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Life’s a Silicon Beach: how the Gong got its mojo back

Cities have to adapt to survive and Wollongong is full of life again after its industrial heart took a knocking

It was once a place where hard men from many nations turned out steel from the great factory at Port Kembla as coal smoke belched across the blue sky.

But, like the once great steel city of Newcastle, Wollongong has reinvented itself. The “industrial” tag has been replaced by “lifestyle city”.

It’s a place that increasingly is picking up “the vibe” of Silicon Valley, or as the Lord Mayor, Gordon Bradbery OAM, prefers to call his patch: “Silicon Beach”.

There’s plenty of choice for those keen to surf Silicon Beach, literally or metaphorically. Apart from the 17 surf beaches the area offers, the rollout of fast internet speeds with our network is also pumping up the digital waves.

“The technology focus of the city has grown organically,” says Councillor Bradbery. “Our graduates were being dispersed and there was a mood that we had to look at innovation.”

At the forefront of the new drive is the iAccelerate program in the Innovation Campus at the University of Wollongong, which is nurturing an innovation ecosystem by mentoring startup companies.

iAccelerate chief executive Elizabeth Eastland says the two-stage program will be incubating 280 entrepreneurs when a new building at the university is completed in March next year.

For now, it is mentoring eight advanced start-ups and has an open plan office for 70 individuals in a temporary space at the university.

Nearly half of the co-founders of these businesses are female, which makes Ms Eastland proud since, as a female CEO, “I know how hard it is for women in business”.

The program’s new business ideas, dreamt up by former university students and others from the Illawarra region, will be heavily dependent on fast internet speeds to make the most of their potential markets.

Among them are: teaching 3D printing to schools, safety and security, gaming, yoga for pregnant women, graphic design, video histories, online curation of family heirlooms, and a medical device for women who have had mastectomies.

Ms Eastland’s idea for iAccelerate came out of the highly successful Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Canada.

“Perhaps the best known company to come out of the Waterloo centre is Blackberry, or Research in Motion as it was called,” she says.

The aim of iAccelerate is, like the Waterloo centre, to consistently graduate successful companies who stay local but have global businesses through access to our network.

To see how innovations in the global village might be applied in the Illawarra, the University of Wollongong’s Dr Brian Yecies has been studying the world leader in fast broadband - South Korea.

He and his team, including social capital expert Dr Richard Howson and marketing specialist Dr Greg Kerr are working on a project called Creative Responses to the NBN-empowered Digital Economy: Modelling Super-fast Broadband Innovations in Korea For Transforming Lives in the Illawarra

It entails regular visits to South Korea, where innovations in e-health, e-learning, e-business and e-government are leading the world, and considering our network’s potential in the Illawarra.

The project team is due to report its findings soon, but some of the innovation hubs that particularly interest Dr Yecies are those outside the business environment … those that concern social interventions that might solve community problems, or have social and cultural benefits.

“Data is only as good as how it is used,” says Dr Yecies. “South Korea is so advanced - there’s an attitude of ‘build it and it will take care of itself’ - that it will take us a while to figure out what we can take away.”

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