A taste of innovation in Regional Australia / by Tim Mahlberg

Over a long weekend, I joined a group of passionate people from Sydney and Wollongong on a bus for a few hours down the the beautiful NSW Sapphire Coast for the 2016 Regional Innovation Week in the Bega Valley. Leaving early on Friday morning from Fishburners coworking space in Ultimo, we stopped off at the new iAccelerate at University of Wollongong to pick up the rest of the crew.

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We were a lively bunch of 20/30 somethings involved with a range of initiatives from new political parties, start-up event organisers, game developers, entrepreneurs, and those who grew up in small towns and had moved to the big smoke. We were all looking forward to getting away from the bustle to the serenity and community that is only found in the "other" side of Australian life.

Bega Valley Innovation Week ran from 27th April to 3rd May 2016  and covered a range of different parts of the community passionate about fostering innovation in the region. For example, the Regional Technology Decision-makers event hosted corporate and government senior leaders to discuss opportunities to further develop the emerging tech sector, and the Questacon Maker project showcased how STEM can be fun and engaging for students hoping to stimulate their interest in it as a career locally.

My weekend in the stunning Merimbula started with a 24 hour hackathon, where teams and individuals battled it out to take out the title of Chief "Bush hacker", with a range of innovative projects taken from idea to prototype in just one day. My favourite ones were a Wifi-enabled Laser tag game, and a multi-player VR game where you defend a virtual fort as your friends 'attack' you on their mobile phones; all displayed on a big screen. Ok, so there was a gaming theme, but some great ways of bringing different technologies together in really engaging ways. 

While the techies were busy hacking and designing, I participated in the Co-founder Speed Dating (nothing like "A Farmer Wants A Wife" I promise!), where about 30 local and metro (Sydney, Canberra and Wollongong Hipsters (creatives types), Hustlers (business/growth hacker) and Hackers (Coders and designer) spent 3 minutes together sharing what they do and are looking for in fast-paced, high energy speed networking. I met a range of local corporate, small business owners and retirees who all believed that Bega Valley was the best place to live, and were dedicated to supporting a change in opportunity here for future generations. I was really inspired by the sense of community they shared here, but it was also great to see people meeting each other in a "new context" at the event. The energy was amazing, and reminded me of the vibe felt in the best coworking spaces and well-curated events I've witnessed in the city. One example was Libby from Citizen Science, who engaged the local community in scientific experiments and observations, and supporting local biodiversity and sustainability projects. So cool. 

 Speed dating: Bega Valley style. Here is the nervous start that descended into an awesome string of fast-paced connecting with local business people. 

Speed dating: Bega Valley style. Here is the nervous start that descended into an awesome string of fast-paced connecting with local business people. 

The second part of the weekend was the Sea Change Start-up camp, where about 40 participants formed 10 teams and built/prototyped a business proposal over 24 hours, then pitched to a panel of business and startup experts. 

There were a whole bunch of locals who came to the start-up camp not knowing what to expect, but curious to learn more about creating new opportunities and possible careers. I remember a group of about nine people of all different ages, perhaps a little intimidated by the techies and hackers who seemed familiar with the weekend process. Together, we worked through what were their areas of passion, individual strengths, and the unique local problems that they wanted to solve, and landing on two start-up ideas. 

One of the teams, Amanda Hayward, Kate Mamone, Tegan Williams and Morgan Chapple (who is 15 years old) joined around a common passion for pets, and the unique health problems that visitors may have in coming to a new place for a holiday. Their website highlights the risks to pets who visit with their family, holding all the health and vaccine history, and providing info on where to stay, available vets, and your pet's health information. Using tools like the Business Model Canvas and some coaching and support from the circulating mentors, PawPrint came to life for the team. In their practice pitch to myself and Brendan Yell (the awesome Startup camp facilitator), we were blown away by how far the team had come. They went on to completely own the final pitch, then were awarded a huge prize of business coaching and development worth over $6000! 

I caught a glimpse of Morgan's Mum, Loretta in the audience looking especially proud of her daughter... with good reason. Morgan and the whole team absolutely rocked it, and came away with a sense of confidence and optimism for what they could go on to create in their future. I feel this sense is especially important for younger people like Morgan to develop that sense of self-determinism, hope and to see the opportunity to write their own future. This is the real power of the entrepreneurial spirit to transform regional communities like Bega Valley.

We were also privileged to hear from a range of interesting and engaging speakers, including Aiden Coleman, CEO of Bega Cheese, the local $1B "unicorn", Dr Sarah Pearson, Head of Canberra Innovation Network, Max Kaye of the FLUX Political Party, and the amazing Jade Moxey, Australian Young Scientist of the Year. I also shared some start-up insights from The Village and my visiting to Iran and learning about the growing entrepreneur scene there.  

I had a great chat with the effervescent and impassioned local changemaker, Liam O'Duibhir who had brought the whole week of events together with his team. 

This week is an important way to highlight the potential of entrepreneurship and digital technology in the lives of locals in the Bega Valley region - Liam O'Duibhir
  Host of Bega Valley Innovation Week and all round nice guy, Liam O'Duibhir

Host of Bega Valley Innovation Week and all round nice guy, Liam O'Duibhir

There is just no doubting the conviction that Liam has that the region can host more career opportunities for young people than the established dairy (Bega Cheese anyone?), tourism, oyster and other primary industries. He believes that due to changing nature of work, people in cities will also start to demand that lifestyle is incorporated more into working lives. 

After the innovation week, Liam and his community will keep the momentum going with a range of regular events such as coding nights, local and visiting speakers, skilled sea-changer intro events, and fun, social (and a bit nerdy) events celebrating mathematical symbols like Pi(π) day, featuring a pie on 14th March (3.14…). These events are all focused on continuing to build the local capability and focus on STEM and IT, and encourage city people in these industries to consider Bega Valley for their home. The local coworking space, CoWS near the Coast, that Liam founded with his business partner, Carsten Eckelmann, hosts many of these events, and has also recently opened a creative suite to support local interest beyond technology and attract more talent to the area.

And in this lies Liam's compelling vision and focus: to attract people with skills and experience to come to Bega Valley to connect, share, and ultimately consider this beautiful part of Australia as a place to live, raise family, and write themselves into the next, exciting chapter of this community.  He wants to bring people who care, are passionate, and self-determined to create their ideal life with the balance between lifestyle, family and career opportunities. 

We want talented sea-changers to come and participate in this significant cultural transformation that is happening down in the Bega Valley Liam O'Duibhir

Events like the Bega Valley Innovation Week act to dispel the myth that regional areas will never be as stimulating culturally and intellectually as our cities. They signal to us that there is a shift happening in the country, that city folk are welcome to come and find out for themselves, will actually be embraced by the local community and here is a place that they can can create their own opportunities for a better life.

Country town have what I feel is the most important element to make transformation work: a community that's willing to have a go. In cities, we struggle replicate the strong community that already exists in regional areas. Over the weekend, I saw the spirit of entrepreneurship grow in the eyes of the local participants… the sense of self-determination that is just so powerful when harnessed. Particularly when focused on a vision for something different.

I'm interested in how we can build closer relationships between metro and regional Australia, and bring some of the focus of 'innovation' agendas so centred on cities, to the places in our country that arguably need the most. In small communities like here in the gorgeous Bega Valley, the next chapter for regional Australia is being written and, with a combination of passion, good people, and a compelling vision for the future, anything is possible.

 Merimbula in the Bega Valley. Tough place to live, work and connect!

Merimbula in the Bega Valley. Tough place to live, work and connect!