Business

Putting startups on the MAP: The journey of Australia’s first university-based accelerator

Along with the accelerator program, MAP now encompasses a pipeline program, alumni network and a social entrepreneur program.

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The Melbourne Accelerator Program’s first pitch night was a modest affair.

It was June 2012, and its founder had to fight hard to establish the accelerator program within the University of Melbourne – a traditional organisation not usually associated with innovation.

After the program was finally greenlit by the Melbourne School of Engineering, its founder left to join a startup, leaving Rohan Workman to take over the reigns.

His first job was the initial pitch night, which saw 32 companies compete for the four initial spots in the program.

“There wasn’t much process or method to the madness,” Workman says. “People didn’t understand the concept of an accelerator or why a university would be running one. It was very unusual for the institution as a whole – it hadn’t been done before in Australia. “It was definitely us learning on the job.”

But the program enjoyed strong support from some senior staff at the university that were “critical” to its success, and the pitch night at the first program’s conclusion proved to be pivotal.

“A lot of people in other positions weren’t quite sure, but they saw our pitch night at the end of the year when the four companies got up on stage, and that really helped us convert people in the university,” Workman says.

These early adopters then spread the good accelerator word across different faculties and departments of the university, and gradually begun to earn support and momentum, and has grown into one of the most successful and influential accelerator programs in the country.

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MAP’s current program offers $20,000 in funding to 10 companies with no equity taken, along with office space, structured mentoring and networking and pitching opportunities. At least one founder of participating startups needs to be a University of Melbourne student, staff or alumni.

Now preparing for its fifth program, its illustrious list of alumni companies – 24 in total – have raised over $17 million in funding, created 200 new jobs and generated more than $28 million in revenue. These alumni companies include successful startups like Brosa, xLabs, 2Mar Robotics and SCANN3D.

But MAP has evolved into much more than just an accelerator program, Workman says, it’s more of an “entrepreneurial centre” now. Along with the accelerator program, MAP now encompasses a pipeline program, alumni network and a social entrepreneur program, something that is near to the director’s heart.

“My personal passion is people solving noble problems,” he says. “A lot of entrepreneurs come into the program looking to solve first world problems for first world people. That doesn’t have an impact on the world. People that come in wanting to solve meaningful problems and who use business as a vessel to solve problems in creative ways, that’s what gets me excited.”

As MAP itself has evolved, so too has the Melbourne and Australian startup ecosystems, finally hitting the mainstream and becoming a central political issue. The Melbourne accelerator network has led the way, and is a crucial cog in the ever-growing wheel of innovation.

“A healthy ecosystem is a rainforest, not a plantation” Workman says. “We need lots of weird and wonderful programs doing weird and wonderful things all over the place.”

And the program has grown rapidly. Its gala event earlier this year saw more than 700 people gather at Melbourne Town Hall – the program has outgrown all venues on university campus. The night was a far call from its inaugural pitch night comprising 60 people, with a high-profile list of well-regarded business leaders and politicians praised the program and the entrepreneurs running it on the night.

“We’ve really tapped into the zeitgeist of the entrepreneurial community”

“A lot of people are wanting to start companies and support startups, and these really awesome MAP events are bringing in a whole bunch of people who want to help and support startups,” says Workman. He been in close contact with some of the most promising Australian founders and quickest growing local startups and has learnt several key ingredients of what makes a great tech company.

“Be married to the problem, not the solution – if you solve it in a sustainable manner that’s what’s important,” he says. “Australians tends to be somewhat self-deprecating and play down their accomplishments. You need to be confident with what you’re doing and channel that American exuberance.

“Think big and act big. Don’t just dream it, go out and do it. The bigger the vision is gets more people wanting to get behind it and support it. That groundswell of support is inspiring.”

And Workman has lofty goals for MAP’s ongoing future, and isn’t content to just look back on the overwhelmingly successful first four years of its existence.

“It’s always a process of lifting the bar for us,” he says.

“It’s important we keep getting better and better and better. We can’t rest on our laurels.”

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Denham Sadler

About the Author Denham Sadler

Denham Sadler is a freelance writer. He tweets at @denhamsadler.