Catalysing Early-stage Ventures in Western Australia

Team Start-up Mates: Lien Nguyen, Shwetali Sinkar, Hillary Yee

Backstory

Team Start-up Mates was very intrigued when they first heard about this ‘special’ summer start-up tour in Australia this year.

Western Australia (WA) would be one of the places far from the top of our list when we think about bustling start-up scenes in the world. Mining, energy, and agriculture are what came to our minds when we thought about Western Australia.

Curious to find out more about the start-ups in Western Australia, we sent in our application.

And we got selected alongside Team Quokka to go to Perth!

Preparation

In designing our study and learning objectives, our team decided to take an approach that was more focused on start-ups in the sustainability, renewable/green tech, and circular economy space. Our initial hypothesis was there would be significant growth potential for start-ups in the sustainability space as the large mining companies and industries in WA are moving towards their ESG goals. 

As we are gearing up for the trip, we started to do some more desk research to learn that there are quite well-known players in the space, such as Powerledger and Hazer Group.

But there are only a handful of companies in the sustainability space, so we had to expand our scope to get a more holistic view of the start-up ecosystem, and we included other innovative start-ups, VCs and angel investors in our contact lists as well.

And the tour itself….

Team Start-up Mates kickstarted the tour on the third week of July. We spent the next three weeks talking to around 25 start-up founders, VCs, investors, and community leaders. While we were there, we also represented INSEAD at a rather high-profile MOU signing between INSEAD and JTSI, which is the Department of Jobs, Tourism, and Innovation, our sponsor for the tour.

I would like to section this blog post with a few highlights of the notable sustainability start-ups in WA that stood out to us and may be of interest to the INSEAD community. And along with that, our overall insights from the tour and the overview of the WA start-up ecosystem.

1. Do you know that you can make plastic from seaweed?

Nestled just on the expansive Cottesloe Beach shoreline at the Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre, ULUU is a start-up developing its technology to commercialise and create fully biodegradable and carbon-negative plastic alternatives from seaweed.

Founded by Julia Reisser, a marine scientist, and Michael Kingsbury, an ex-mining executive and lawyer, ULUU is aiming to tackle climate change by 1) providing a biodegradable plastic alternative, 2) commercialising seaweed production – as it absorbs a lot of CO2, 3) tackling nutrient pollution in oceans – as seaweed removes nitrogen and phosphorus from the water.

INSEAD MBA summer startup tour
Hillary with a seaweed-made plastic chip and film at ULUU’s office

It was super cool to see the scientists working in their labs, and we even got to see some of the sample products (plastic film and a plastic chip) that they have made here.

We could see the round plastic chip easily adapted to be used as a button in clothing, and the film to be used in binders and stationery.

2. Applying blockchain to enable smarter and more efficient energy trading and distribution

Founded by Dr. Jemma Green, an ex-banker turned sustainability researcher, Powerledger develops solutions for tracking, tracing, and trading renewable energy. It is one of the most well-known start-ups based out of WA, and it is serving clients internationally across 12 different countries as of now.

Its clients range from large-scale renewable energy providers to property and real estate developers. It’s remarkable to see the bustling energy of this start-up in its head office which is located in a beautiful heritage building on St. George’s terrace.

INSEAD Summer Startup Tour
Hillary, Dr. Jemma Green, and Shwetali at Powerledger’s head office in downtown Perth


3. Sustainability in a jar!

We met up with Mark Rheinlander, the CEO of Carbon 280 – a pioneer in the hydrogen transportation and storage game.

Hydrogen is one of the most viable clean energy alternatives, especially for high carbon-emitting sectors.

The challenge to hydrogen is transportation and storage: compressing hydrogen and liquifying hydrogen – a very light and flammable gas – is costly and dangerous. Carbon280 Hydrilyte™ Hydrogen Storage Systems is revolutionising the space with Hydrilyte – a multi-patented liquid suspension of metal particles that safely bond to hydrogen.

Hydrilyte can be stored at normal temperature and pressure until it reaches its end user: indeed, we got to see Mark pour Hydrilite from one mason jar to another. This could have resulted in an explosion if stored using the traditional methodology!

Hydrogen Storage Systems
We were at awe as Mark demonstrated the Hydralite solution


Key Findings after the tour

  • Venture Capital Firms are largely absent in WA, so founders resort to other funding sources

A thriving and dynamic start-up system includes ambitious start-ups, a supportive community of angel investors and a multitude of venture capital firms.

Out of these, we found that the keystone player in the ecosystem – venture capital firms (VCs) – is largely absent in Western Australia.

There is also no known presence of other Australian VCs (from the east coast, i.e., from Sydney or Melbourne) actively seeking to make and facilitate deals in Western Australia either.

  • Individual investors are easier to access in WA

Within Australia, WA has the highest number of wealthy individuals, the majority of whom have made their fortunes in the mining and resources industry.

Start-up founders can have access to contacts who individually have enough savings to invest or lend a few thousand to tens of thousands of cash into their business.

  • Government grants are available, but not effective in reaching truly innovative start-ups

The Innovation Booster Grant, from the $16.7 million fund, aims to help start-ups with their funding, however it could in fact be counterproductive for innovation. The grant awards a maximum of $20K grant to selected early-stage innovative companies.

While the grant is useful for start-ups to cover a part of critical operational expenses, it is not feasible for them to produce any tangible outcomes from this amount of funding. The grant application process is too bureaucratic to effectively enable lean start-ups to utilise funds: some start-ups spend months and expend valuable resources – including grant consulting fees of up to $10,000 – to help them file their application.

Start-ups that have a high potential to deliver innovation would instead opt for other sources of funding instead of going through the extensive grant application process. The limitation of the grant size particularly invites low-performing start-ups with cash flow issues and operational challenges hoping to secure a lifeline to apply.

  • Public listings as a viable funding option for early-stage start-ups has its perils

WA is one of the few places in the world where it is relatively common for young companies to go through public listing before technology commercialisation or significant revenue generation. Over 35 percent of over 2,000 listed companies on the ASX are from WA.

  • Universities and industry are important sources of talent and innovation, but a diversification of talent sources is needed

Many of the start-ups we engaged with in WA are developing deep technologies that require substantial investments in research and commercialisation. The founders of these start-ups are often experts in their field from their industry experience or academics and research.

  • WA’s unique geography comes with challenges in providing market access and knowledge transfer

WA and Perth’s unique geography imposes both strengths and challenges for the development of its ecosystem.

It is often heard that WA’s location provides start-ups and companies better access to Asia and the rest of the world due to closer proximity in geography and time zone.

In conclusion

We were pleasantly surprised with our trip to WA. WA has some innovative start-ups that are led by industry veterans who are razor-focused on developing an amazing product. If these start-ups and founders are exposed to better funding and networking opportunities, we could see them growing at a much faster pace.

We would like to thank the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation for their continuous support of this project. We are also deeply appreciative of all the founders and venture capitalists who spent time with us and shared their learnings, as well as outlook, on the start-ups in WA.

We are optimistic that the WA state government is taking the right steps in the direction to address the concerns that we have highlighted. 

INSEAD Summer Startup Tour
In the last week of our tour, Team Start-up Mates and Team Quokka visited the parliament of Western Australia and chatted briefly with Stephen Dawson, Minister of Innovation and ICT, and Charlie Gunningham, Director of Innovation at the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science, and Innovation (JTSI)