Adversity can break a business - or make it

Published 11 June 2019

“Don’t be afraid” is the straightforward message that SMART Region Incubator (SRI) entrepreneur Sam Duncan brought home from a recent trip to Israel.

For a start-up entrepreneur, there can be no more energising environment to visit than Israel, the “start-up nation”. Sam and his business partner Shahriar Jamshidi got that opportunity after winning the Austrade Bridge Hub Special Prize at evokeAG earlier this year.

“Acceptance of risk is embedded into Israeli culture,” Sam says. “They are all waiting for the bomb to drop. Here in Australia, we are very risk-averse. But the lesson I took from the Israeli start-up culture was: you can fail; just get back up.”

Sam and Shahriar are developing Farmlab, an ecosystem of software and process that aims to make the analysis of farm soils easy, cheap and paperless.

When they pitched their concept to Israeli investors, they quickly learned two things: their audience was primarily interested in investments that had a return for Israel, and that FarmLab needed to greatly expand its ambitions.

“We have been thinking about solving a specific problem for Australian farmers,” Sam said. “The investors were telling us to think much larger, at the global level. We’ve revised our mission accordingly.”

The Austrade/Bridge Hub Agrifood Tech “boot camp”that the FarmLab founders participated in allowed them to meet people across the Israeli start-up ecosystem.

That ecosystem impressed Sam with its effectiveness. Perhaps unexpectedly, he said, Israel doesn’t have deep research capacity outside its military complex. It has no universities ranked in the global top 100 for research, unlike Australia.

But Israel has a peerless system of commercialising ideas through networks of investors and businesses.

Sam hopes that Australia’s long and dismal history of shipping great ideas offshore to be commercialised might be reversed using some of the cues and energy of the Israeli model.

“Innovation thrives in adversity,” he said. “Israel has a tangible sense of adversaries because of its geopolitical position in the Middle East. In Australia, we don’t have overt human enemies, but we have climate change, which has the potential to wreak great havoc on our society.”

“I think we could use the urgency of the threat to our wellbeing that’s presented by climate change to our advantage, to fast-track great ideas and own the benefits of developing them.”