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Silicon Hills? It has a ring to it

Sydney's Surry Hills is vying to become Australia's Silicon Valley with the suburb's tech start-ups now counting with the support of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore who wants to support their successes and failures.

Cr Moore has vowed to encourage the government to provide tax incentives to start-up businesses and to involve the city council in brokering deals between fledgling companies and venture capitalists.

Sydney's Surry Hills: home to DesignCrowd (A), Posse and Shoes of Prey (B), BigCommerce (C) and Pollenizer (D). ...
Sydney's Surry Hills: home to DesignCrowd (A), Posse and Shoes of Prey (B), BigCommerce (C) and Pollenizer (D). Fishburners and co-located start-ups are nearby in Darlinghurst (E). 

The mayor's push would add to the $25 million Surry Hills start-ups already raised last year.

BigCommerce, located at 91 Reservoir St, provides e-commerce software for online stores worldwide and claims 25,000 clients. It also has an office in Austin, Texas. It raised $15m from a US venture capital firm.

Incubator Pollenizer, located at 190 Commonwealth St, established a $1.2m venture fund, and start-ups Posse (retail) and Shoes of Prey (fashion) are located in studios at 285a Crown St, they each raised $3 million. DesignCrowd (design), at 2 Hill St, also shunned the US migration path to build their global businesses in Sydney after raising $3 million.

Cr Moore told IT Pro the council's chief executive Monica Barone was exploring how the council could broker deals between venture capitalists and local creative businesses, including technology start-ups.


"One of the biggest challenges start-up businesses in Sydney face is attracting serious financial support – for businesses with the potential to become global players, that can mean funding in the vicinity of $100,000 to a million dollars," Cr Moore said. "The people with that kind of money to spend are putting it into property, mining and exploration.

"We need to start redirecting some of that money into our local talent, as well as encouraging the government to look at tax incentives, so we can help innovative small businesses grow into the mid-sized or larger businesses of Sydney's future."

The City of Sydney already established a grassroots tech hub in nearby 66 Oxford St, Darlinghurst, earlier this year to provide affordable office space for start-ups and young creatives. Co-location community Fishburners and tech start-up accelerator PushStart are current tenants. Last month residents mingled in the first "66 Meet Ups" event to foster a further sense of community.

"66 Meet Ups is exactly the sort of outcome the city was hoping for when we set up 66 Oxford Street as an affordable centre for start-ups and young creatives," Cr Moore said. 

"We know that start-ups need a supportive environment that allows for experimentation and yes, for failure as well."

Turning Surry Hills into a tech hub appears at odds with the NSW Government's blueprint for a digital economy which has singled out Redfern for a "digital innovation precinct", chiefly around the Australian Technology Park established on the site of disused rail yards and home to the NICTA research centre. Start-up criticised the plan. Founder Matt Barrie described as "white elephant" and a "terrible area of town". The City of Sydney is however looking at establishing temporary facilities in Redfern and Broadway.

Cr Moore told IT Pro she is "getting on with the job of making real changes to help businesses thrive in Sydney".

"While it is not possible for me to comment on a draft plan which the city has not been involved in, I believe the future use of the Carriage Works and Australian Technology Park sites is a decision that the NSW Government needs to make, in consultation with the local community.

"My focus is on creating opportunities for creative and technology businesses through affordable spaces," she said, adding deal brokerage to her to-do list.

"These are two issues which are consistently raised with me."

Surry Hills may still have some way to go to attract more entrepreneurs, investors and venture capital firms to the area and fulfil the start-up growth prophecy, but DesignCrowd founder and Pushstart mentor Alex Lynch said attracting the resources would give credence to the idea of "Silicon Hills".

"Tech hubs that are emerging outside the [San Francisco] Bay area and Silicon Valley. In New York you have Silicon Alley, in London there's Tech City; and we're seeing an emergence of Silicon Hills in Surry Hills," Lynch said. 

"It's a great option because it's a creative area, fun and it doesn't sleep. It's open 24 hours."

However Fishburners founding member David Vandenberg says he's seen "this sort of buzz before."

"[During the dot com boom] I helped start-up the first internet cafe in Brisbane, and there was a similar buzz around, as what's happening around the co-working industry right now... we missed the [dot com] boat, we didn't have the savvy to grab the bull by the horns and start expanding."

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