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Start-up pipeline: new lab for Aussie ideas

A new incubator for 70 start-ups will launch in March.

What does a pioneer of the Australian internet industry do after selling the infrastructure company he co-founded for $373 million and sharing the profit?

For Stephen Baxter, former chief technology officer of Pipe Networks, the answer was as simple as following your bliss.

Trendy Fortitude Valley will be the base for River City Labs, a new start-up incubator.
Trendy Fortitude Valley will be the base for River City Labs, a new start-up incubator. Photo: Robert Rough

The Australian, and decidedly Queensland-centric tech entrepreneur, wants to help fortify the industry from which he came.

Over the last year, Baxter has been quietly investing in IT and telco start-ups via his family trust and next month will open a not-for-profit incubator in Brisbane's art precinct, Fortitude Valley, to help kickstart worthy technology ideas.

The incubator, to be called River City Labs, is nestled in a 550-square-metre converted warehouse and hopes to house 70 entrepreneurs in the next 20 months. It's Baxter's way of bringing some of the Silicon Valley go-getter culture to Australia.

The lab will look at business ideas involving mobile, telecommunications or the internet only and, according to Baxter, will avoid gaming and hardware projects unless it is "a pretty good fit".

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Baxter's aim is to build a co-working space, an ecosystem for start-ups to source the ingredients needed to get their venture off the ground including mentors, accountants, venture capital and accelerators.

Admission decisions will be made by a yet to be announced board made up of "a who's who of the Queensland IT&T scene", he said. Baxter will also sit on the board but is not proposing to fund the start-ups himself, although he has set aside $10 million for private investments in the next five years.

Stephen Baxter, co-founder of Pipe Networks, is now setting up his own start-up incubator.
Stephen Baxter, co-founder of Pipe Networks, is now setting up his own start-up incubator. Photo: Glenn Hunt

He claims that simple cash injections are not enough to put Australian innovation where it should be, hence the need for the incubator.

Baxter has made six eclectic technology investments in the last 10 months ranging from start-up cloud provider OrionVM, mobile coffee procurement app developers TXT4Coffee and Atomo Diagnostics - a technology company commercialising devices for use in blood-based procedures.

He has also taken a non-executive directorship in ASX-listed data centre and fibre operator Vocus.

Baxter says he has clear preference for Australian ideas and, highest on the list, those germinating from Queensland.

"The government is woeful at promoting our technology innovation. They don't understand innovation in this state. Mining is still the big thing, but entrepreneurial innovation does not get on the radar," the Queensland-based investor says.

Prior to the high profile sale of Pipe Networks to TPG in early 2010, Baxter snuck away for a year to work at the uber Googleplex in Mountain View California, on the deployment of high speed telecommunications.

While in the Valley he wondered why there was dearth of innovation and cultivation of entrepreneurship in Australia.

"Most of my deal flow was coming out of Sydney and I was offended that we didn't have the deal flow coming out of Brisbane," he says.

It was then that Baxter, once a soldier in the Australian Army, set upon the task of changing this dynamic with military precision. He seized upon the idea of creating a technology hub, part kibbutz part innovation lab, where start-ups and high profile mentors can cross-pollinate.

To be part of the lab, Baxter says entrepreneurs need to convince the admission board they are "committed and that it works, and no dick heads are allowed".

But as personal opinion on the worthiness of ideas often differs, aspirants have the option of bringing in their own mentor who is already convinced of the concept, he says.

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