How do you ‘build’ an innovation ecosystem? How ‘healthy’ is Western Australia's support network for encouraging and fostering entrepreneurship? What does a thriving and resilient ecosystem look like?
These are all questions we have been trying to answer throughout our first year working on the Innovative Society Initiative. The $5.9m Initiative, powered by Spacecubed and supported by Lotterywest, involves a collaborative approach to ecosystem building. This Initiative exists to build a stronger culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in Western Australia. It does this through Meshpoints, to facilitate conversations, collaboration and healthy evolution of the whole innovation ecosystem, the Index, to measure the state of the ecosystem, and the Fund, to resource and support innovators and organisations at each stage of their journey.
As part of this work, the Innovative Society Initiative team had the opportunity to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Melbourne, alongside 40+ other delegates from WA and over 2,000 ecosystem leaders who represented 123 countries.
The Congress ran over 4 days and involved opportunities to learn how other ecosystems are tackling the challenge of building stronger support structures for entrepreneurs, and how to overcome systemic barriers to innovation.
One of the highlights of the week was a session run by Philip Gaskin from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Missouri-based organisation founded in the late 60’s renowned as a leader in building ecosystems and empowering grassroots entrepreneurs and innovators.
During Philip’s session, he shared a model they had developed in partnership with Forward Cities called ‘Eship communities.’ Delivered as a three-year program across four cities (Baltimore, Kansas City, Long Beach and Rio Grande), Eships is a community-driven approach for building entrepreneurial ecosystems that fosters inclusion, relationships, collaboration, and social capital across networks of entrepreneurs and those who support them.
This model led to an interesting reflection on the parallels with the work we are doing through the Innovative Society Initiative. Below, explores the Eship model of 10 ‘community pathway milestones’ for strengthening entrepreneurial ecosystems and compares and contrasts how our Western Australian ecosystem maps against these.
The Eship Communities 10 community pathway milestones:
Ecosystem builders: Identify and equip a local ecosystem builder to lead the process.
Council: Connect and regularly convene entrepreneurial champions on a community council.
Assessment: Collect data to identify, assess, and map assets, barriers, and opportunities.
Sensemaking: Convene a broader set of ecosystem stakeholders to explore the data and align on priorities.
Design: Link and leverage assets to co-design and plan pilot interventions.
Engagement: Engage entrepreneurs and expand support to include other partners throughout the community.
Metrics: Measure the impact of the interventions and ecosystem health consistently over time.
Awareness: Widely share the authentic stories of entrepreneurs and the community that supports them.
Sustainability: Secure the human and financial resources necessary for ongoing sustainability.
Learning: Share and exchange learnings with other communities and ecosystem builders.
Comparing with the WA innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem
Below are comments relating to the above milestones, with ratings against our WA ecosystem on the following rubric:
Absent - the element does not exist in our ecosystem
Nascent - the element exists but is early on in its implementation
Emerging - the element exists and has some evidence of working, but is not embedded
Mature - the element is embedded in the ecosystem
Ecosystem builders: Identify and equip a local ecosystem builder to lead the process. WA Ecosystem Rating: Mature
The WA innovation ecosystem and entrepreneurship has accelerated in activity since 2012. This activity has largely been driven by a small passionate community of people, which have either been volunteers (for example running programs, events or providing mentorships), or have proactively advocated from within the ‘system’ as part of their roles in corporates, government or universities in addition to their business-as-usual roles.
However, this milestone in the Eships models specifically calls for dedicated ecosystem building resources - someone (or a team of individuals) who has the networks and has been provided with the resources to dedicate their time to ecosystem building. This ensures that ecosystem building does not wane when competing priorities get in the way.
We are fortunate in WA that Lotterywest provided an opportunity for dedicated ecosystem building activity through the Innovative Society Initiative funding. This funding has created a dedicated support network for bringing the ecosystem together.
Council: Connect and regularly convene entrepreneurial champions on a community council. WA Ecosystem Rating: Emerging
Meshpoints is a key element of the Innovative Society Initiative. It is the name we have given to the ecosystem of entrepreneurial support organisations that exist in WA and have signed up to the Initiative's collaborative mission. To date, we have 100+ partners from across all sectors and all areas of WA, including funders, State Government, LGAs, universities, incubators, accelerators and program providers.
Throughout the year, all partners have opportunities to collaborate through ‘sub-constellations’ - which are working groups aligned around a specific ecosystem opportunity or challenge area. To date, 18 sub-constellations have been formed on topics ranging from clean energy to overcoming funding barriers for female founders. A group fo elected Stewards work alongside the Innovative Society Initiative team to drive Meshpoints forward.
