Photo: Elizabeth Eastland, CEO of  Wollongong University’s iAccelerate program. 

If you drive an hour south of Sydney, Australia along the scenic Princess Highway, you’ll come to a hill that overlooks the costal city of Wollongong and the Illawara Region.

Wollongong is more than 15,000 kilometres from Waterloo, but a whole lot closer in so many ways.

The parallels between here and there are uncanny, like looking in the mirror and seeing a slightly younger, and possibly more tanned, version of yourself.

It’s no surprise, then, that Wollongong University’s iAccelerate program has announced a five-year partnership with the University of Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre.

The Accelerator Centre will provide best practices and its proven methods to the younger Australian version of itself.

How this relationship came about can only described as “serendipitous,” says Elizabeth Eastland, the Canadian-born CEO of iAccelerate.

Eastland’s other role, as Director Innovation and Commercial Research at the University of Wollongong, led her back to Canada and Waterloo Region four years ago.

“We had just landed a memorandum of understanding with the Vice-Chancellor [and then-president] David Johnston to do broad exchanges,” she said in an interview with Communitech.

The head of Wollongong’s medical school, another Canadian colleague, encouraged her to investigate Waterloo’s IP policy and compare it to theirs, because of Waterloo’s success with entrepreneurship.

Eastland, who left Canada in the early 90s as a Director of New Business Development for Nortel Australia, was already familiar with the University of Waterloo.

“I came here not expecting to find anything too dramatic,” she said.

At the time she was looking for a way to solve the high rate of youth unemployment in the Illawara region, and to support the university’s most innovative asset – its students, who were being lost to the Googles and the Apples of the world.

Even though Australia, and particularly the University of Wollongong, already had a good policy with “all the students owning their IP from the very beginning,” Eastland kept an open mind about a potential relationship with Waterloo.

“After spending a week here, it soon became clear that it wasn’t just the IP policy,” she said, but something less tangible – what is often referred to as the “secret sauce” of Waterloo.

“I think it was more the multiplicity of programs and the concentration of acceptance of culture around entrepreneurship and innovation,” Eastland recalled, adding, “I came back very inspired to do the same thing.”

The journey back to Australia, which can average 22 hours of flight time alone, provided the thinking space to figure out what the missing ingredient was in Wollongong.

As the home of Australia’s largest steel maker, BlueScope Steel, the seaside city was known as a manufacturing hub, just like Waterloo.

There were “similarities in terms of distance to the [country’s] biggest city, the background in manufacturing, but there are other similarities between the two universities,” she said. “You can almost match our faculties and research strengths.”

Eastland had the right infrastructure in place at Wollongong, with a newly built innovation campus similar to the research park she had just visited in Waterloo.

“We identified four or five programs that we needed to begin,” she said. “That was four years ago – all those programs have been implemented since.”

Wollongong started small with an entrepreneurship club, then a “mini Velocity-type incubator” that outgrew its location in the heart of the city in just two years. It then added a mentoring and workshop program.

The game-changer happened for iAccelerate last year.

“[We] won $16.5 million to build a purpose-built centre like the Accelerator Centre, but bigger; it’s going to hold 280 entrepreneurs,” said Eastland, referring to the three-storey, 43,000-square-foot building funded by the New South Wales government.

The progress doesn’t stop there.

“A month ago we put out a press release announcing our $10-million seed fund that we put together with venture capitalists in Sydney,” Eastland said. The fund is intended for iAccelerate companies that come through its program.

With talent and capital well on its way to turning Illawara into a thriving startup community, scale becomes an issue, which is an added challenge given its distance from the epicentre of startup activity – Silicon Valley.

Eastland isn’t concerned, however.

“With IT applications, there really is, at least theoretically, a distribution channel that is global,” she said, adding that “Australia is increasingly a place where early-stage companies can trial their first applications with big companies.”

Rather than fixate on the Valley, Eastland looks to the ecosystem in Waterloo Region not only as a partner, but as a model to follow.

“[Waterloo] seems to be a model that is particularly useful to use as a vision on how a university and a community – which I think is where Communitech, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University – come together to create opportunities for the chemistry to happen,” she said.

Aside from setting the bar high, with a goal of creating 500 jobs in five years as the Accelerator Centre has done, Eastland shares other priorities with the Waterloo Region ecosystem.

“I think there is an untapped intellectual capital in the female population, so I have said from the very beginning that we’re going to double the pipeline, because we’re going to look at women as entrepreneurs deliberately,” she said.