How a piece of the past nurtures present-day entrepreneurs
At around 100 years old, the handsome redbrick building at number 608 Harris St, Ultimo – now known as UTS Building 16 – seems on the surface an unusual choice of workspace for some of Sydney’s brightest young entrepreneurs at UTS Startups.
Quirky Building 16 is now home base for many UTS Startups entrepreneurs (photo: Andrew Worssam).
With its high ceilings and uneven floorboards, a pair of vaults that supposedly predate the building itself, a secret soundproofed room and what appear to be the mechanical remnants of an old hoist system in the basement, Building 16 has clearly seen plenty of life. It’s been a hardware store, possibly a hat maker’s – given heritage references to its former name of Millinery House – and more recently the address of hundreds of small companies. But surely tech-savvy startups require a glossy, high-tech environment?
Not according to Director of Entrepreneurship Murray Hurps, whose UTS Startups has just blown out the candles on its first birthday cake. He believes the old Federation-era warehouse is ideal as a co-working space for his growing band of entrepreneurs who have moved in following a modest but inspired makeover of the four quirky storeys.
Murray Hurps at the celebration of UTS Startups' first anniversary (photo: Guy Degen).
The lightest, brightest floors are given over to open, white-walled workspaces and glass-fronted meeting rooms, while the basement levels accommodate a large collaborative kitchen, plenty of lounge space for informal discussion and even a small stage, readymade for pitching innovative ideas.
“It’s perfect for scrappy, hardworking student-founded startups,” Murray says. “Personally, I don’t like seeing shiny innovation spaces with ten people eating Ramen noodles. There’s something very insincere about that; 608 is completely different.
“Everything we’ve done here is designed to respond to the people who want to be here, and the startups love it. With the white walls and whiteboards, it’s a blank canvas so the most interesting thing about it becomes the people inside it and how they’re using it, which is what it should be.
“We’ve got hundreds of people working hard in there and sharing their expertise on different things, which is very visible and what makes it a productive space.”
Building 16's white interior creates a blank canvas for innovation (photo: Andrew Worssam).
There’s also the location, an affordable and youthful area, walking distance from the CBD. Abuzz after decades-long revitalisation, Ultimo has become a magnet for young innovators.
After one year of operation, UTS Startups is currently supporting 250 startups launched by UTS students, validating the decision to evolve the former Hatchery program into something much more ambitious. Not surprisingly, one of the best-represented focus areas is education because, as Murray explains, “entrepreneurs tend to focus on what they are most exposed to”.
However, medical technology, fitness/wellness, financial technology, internet-of-things and hardware-focused startups also count among the mostly small cooperatives startups hard at work in Building 16.
Murray says that picking a winning startup in the early stages is doomed to fail. “So much can change from when people walk through the door wanting to work on something – the people they meet, the things they learn, the development of this into that and that into something else. You need to assume that anyone can be successful and support the diversity of people and ideas.”
However, he is thrilled by the potential of Tech Gym, which has found a novel use for its robotic arms in supporting physiotherapists’ rehabilitation work with stroke patients. The startup has since been accepted into Australia’s leading med-tech program and now has $200,000 in development funding.
The only requirement for a startup to use Building 16, or its adjacent facility in Building 15, is that one person on the founding team has been a UTS student in the last 12 months, and they complete an application process at startups.uts.edu.au
With around 45,000 students, the university makes an ideal environment for anyone with entrepreneurial interests. There’s sure to be a like mind somewhere on campus who is keen to collaborate on an idea and take it to the next level.
“When I joined UTS, I thought my main challenge would be to inspire entrepreneurs,” says Murray, who was formerly with Fishburners. “What I’ve figured out is that UTS already has a remarkably entrepreneurial student body. They want to get experience in startups. They want to create their own jobs and decide what they want to work on rather than being told. They’re all ready to go, and – uniquely at UTS – we have the ability to support this desire.
“Even if 1000 students wanted to launch startups tomorrow, we can now support that.”
Century-old Building 16 on Harris St has lived a
full life (photo: Andrew Worssam).
Building 16 certainly gives them the collegiate space to begin their journey.
Murray agrees. “Any space like this allows people who are already working well to work better alongside people like themselves. You have a certain number of conversations each day, and isn’t it nice if all those conversations are with people who might be helpful? You see other people working hard and having success and you’re inspired to work harder. Or if things aren’t working out, you’re surrounded by people who can give you emotional support, or give you a job or some help.
“This building has seen the full emotional gamut of thousands of entrepreneurs working hard, celebrating their hard-earned wins, and dealing with the fallout when things haven’t gone as planned. The important thing here though is that you will never be working alone,” he says.