NBN will help stop the brain drain in Wollongong: Academic

A new ICT precinct in Wollongong will use the NBN to help develop IT innovation in the region

The National Broadband Network (NBN) will help underpin a new IT precinct in Wollongong on the south coast of New South Wales.

NBN construction in Wollongong is scheduled for construction in July or August this year and due for completion in December 2013.

The NBN will offer a new platform for the digital distribution of games, said Elizabeth Eastland, director of innovation and commercial research at the University of Wollongong.

"There’s a very strong gaming community in Wollongong, probably as a result of the University of Wollongong’s gaming undergraduate program, and they’ve got a lot of interesting, intelligent gaming coming out of there,” said Eastland.

“But if you can imagine somebody sitting in their home, they don’t have to buy the game – they can do it over the Cloud. You can only do that with broadband such as NBN.

“So the technology itself supports a much better distribution channel than we’ve had, and everybody [will have] that same distribution channel eventually as it rolls out. That’s critical.”

Eastland is currently involved in a program with the University of Wollongong called iAccelerate, which aims to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in IT in the region.

“There’s a lot of innovative capacity [in Wollongong] that we weren’t really tapping into. Essentially we suffer from a brain drain in the sense that we’ve got all these great graduates who definitely, by and large, have to leave the region to get a job,” Eastland said.

This is despite the fact that the University of Wollongong graduates the largest number of ICT students in Australia, according to Eastland.

The University of Wollongong currently in discussions with AARNET and NBN Co about the Sandpit — pre-certification testing sites where ISPs can test their services. This will allow companies to rapidly test programs such as video conferencing.

“That’s a key component of fast growth companies – their ability to get out [fast] ... and test it rapidly. We’re going to have a whole community in Wollongong where we set up a virtual test-bed of interested parties who want to test our products and volunteer, in a sense, to test our products with the NBN,” Eastland said.

This will enable early market feedback, which will help with the development of software and applications.

The Waterloo experience

Originally from Canada, Eastland spent some time in Waterloo, Canada, looking at its model for building its economy. Much like the Illawarra in terms of its size and vicinity to a major city, Eastland said Waterloo has grown to an $18 billion economy and 750 tech firms. She is hoping to mirror some of the IT programs implemented in Waterloo at Wollongong.

After visiting the area and learning key lessons, Eastland has since identified up to six programs which could be implemented in Wollongong, including an entrepreneurship club where guests can listen to keynote speakers; a series of workshops on topics such as how to protect intellectual property and pitch to venture capitalists; and StartPad, an ideas incubator which houses up to 20 residents, including several start-up companies.

A ‘pitching plate’ is also expected to be launched soon, which will act as a marketplace where companies can mentor and be mentored and receive professional feedback about their pitches, including from venture capitalists.

The University of Wollongong’s iAccelerate program will eventually include a 3500 square metre ‘accelerator centre’ which will be built on the University of Wollongong research and business precinct, Innovation Campus.

“It’s a purpose-built [building] modelled in its intention after the Waterloo accelerator, but not too dissimilar from APP Innovation, who have a beautiful old, big refurbished building on Australian Technology Park,” Eastland said.

“It’s a very similar model where we have fast growth companies in an environment that has intensive mentoring and support."

Although Eastland said the centre is a key part of the iAccelerate 'ecosystem', it has not yet been funded.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

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