Assessment: Collect data to identify, assess, and map assets, barriers, and opportunities. WA Ecosystem Rating: Emerging
The WA Innovative Society Index has been developed as part of the Initiative to measure and map the impact of our ecosystem. Although it is in the early stages of development, the Index has mapped 15,000+ data points including the majority of accelerator participants, innovation award recipients, grant activity as well as the history of entrepreneurial support organisations. The beta of the Index is now live for Meshpoints partners to explore trends, patterns, barriers and opportunities for our ecosystem.
Sensemaking: Convene a broader set of ecosystem stakeholders to explore the data and align on priorities. WA Ecosystem Rating: Emerging
The WA Innovation Leaders Congress is an annual conference for Meshpoints Partners through which the ecosystems come together to connect, collaborate and define the priorities for the ecosystem. Our second Congress was held in September 2023 with 120 innovation leaders, resulting in over 30 new areas identified for new ecosystem interventions.
Design: Link and leverage assets to co-design and plan pilot interventions. WA Ecosystem Rating: Emerging
Sub-constellations are collaborative working groups of Meshpoints Partners focussed on solving a specific ecosystem barrier or leveraging a potential opportunity. Through sub-constellations, new initiatives are identified that could be funded through the Innovative Society Fund. To date, 28 projects have been funded. See the full list here.
Engagement: Engage entrepreneurs and expand support to include other partners throughout the community. WA Ecosystem Rating: Emerging
The Meshpoints network has grown steadily in its first year of operation, attracting and onboarding an average of 8 new Partners a month. Whilst the network is increasing in its geographical and sector diversity, there is still work to be done to expand beyond ‘typical’ innovation audiences. This includes how we better engage the arts and cultural sector, attract more regional participants and find the best way to support traditionally marginalised groups such as First Nations people and CALD communities in their participation.
Metrics: Measure the impact of the interventions and ecosystem health consistently over time. WA Ecosystem Rating: Nascent
Defining the right way to measure impact is notoriously difficult, not just in the collection of data but in the definition of the metrics. Whilst the Stewards group has defined OKRS (Objectives and Key Results) for their work in representing the ecosystem, we do not yet have a fully agreed set of measures for defining what a thriving and resilient ecosystem means. The Index tracks activity, and can reveal key trends in participants (e.g. regional or female founder participation), but there is an opportunity to better mine the data we have collected to define useful and enduring measures for ecosystem resilience.
Awareness: Widely share the authentic stories of entrepreneurs and the community that supports them. WA Ecosystem Rating: Nascent
There is a big opportunity to showcase both to our local community and other ecosystems the great innovation that happens in WA. Moving the narrative towards from the tongue-in-cheek ‘WA: Wait Awhile’ moniker to the more inspiring ‘WA: Way Ahead’ will take time.
Sustainability: Secure the human and financial resources necessary for ongoing sustainability. WA Ecosystem Rating: Nascent
The State Government’s Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation has been an increasing champion of the innovation ecosystem, providing support to entrepreneurs, ESOs and investors through programs initiated under the New Industries Fund. Combined with the financial commitment from Lotterywest, and contributions from philanthropic foundations such as Malka Foundation, there is a growing resource pool for ecosystem building.
However, our resourcing around innovation and entrepreneurship still pales in comparison with other local ecosystems. For example, since 2015, the Queensland Government has invested $755 million through Advance Queensland, a more than 10x multiple of the support WA’s ecosystem has seen.
Learning: Share and exchange learnings with other communities and ecosystem builders. WA Ecosystem Rating: Emerging
WA is notoriously isolated from its neighbours, and our innovation ecosystem has generally suffered a similar challenge. However, this is improving. In the last 6-months of 2023 alone, we will have seen WA leaders connect with multiple jurisdictions through concerted efforts for relationship building, including a trade mission to Jakarta, the GEN Congress in Melbourne and an ecosystem mission into Tel Aviv. Ecosystems in South East Asia should be a strong focus for the WA ecosystem, given our geographic proximity and common timezone.
The entrepreneurial ecosystem in Western Australia (WA) has shown notable progress over recent years. Through initiatives like the Innovative Society Initiative and the Meshpoints network, we've seen a concerted effort to bolster innovation and entrepreneurship. When compared to the Eship Communities’ 10 community pathway milestones, WA's innovation ecosystem exhibits a blend of mature, emerging, and nascent elements.