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Anne-Marie Birkill – i.lab CEO

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For Anne-Marie Birkill, CEO of i.lab technology incubator, life has been rather serendipitous. Graduating with a science degree, she fell into plant biotechnology, where a short-term secondment to Brisbane transformed her into General Manager and 25 percent shareholder within two years. So began a twenty year career spanning management, consulting, lecturing and new technology incubation.

Interview by Jodie O’Keeffe

It’s sink or swim.

I became General Manager of a plant propagation business at age 25. I wasn’t long out of university and I learnt my management skills through immersion. We had 50 people at a production facility in Sydney’s Western suburbs. The industry suffered a downturn and I had to fly down there and sack them at 6am one morning. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Ownership offers a whole new perspective.

After that, the owner of the company said, “Look we haven’t got very much money, but we want to keep you. Will you work for little and take some equity in the company?” Ownership makes you determined to do absolutely everything you can. Over five years we turned it around and ended up with a business we were really proud of, that was making profits and rewarding us nicely.

The exciting thing.

I got tired of working with plants, so I went to UniQuest (University of Queensland technology commercialisation company). I worked on an education program in China, diamond exploration in the Solomon Islands, MRI technology. I realised that the buzz came from taking someone’s brilliant idea and turning it into a real product. So moving to an incubator like i.lab was a natural progression. I think I’ve got one of the best jobs in Brisbane. I feel very lucky.

Entrepreneurs are heroes.

Everybody talks about the big success stories, but they don’t see the little people trying to become the next wotif.com or Cochlear. The average person doesn’t appreciate their courage, that they won’t be taking a salary, might be mortgaging their house, or loaning money from family and friends, to get the business up and running.

Failure can be productive.

In the innovation space we talk about giving people permission to fail, but the reality in Australia is that we don’t give permission. I so admire Ros Brandon (CEO of failed biotech start-up Genetrak profiled in Anthill’s Oct/Nov ’06 cover story) for saying, “Look, things didn’t work out, but this is what we’ve learnt and I’m going to share that with other people.” And she�s out there doing another start-up now.

How bad can it be?

You’ve got to say to yourself, what’s the worst that can happen if this fails? When you’re in a crisis, you want to be out of it, and you don’t think straight. If you can live with the worst case outcome, you remove the emotion and think far more clearly.

One bad ‘date’ can ruin your reputation.

Networks are immensely powerful. If I don’t have a direct contact, I can usually find someone who does. But, for every introduction I make, I check out both parties first. Or, if I don’t personally know one party, I don’t vouch for them.

Don’t neglect the soft stuff.

The life of a start-up company CEO is tough. They need someone to listen when things get tough, someone to celebrate the good times, occasionally a shoulder to cry on, but always someone to talk to who won’t take sides or judge. We acknowledge ‘people’ as the most important component of the start-up, yet the soft stuff – the non-financial, non-legal, non-marketing side – doesn’t get much of a look in when we talk entrepreneurship.

As CEO of Brisbane’s i.lab Incubator Pty Ltd, Anne-Marie Birkill assists up to 30 emerging companies at any one time, offering space, skills, support, networking and mentoring. The incubator recently scooped the 2006 Incubator of the Year award, from Business Innovation and Incubation Australia.

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