Adelaide ‘has all the ingredients for success’, drawing in tech-savvy innovators with an eye for lifestyle, who are helping reshape the city as a hub with super-fast digital communications and developing hi-tech industries and new ways of tackling the new age.
From Vancouver to New York to Los Angeles, Tom Hajdu has left a trail of disruption in his wake. Now the CEO of disrupter.com, a strategic innovation incubator to help forge business growth, is turning his eye to South Australia – and he has the ear of the state’s most powerful person, Premier Jay Weatherill. Arriving in Adelaide in 2015, Hajdu played an instrumental role in placing Adelaide on the international map as Australia’s first – and only – gigabit city. With technology in place to offer users 100 times the national average internet speed and 10 times the download speed of the NBN, Adelaide is now the Australian capital of ultra-fast internet.
Hajdu’s trailblazing path to GigCity Adelaide led Weatherill to appoint him SA’s first chief adviser on innovation in June this year, tasked with speeding up disruption and fostering new start-ups. It’s a role the Canadian has thrown himself into but, with a resume that also includes co-founding music production company tomandandy in the US, working with industry legends such as Lou Reed, David Byrne, U2 and Oliver Stone, one has to ask – what’s so special about SA?
“In recent years, I noticed the US was falling into economic decline and so, when George Bush said ‘they hate us for our freedom’ that was a line in the sand for me,” Hajdu says. “I decided to do an economic analysis of where the greatest opportunities were. We settled on Australia, and I chose Adelaide because it has all the ingredients for success. It has the most potential in any city that I’ve visited in Australia to succeed in the long term.”
Hajdu settled in the Willunga Basin in the Fleurieu Peninsula with his wife Paige and their dog Roisin.
“We travelled around the country a lot and we found ourselves always coming back to Adelaide and the Fleurieu Peninsula,” he says. “We feel like we’ve landed in the lucky country; we feel very lucky to be in the lucky country. The Fleurieu is certainly one of the most spectacular coastal regions in the world and yet so close to the CBD. In that respect, it’s very similar to when we lived in Malibu; the distances and time from the city to where we lived. I really feel that the Willunga Basin and Adelaide are kind of an undiscovered gem. I think of it as similar to southern California, with the nature found 100 years ago, the quality of life from 50 years ago and the technology of today.”
Aside from its quality of living, Hajdu was also impressed by South Australia’s position as an early adopter of technology and innovation, and the changing face of its industry.
South Australia is an amazing hub. In two months, I found more than 10 people with great talent and they all either were in Adelaide or happy to relocate to Adelaide.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to invest here because it has the capacity to grow and it’s undergoing a major transformation as it pivots away from traditional automanufacturing to innovation,” he says. “The digital economy will be the main driver for the global economy for the next two or three decades. What has impressed me about Adelaide is that it has recognised this. It’s moving quickly to seize the opportunity and has understood that infrastructure is the key foundation to pivoting successfully to create jobs in the future, a future that is outward looking and connected to the world.”
Hajdu’s role in South Australia’s transformation is unequivocal. Shortly after arriving in the state, he shared his vision for Adelaide to become Australia’s first high-speed internet city with lawyer Adrian Tisato, who subsequently introduced Hajdu to Weatherill. Having previously visited another gigabit city, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Weatherill was enthusiastic about the proposition.
“Adrian and I then volunteered to try to figure out a way for Adelaide to become Australia’s first gigabit city and, after many months of hard work, we found a pathway to achieving it,” says Hajdu. “It became essentially a community project with people in the business community, the universities and government all volunteering their time and expertise to help us navigate our way through to a solution.”
As it turned out, that solution already existed.
“About 10 years ago, the SA Government had the foresight to be the only government in Australia to form a company with the universities in the state in order to build and operate a high-speed internet structure called SABRENet,” continues Hajdu. “Over the last decade, that company has rolled out more than 200km of fibre which connects the three universities. Adrian and I figured out a way, with others, to leverage the network to create the GigCity Adelaide program. We’re transforming 14 innovation and business precincts into ultra-high-speed internet districts, where all the end users can enjoy gigabit upload and download speeds.”
Not only Australia’s only gigabit city, SA last year also joined the US Ignite program, which connects US cities with gigabit infrastructure to each other, in order to collaborate on gigabit applications that will drive the economy for the next couple of decades.
Adelaide became the first city in the world outside of the US to join that group of cities, an achievement recognised by Australian Ambassador to the US Joe Hockey in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, calling the project a “renaissance” for SA.
“(Adelaide can) build new industries fearless about the future with new infrastructure that delivers the massive new job growth of the future service,” Hockey said in his speech. “ … Australia is part of the fastest-growing region, not only in the world but in the history of humanity. There are 500 million people in the middle class in Asia. That’s the size of Europe and larger than the US. Within 14 years, it’s going to be 3 billion people.
“Adelaide is at the heart of that: same time zone, skill sets are there, low-cost entry point, hugely important language skills – it’s got everything. So it’s a no-brainer to go to Adelaide for business. It’s a whole new world: Australia and Adelaide in particular are very much a part of it.”
