investment community,” Jade says.
Looking for other ways to fund the business led Jade to start a full-time job, which allowed Indigital to stay on its feet, but now the company is ready to keep scaling and Jade is again on the hunt for investors.
“At the moment we’re in a place now where we’ve got the platform, we’ve got process, and we’re comfortable with how we handle IP and moral rights. I’m looking at investment opportunities now because we need to scale,” she says.
Low representation of Indigenous people in tech
In somewhat of an understatement, Jade also says Australia does “not have an incredible number of Indigenous people in the tech space”. Greater representation, especially of Indigenous women, has been called for many years, and some progress has begun with the opening of numerous Indigenous-focused innovation hubs and programs.
That’s all well and good for 2018, but when Jade started her business in Kakadu six years ago, she was essentially left to fend for herself. The nature of Indigital, and the sector it operates in, effectively meant no one had done anything similar to the startup before.
“We were an early adopter and a first mover, which is great, but it made it really tricky to navigate. I had to work out how to do it by myself, there was essentially no one I could look at to see how other companies do it,” she says.
“I’m lucky these days to be working with companies like Microsoft who sees this tech as the future.”
Jade has also been recently named as the winner of the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award, which recognises the success of up and coming female entrepreneurs under the age of 40. She was up against fierce competition, including the likes of Jane Lu and Hayley Bonham.
Jade calls the award a massive mark of validation for Indigital and her journey so far, and admits she wasn’t expecting to be the person to win the award.
“This means my idea is a good idea. I’ve known it was a good idea for six years and the community I’ve worked with has know it for six months, so this kind of gives everyone else permission to see it’s a good idea,” she says.
“It’s fantastic exposure as well. It’s really pushed me to the next level.”
On the future of Indigital…
Asked if her experience with Indigital has changed her perspective on what it means to be a startup founder, Jade laughs, and emphatically agrees.
“I’m not only trying to develop tech that didn’t exist a few years ago in an industry that’s absolutely ripe for disruption, but we had challenges we had to overcome that other startups didn’t have to deal with,” she says.
“We didn’t have the innovation community, we didn’t have other startups to provide that support. I was in the Sydney startup hub [recently] where there’s such camaraderie, and we didn’t have that; I had to invent it by stalking people on LinkedIn and building those networks online.”
“We’re still focused on how to push tech for the betterment of the Indigenous community across Australia, and I feel so lucky to be part of this community.”