Why Australia can't Afford to Miss the Boat on Southeast Asia's Flourishing Start-up Scene

Australia needs to align its activities in this juggernaut region under one national strategy and present a united front to get on board or be left behind
Why Australia can't Afford to Miss the Boat on Southeast Asia's Flourishing Start-up Scene
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CEO, QUT Creative Enterprises Australia
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Not too embryonic but not too advanced; not too formless but not too rigid Southeast Asia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is just right. Australia is in a prime position to capitalise on this Goldilocks’ period but, like the fairytale’s titular character, it only has a finite amount of time to enjoy these perfect conditions. Three-to-four years to be precise.

When it comes to entrepreneurship and enterprise in the Southeast Asian region, Australia is a beacon of maturity and authority. It has more than 20 years’ experience in building startup ecosystems, managing investment, running accelerator programs and fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in universities. By comparison, the same sector in Southeast Asia is only a few years old but moving with an urgency and pace missing from the local landscape.

Southeast Asian markets are so much larger than Australia’s, demand is amplified and there’s more capital but what the region doesn’t have is knowledge and expertise in bringing everything together. Sharing Australia’s expertise will build the scaffolding that will give the nation priority access to the bridges and superhighways that lead directly to the region’s education sector, capital sources and lucrative markets.

Working within Southeast Asia’s emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem now will pay off long into the future with opportunities for greater export development, more business collaborations and interactions and more capital flowing back and forth. But Australia has to act now – and fast.

What we will see in the next three to four years are start-up ecosystems in countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand surpassing Australia and leaving it with nothing to offer. If Australia doesn’t do a better job of engaging with the fastest growing entrepreneurial ecosystem on the planet, it will miss the boat and there are no others to catch after that. Southeast Asia is the last of the big, growing, emerging ecosystems but Australia is already falling behind by not taking full advantage of its geographical proximity to the region.

Australia also exhibits a disappointing lack of urgency and awareness, a sense of lethargy, while it waits for the region to make the first move. It won’t. It’s up to Australia to make an effort, drive initiatives, proactively position itself in this region and become deeply embedded in its emerging ecosystems.

Immediate action is needed on two fronts:

  1. Australia needs an embedded presence where practitioners are actually working within the ecosystem, not flying in and out. It needs to be present, active and building long-term relationships that are not merely transactional but built on trust and delivery. Australia needs to demonstrate that it is prepared to invest time, share knowledge and commit to the region.

  2. Australia needs a single, cohesive entrepreneurship innovation strategy. There is no overarching vision or strategy at a federal government level, no national programs devoted to innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. Various state governments, private entities and universities are making inroads into the Southeast Asian ecosystem, but a government response in its entirety is needed to amplify their activity.

It’s a great sadness that Australia does not have that national focus that consistent message at a federal level. There are more than 650 million people who live between Vietnam and Indonesia, almost double the size of the US population. Southeast Asia remains an enormous emerging market and home to the fastest growing middle class on the planet.

Australia needs to align its activities in this juggernaut region under one national strategy and present a united front to get on board or be left behind. The UK and Israel are already moving into the region, delivering programs and forming highly beneficial relationships and once the US comprehends the size of the market, they will throw everything at it, too. There’s enough room for all of those players but if Australia is not part of it now, building strong long-term relationships across government; enterprise and association; and student or start-up levels, it’s going to miss the boat.

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