At first glance there may seem to be not much in common between the agora of Ancient Greece and the sparkling modern premises of a business accelerator and incubator in Wollongong.

Look a little harder though and you might see where Omar Khalifa is coming from when he makes the comparison.

“The agora was a physical place where people would generate ideas and be exposed to things outside their own sphere of knowledge. Artists, philosophers, craftsmen – all kinds of people – would congregate and new ideas began to take shape,” says Khalifa, CEO of the iAccelerate Centre, the University of Wollongong’s business incubator and accelerator with a mission to help to build new enterprises and create jobs in the Illawarra region.

“Ironically, some of that has been lost in these technology-driven times of specialists who often don’t have a chance to work across disciplines,” he says.

“Here at iAccelerate we have a group of multi-skilled people from a variety of backgrounds who meet, talk, discuss ideas and help to evolve new ventures across a range of areas.”


Create jobs and opportunities

The iAccelerate incubator program was originally launched in 2009 but more recently expanded in 2016 with its own facility. iAccelerate now runs a four-month acceleration programs and currently hosts 60 startups from a wide range of sectors across the region and can provide a base for more than 280 entrepreneurs. Even the local Wollongong City Council has committed two teams to work through the program.

It boasts a robust acceleration program, formalised business monitoring and one-to-one mentoring – plus the opportunity for businesses “to partner with a university comprising over 30,000 students, 2,000 staff and a significant portfolio of faculties and business units”.

The objective, Khalifa says, is to try to create jobs and opportunities in the Wollongong area as part of its transition away from traditional older industries and towards new opportunities. Some companies will move elsewhere, but Khalifa believes the links and opportunities they create will help others in the region.

“We offer a two stream program with up to a three-year incubation period – unique in the Australian start-up landscape – fuelling new ideas through innovation and collaboration,” Khalifa says.

“We are careful not to get pigeonholed as high tech or any kind of tech. We have people from all kinds of backgrounds, not just in business but also from areas such as health and education.”

And it all seems to be working well. iAccelerate is the nation’s leading accelerator-incubator based on the number of companies that have come through its program and the headline revenue of $27 million generated by its businesses in 2017.

“On almost every metric we would say we have done more in this space than any other accelerator-incubator in Australia. It comes as a surprise to many who only know of our city cousins.”

Building on that success, iAccelerate now plans to support the development of a “hub” next year in the coastal town of Bega, some 340 k south of Wollongong, to try to help spur new development in that region. It will be part of a planned Innovation Network that supports startups across regional areas.


Approaches and viewpoints

Khalifa, an engineer by training, acknowledges he’s “not the world’s leading entrepreneur by any stretch” but has accumulated “skills and background to know how to work across a lot of different sectors” having served with companies and organisations such as Apple, HP and NASA and has also worked in six countries.

“I’ve seen a lot of people working at the edge of that innovation space so I know how scary that can feel. But I also see how you can help people through that in a variety of ways.”

Among the many business, finance and technology experts who are on hand to lend their expertise at iAccelerate, it has also hosted engineering, business and philosophy students – who have come to learn how to apply their skills in a startup and also share their insights by working with some of the companies.

“Students need to figure out how they plug into today’s world – this is not smoking jackets, pipes and rocking chairs for today’s philosophers. We need people who have different perspectives and attributes, and we need them engaged.”


Beautiful moments

Can entrepreneurship be taught, or is it something that just comes naturally to certain individuals?

“You can teach people the essential skills of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur,” he says.

“Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking but it’s also a skill set of how to actually execute a plan or idea.

“Some people will be really adept and fast on their feet with it and some people need to take longer to figure how to make it happen – but even when they struggle they begin to understand what they need to focus on to improve.”

At the core of being an entrepreneur, he says, is the willingness to rake a risk.

“If you’re not comfortable with taking a risk, you’re probably not meant to be an entrepreneur.

“But some people don’t know that they can take risks because of their background, but it’s amazing what kind of personal growth can happen when people are given an opportunity. And, perhaps, a bit of a shove.

“We’ve seen people who have never made a sales call in their lives and who couldn’t even imagine doing it, and yet when pushed into that space they say ‘wow, I didn’t know I could do that’.

“Those are beautiful moments here.”

“We know that not everyone is going to be successful, but the thing is people begin to realise they are capable of doing more than they were before and if it doesn’t work out they will be much better prepared to see that next idea and be ready for it.”


Sparks that feed of each other

Innovation “is the result of a few different sparks that all feed of each other” he says.

“We’ve become a very specialist-driven environment over say the last 50 or 100 years, and now we’re are really having to uncouple that sense that everyone has to be a specialist.

“We need more people who are multi-skilled and in some ways generalist because they can spark off ideas from a whole different bunch of areas.

“Entrepreneurs are in some ways at the core of that today because they are the ones who are linking opportunity and technology.”

The technological revolution is driving continuous change, he says.

“We don’t know what this new world is going to be like – the pace of change is so fast it’s hard to predict what you are going to need to be ready for.

“I think that’s the real message today is that you need to be ready for anything.”

iAccelerate, he says, is “in some ways like a finishing school”.

“Students, business owners, entrepreneurs and others are gravitating towards us because they see us providing interdisciplinary skills development which they are convinced they need – all these attributes will help them to build and grow their enterprises.”