University entrepreneurship programs are central to Australia’s economic recovery

- June 23, 2020 3 MIN READ
UNSW. Photo: Supplied
The worst part of the economic crisis in Australia caused by COVID-19 has been the destruction of so many millions of jobs. The only thing that’s going to bring these jobs back? The work of Australia’s entrepreneurs. 

We know from research conducted in both Australia and overseas that the overwhelming majority of new jobs are created by companies less than five years old. It’s data like this that proves if we want rapid job creation in Australia, we need to support the people who are stepping up to start and lead our new companies. 

Australia’s universities can play a powerful role in helping this next generation of Australian entrepreneurs tap into the capability and networks latent in university communities.

David Burt, head of entrepreneurship at UNSW

That’s why it’s been so disappointing this month to see a number of university-based entrepreneurship programs be cut back or permanently closed.

Our entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of the Australian economy right now, and these university programs were a key support mechanism for them. Closing these programs is sabotaging Australia’s economic future.

Thankfully, the story has been different at UNSW. Through a combination of online program delivery and generous backing from our philanthropic funders, UNSW has more than doubled the volume of support available to UNSW startups during COVID-19.

We’ve matched UNSW startups in need with mentors from the UNSW community, including several highly experienced individuals who have led businesses through periods of other economic crisis. We are doing everything we can to ensure UNSW startups survive through this period. 

Like many, the UNSW Founders team kicked off with big plans for 2020. We had a series of programs designed to support entrepreneurs in our community with everything from three-hour skills workshops to a full three-month accelerator program. All of these were to be delivered in-person at the UNSW campus.

In March 2020 this had to change because of physical distancing required to fight COVID-19.  

UNSW Founders made an early call to transition our delivery online. It was a torturous decision at the time, and in hindsight it was key in enabling us to lower the cost of program delivery while also massively increasing engagement. 

In this new online delivery, we’ve found ways to meaningfully include participants from our overseas-based students and alumni. We’ve livestreamed our major events which has let us reach larger audiences.

Our pre-accelerator program that helps early-stage teams with a first prototype to validate their business idea usually takes in only 30 participants. This year we expanded it and welcomed over 180 entrepreneurs from the UNSW community into the program.

UNSW Founders also offers an always-on support service called Coach & Connect, which links founders to an experienced startup coach. Coach & Connect has recorded significant growth, with over 400 coaching conversations between March to May this year, more than double the equivalent period in 2019.

One of the biggest positive impacts we’ve had is helping our entrepreneurs navigate difficulties in their supply chain. While closed to visitors, we kept our MakerSpace operational and introduced a service where founders were able to submit their requirements for UNSW staff to create prototypes for them.

This service was particularly important to one startup when their international supply chain broke down and the UNSW MakerSpace was able to develop the products required to ensure the startup could meet their customer contracts.

So why has the story at UNSW been so different compared to other Australian universities?

UNSW has a clear mission to be Australia’s most entrepreneurial university, ensuing our innovations and discoveries are translated into positive economic, social and environmental impact. We achieve this vision by offering entrepreneurial support programs so that UNSW students, staff and alumni can build the capability, mindset and networks they need.

The other key difference is that UNSW’s vision to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs is shared by philanthropic funding from organisations and individuals like the Michael Crouch Family Foundation, Maha Sinnathamby, Dr Wong Fong Fui, the Peter Farrell Family Foundation, Chris Baxter, Stuart Richardson, and the James N Kirby Foundation.

It is their generous support that has ensured UNSW can continuing supporting entrepreneurship through this crisis. We are also supported by our culture of reciprocity – the founders who participate in our programs return as speakers and mentors, enabling the success of those who follow them. 

UNSW is committed to backing Australia entrepreneurs and we’re looking for partners who share our commitment to ensuring those who are building Australia’s economic future have access to the support they need right now. 


  • David Burt is the Director of Entrepreneurship at UNSW