My best budget: Aaron Hornlimann, co-founder and chief executive at Elenium

Elenium

This week SmartCompany is speaking to key members of the small business and startup communities to find out what they want to see in next week’s budget. This is the sixth instalment of the series, which will be published throughout the week.

Resiliency, a valuable trait in any startup founder, has become essential over the past two years.

Aaron Hornlimann, co-founder and chief executive at Elenium Automation knows this better than most. The startup, which focuses on automating airport technology, was forced to pivot its business in the face of long term border closures and reduced air traffic.

But moves to diversify, including implementing the tech outside of airports to sporting stadiums, hospitals and aged care — along with taking steps to maintain strong communication with existing airport customers, have seen the startup maintain its forward momentum.

Elenium won a further $10 million investment in December 2021, and tapped ANZ director Paula Dwyer to lead its board.

Hornlimann wants to see Australia’s talent pool expand so that high growth companies can power ahead. As the federal budget approaches, he shares key areas where the government can help Australia take business risks again.

What is your single biggest business challenge?

Hiring suitable talent continues to cause the biggest headaches, Hornlimann tells SmartCompany.

With 80% of Elenium’s costs going toward its workforce, it’s imperative it has access to top tech talent to continue growing the business.

The startup’s technology is also highly specialised. A key element of Elenium’s tech is VYGR, a comprehensive suite of biometric products for airports including touchless check-in, automated boarding and virtual assistance.

Adding to workforce costs is the ongoing crunch on tech talent that’s leading to a fight over local workers, and the slow rate of return to the country by skilled visa holders.

“Not having immigration come in is another drag, that’s placing additional cost pressures,” Hornlimann says.

With international borders finally reopening after almost two years of closures, another challenge has been brain drain in the aviation industry. 

“There’s a lot of that intellectual property that was out there that we, you know, would rely on the past that isn’t there anymore,” he says, driven by ongoing uncertainty about the future of the industry.

What is the most important thing the government can do to help you?

Creating the best possible conditions to nurture and grow Australia’s tech workforce is the best way the federal government can support Elenium.

Hornlimann wants the government to smooth the available pathways for companies to sponsor overseas workers.

“It’s really policy around immigration to get people back into the country,” he says.

While he praises the country’s approach to protecting its citizens during the pandemic, Hornlimann says it’s time for the government to supercharge its policies to make Australia an attractive place to work.

The success of our COVID-19 strategy “gives us an opportunity to attract people to come to Australia, because they see it as a good place to come to businesses”.

“People want to deal with Australian companies, because they see that it’s a stable environment with a strong economy,” he says.

How do you rate the chances of getting what you want from the budget?

Elenium increased its revenue by 60%, over the last 12 months, in spite of the drastic impacts on the aviation industry.

Hornlimann says this shows the resilience of Australia’s startup community to adapt to challenges without the government support others in the airline industry have received.

But he’s optimistic the government will be looking to create the right environment for Australian businesses to charge ahead now that international borders are open.

“I think the right economics settings and policy settings to … allow us to grow quickly for us to be able to export again” will be important, he says.

Hornlimann says a key focus this year is exploring how his company can drive more revenue opportunities for airlines, but is waiting to see what the government may do to help accelerate business growth that has been hampered by closed borders and supply chain issues.

“I can’t overstate how a lot of our economy has really been internally facing for the last two years,” he says.

“We really want to smash that open, and a government that recognises that there is a moment in time opportunity for Australia to grow even faster than pre-COVID, that’s absolutely going to attract my interest.”

What keeps you awake at night?

As one of the growing number of Australians able to resume international travel in recent months, Hornlimann says he noticed many parts of the world have a renewed energy and drive within the business community.

He worries that Australia has maintained its ‘Fortress Australia’ mentality for such a long time it will be hard to shake off.

“I had my first international trip a few weeks ago … in the Middle East. And I just found that there was a different vibe there.

 “It’s like they’re trying to grab the bull by the horns,” he says.

“They’re really investing in infrastructure. They’re really investing in their own economies to set themselves up for the future.”

Hornlimann doesn’t see these conversations happening locally and thinks there’s a place for the government to “set the tone” with a budget filled with optimism and vision for Australia’s economic future.

“We’ve got to change that mindset and conversation toward what can we do to actually really drive forward?”

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