A recent report by Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) revealed that under five per cent of “innovation-active businesses” in Australia collaborate with universities or higher education institutions. Considering the startup industry is arguably the most ‘innovation-active’ of all, how does this lack of collaboration affect the growth of our economy?
It’s long been “cool” to be an entrepreneur who studied at the school of hard knocks, rather than a university classroom. Many jump on the bandwagon and advocate for the “real world” skills gained on a shop floor, citing the success of dropouts Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs and Branson as why aspiring entrepreneurs should forgo a university education.
But is this irresponsible? My co-founder and I have achieved great success taking our startup, RedEye, into the scale-up territory within five years of founding. And our educated backgrounds certainly didn’t do us any harm. As I’m sure Elon Musk’s didn’t either.
What would be more productive than taking sides on the debate, would be to unpack how a collaborative approach would work better. In simple terms, why do the startup and education sectors need each other?
What is the future of work?
It isn’t clear from the research what exactly the future jobs are going to be, but we at least have some identified trends to point us in the right direction. RedEye research conducted last year revealed that speech recognition, immersive technology, drones, Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning are where we’re heading.
Startups are crying out for employees with deep ICT and mathematical skills, such as hackers, coders and data scientists. Yes, this stuff can be learnt outside of the classroom, but an educational environment can provide a funded, trial & error environment where mathematical and deep learning skills can be honed.
StartupAUS claims that an improvement in the conditions for entrepreneurship in Australia could see up to $170 billion added to the Australian economy. So it’s important to support this by informing the educators what these jobs are now. If you’re in desperate need of more technicians, let’s communicate and work with the sector to produce these graduates.
Soft skills are important, too
Startups and scale-ups, by nature, are fast paced environments with team members expected to be nimble, flexible, resilient, have a high EQ, work autonomously, have leadership skills and be comfortable being uncomfortable. Many of these “soft skills” sit outside of the hardline STEM focus.
Recent data outlined in ACS’ Digital Pulse 2016 Report found that eight of the top 20 skills demanded by employers hiring new technology workers are broader than core technical skills such as relationship management, customer service, strategic planning and contract negotiation.
With this in mind, it is important to see more universities adopting a culture that intersects with the emotional skills needed in the business world to make this education to employment transition smoother. This will help graduate and startup both feel like they are giving and receiving immediate value.
Collaborate on Research & Development
It’s important that the startup industry nurtures an academic relationship to support the government investment in Research & Development (R&D) and help bring solutions to market.
Startups are about solving problems in the market, so if the problem is bigger, more complex, the universities are key to conducting the Research required. Startups and entrepreneurs are the key scouts to feedback what these problems are, and are also well placed to offer the Development needed to create tangible solutions.
Mentorship programs are key
The startup industry is a collaborative world and many entrepreneurs are genuinely compelled to support the wider ecosystem and the next generation. This is critical if we expect to grow Australia’s startup industry to be globally competitive. With that said, a mandatory mentorship program between the universities and startups would be a valuable concept to instill these “real world’ insights into the students.
I recently provided the keynote at a Griffith Honours College event, aimed at assisting the students with their professional development. It’s so great to see many of Australia’s institutions taking this approach, and I personally feel that many in the startup industry would support this collaboration if there was a better way to navigate.
Randall Makin is Co-founder of one of Australia’s fastest growing scale-ups, RedEye. A degree qualified electrical engineer, Makin is committed to developing innovative solutions for industry and is an active contributor to Australia’s startup community.