One international business that has taken advantage of this new world in SA is Fleet Space Technologies, an innovative company that plans to deploy 100 nano-satellites to cover Earth in order to enable interconnectivity, maximise the resource efficiency of human civilisation and enable the next industrial revolution. Fleet’s co-founder, Flavia Nardini, is an aerospace engineer who has worked for the European Space Agency and TNO in the Netherlands. Originally from Rome, Italy, Nardini created Fleet Space Technologies in 2015 with support from the SA Government and Australian investors. The company has offices in LA and Europe but its headquarters remain in Adelaide.
“Adelaide is a super positive place. Most of my team is here, we operate and do everything here,” says Nardini. “The reason why we have one office in LA and one in Europe is, when we launch our satellites, we have customers all over the world. Fleet is a very global company. Even one satellite covers all Earth so I need to be very close to my customers. But everything is happening in SA. We build tech here, all the ideas are here, the supply and development – everything is here in Adelaide.”
Nardini says there is substantial support from the Australian business and government sectors for space start-ups. Fleet was the first space start-up to raise a significant amount of money in Australia with Australian investors, but there was no requirement from these interstate investors that the business move out of South Australia. “You never know if they will ask you to relocate but they were happy for us to stay here because it’s such an ecosystem of engineering companies, defence,” she says. “South Australia is an amazing hub. In two months, I found more than 10 people with great talent (to work for Fleet) and they all either were in Adelaide or happy to relocate to Adelaide. Something is happening here, I reckon.”
Nardini predicts the digital and technological revolution SA has embraced so fully will ensure the state remains a major player on the national and global scene.
“Important innovation is going to happen in the coming 5 to 10 years, where there will be devices connected in every industry, from oil and gas, mining, agriculture, transport – so much is going to happen in our future,” she says. “We’re really hoping we can stay here and, setting up here, show future investors that things can happen here. We have the location, the people and the support to make things happen in SA and this is something I’m very passionate about.”
More great minds
Digital entrepreneur Oli Madgett moved to South Australia in 2014, swapping a tiny cottage in south London for a eight-hectare vineyard in McLaren Vale.
Madgett was co-founder of We R Interactive, a social games company in the UK that produced games for Facebook. At its peak, the company had about 14 million players and was nominated for a BAFTA Games Award for Online – Browser in 2012.
After selling the business two years later, Madgett moved to SA with his wife, Tara, originally from McLaren Vale, and their two daughters, now aged six and four.
“Originally we were looking at moving to places like Melbourne. Then we realised that, in SA, we could make a complete change and have an amazing lifestyle” says Madgett.
Three years ago, they bought a vineyard in McLaren Vale and are in their third season growing grapes. Madgett is also incorporating his digital expertise into his role of winemaker, creating a smartphone app, Smart Spreading, which enables contractors to spread mulch and compost more effectively based on images captured by drones. The app was a finalist in the Vinnovation Awards for innovation in grape growing. “The vineyard has allowed me to learn about growing and given me much better insights about the problems farmers face on the ground, so when I develop technology, it’s grounded in real-world problems,” he says.
The support in place for local start-ups in SA is also proving beneficial to Madgett. “We’ve started ag-tech meet-ups every one to two months in Adelaide,” he says. “It brings together farmers and developers and gets people to talk so that developers get to understand farmers’ genuine problems. We also get people able to present what they’re working on. It’s about building up more of a community looking at developing technical solutions for agriculture.”
For Madgett, the innate union of farming and technology in SA highlights the unlimited potential for start-ups and investment opportunities in the state. “It’s a natural fit in our state,” he says. “Adelaide is a really unique city; I know of no other city where there are so many forms of farming within about half an hour of the CBD.”
A former classmate of Steve Jobs at high school in Silicon Valley, Stuart Snyder was employed as an accountant at KPMG in San Jose, US, before his marriage to a South Australian woman brought him to Adelaide.
Snyder’s first job in his new home state was with a defence company building sophisticated technology for radars. The company expanded rapidly within three years and, impressed by the calibre of talent around him, Snyder suggested to colleagues that they start a business together. The result was Your Amigo, an ultra-long tail organic search engine, otherwise known as a search engine that can find things Google can’t.
“We put our own money in and raised some capital and started Your Amigo. It took about five years to become profitable – but then it took off and, in 2008, we won SA Exporter of the Year,” he says.
Having grown up in Silicon Valley, Snyder recognised a similar potential for innovation in Adelaide early into his life Down Under.
“What impressed me when I moved here was it reminded me of Silicon Valley of 1970,” he says. “They had really good universities, a great lifestyle, there was the defence industry – and Silicon Valley had all those ingredients.”
Having retired from Your Amigo after 12½ years with the company, Snyder says he is now “living the dream” in his Seacliff property with its view of a nature reserve and the ocean. “It’s very special,” he says.
Snyder is also a part-time lecturer of young entrepreneurs through Adelaide University’s eChallenge, a competition-based experience designed to develop strategic business thinking, and Flinders University’s Venture Dorm, a hands-on program that mentors participants into launching a start-up in 12 weeks or less.