min read

How this massive startup festival grew out of little-old Adelaide

Written by
Gemma Clancy
Published on

For those who haven’t attended a _SOUTHSTART festival before, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. You might also be wondering - why Adelaide!?

Many think of Adelaide as a big country town. Even the Hilltop Hoods fondly refer to their hometown as “a city that is trapped in time”. The city has a population less than one-third the size of Sydney and Melbourne and in the most recent ‘State of Australian Startup Funding’ report from Cut Through Venture, it was highlighted that South Australian businesses received just 3% of the share of Australian VC funding in 2022.

Yet, this year _SOUTHSTART // ODYSSEY is set to attract more than 1300 attendees, with 50% of those in attendance travelling specifically to the event from interstate. High-profile guests such as the co-founder and former-CEO of Netflix Marc Randolph and world-famous philanthropist Peter Singer will grace its stages along with leading Australian founders and investors who have collectively deployed and raised billions of dollars for their innovative ideas.

Perhaps the event has flourished in-spite of the challenges that come with being based in a small city. Or perhaps it is because the event was built in Adelaide that it now commands a unique and iconic place in the Australian startup community. 

So how did we get here? A short history of _SOUTHSTART

In 2013 SOUTHSTART was founded by Chhai Thach and Steve Barrett with the team running the SOUTHSTART conference. Simultaneously, the founding team opened the first privately owned co-working space, Majoran Distillery (later shortened to ‘Majoran’). The coworking space hit a peak of around 60 residents and the team hosted three more conferences after launching, with the 2016 event attracting around 600 attendees. The Adelaide ecosystem was blossoming with communities popping up thanks to the likes of Techstars, Startup Adelaide and TEDxAdelaide.

At the end of 2017, Barrett and Thach decided to wind down SOUTHSTART’s operations. While they had faced challenges, such as securing recurring government funding, they still believed SOUTHSTART had a place to fulfil in the ecosystem and saw an increasing desire from the public for spaces and events for their community to gather around. Barrett was quoted in a SmartCompany article at the time, saying that he believed the city lacked a “lighthouse” - somewhere for the city’s innovative endeavours to centralise themselves around.

In 2018, Co-Directors Danielle Seymour, Craig Swann & Jason Neave reignited the event with the support of a grant from the state government's "Tech In SA" program. The trio had collided through a mutual interest and involvement in South Australia's startup ecosystem and saw the potential for the festival to re-establish its roots and thrive in South Australia, against the backdrop of significant investment in the broader innovation ecosystem from the South Australian government.

“I got the sense that a lot was going to unfold in the next 10 years or so, and wanted to play a part in South Australia’s growth”, said Swann in a 2021 interview with Adelaide Now.

Perhaps the most significant development emerging at the time was Adelaide’s new Lot Fourteen precinct, which has now arguably become that “lighthouse” the original _SOUTHSTART founders were dreaming of.

Adelaide’s innovation draw cards

So what is it exactly that Adelaide has to offer those interested in innovation and startups? 

There is a strategic-smarts when it comes to Adelaide’s approach to developing world-class capability in a handful of essential future-focused industries.

Artificial intelligence, cyber security & data analytics

Students at the Australian Institute for Machine Learning grouped around looking at a robot drone.
Students at the Australian Institute for Machine Learning. (Photo: University of Adelaide)

Some of the largest technology and professional services companies in the world, such as Google, Microsoft, Nokia and Accenture, are choosing to set up offices in Adelaide, based on the city’s world-class capabilities in AI and data analytics. The Ten Gigabit Adelaide initiative launched in 2018 provides over 1000 buildings in the CBD with access to 10Gbps fibre-optic high-speed internet access, enabling AI-focused businesses like Consilium a competitive advantage. Adelaide is also home to the Australian Institute of Machine Learning, Australia’s first institute dedicated to research in machine learning, MIT bigdata Living Lab which brings together the public, private and research sectors to analyse big data and inform economic decisions, and the Australian Cyber Collaboration Centre which helps businesses understand and navigate cyber security issues. Earlier this year, US-headquartered data intelligence company, Fivecast, opened an office with 100 staff in the Adelaide CBD.

The inside of the Australian Space Discovery Centre.
The inside of the Australian Space Discovery Centre. (Photo: JPE Design Studio)

Space, satellites & defence

Many may be surprised to learn that Adelaide can confidently claim the title of the ‘Space State’ after becoming home to several of the nation’s leading space organisations. First, is the Australian Space Agency - Australia’s version of its US-counterpart NASA. Also based in Lot Fourteen are SmartSat CRC, Australia’s leading space research centre, and The Australian Space Discovery Centre, an interactive educational space established by Questacon, to inspire young Australians to consider how studies in STEM could lead to a career in space industries.

Space technologies are about much more than sending astronauts to the moon - they underpin many of our daily conveniences such as GPS, internet access and weather forecasting. Because of the latter, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology also has a strong team based in Adelaide. 

The majority of space technologies are reliant on satellites, which are now the focus of various emerging Adelaide businesses. In early 2022, the federal government awarded one of the most successful of these, Fleet Space Technologies, a $20m grant alongside state government funds to set up the Australian Space Manufacturing Hub, which will be located at Australian Space Park (currently under development). This will make Adelaide home to the only dedicated space manufacturing hub and the largest manufacturer of satellites in the country.

An aerial image of South Australia's big battery, built by Tesla, with a wind farm in the background.
The site of Tesla's big battery and Neoen's Hornsdale wind farm in South Australia. (Photo: SMH)

Climate & clean energy tech

After repeated, widespread blackouts across the city in 2016, an infamous Twitter exchange occurred between Tesla-founder Elon Musk, Australian tech-royalty Mike Cannon-Brookes and Greens Senator (and Adelaide-local) Sarah Hanson-Young, which eventually led to Adelaide becoming home to the world’s first ‘big battery’. The battery offered the state more than just a solution to local power reliability issues, but also signalled the state’s capability and enthusiasm to take part in big clean energy projects.

Since then, the now Premier Peter Malinauskas has made strong statements about his intention for the state to become a green hydrogen powerhouse, last year announcing plans to build the world’s largest green hydrogen plant in Whyalla alongside his $593 million Hydrogen Jobs Plan.

Earlier this year, climate-tech startup community Climate Salad chose to host its first showcase event of the year in Adelaide, boasting 20+ pitches from a diverse range of startups and 200+ climate-tech curious attendees.

While Adelaide may still be a ‘small town’ - you can’t deny its status as an emerging powerhouse for the Australian startup and innovation ecosystem. Plus, I hear many great ideas have started over a nice glass of wine…! At _SOUTHSTART // ODYSSEY, locals and visitors will get plenty of exposure to both, so it’s bound to be magical.

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