Inside Ochre – here’s what you need to know about a new pre-accelerator program for First Nations entrepreneurs

- July 11, 2024 3 MIN READ
Kyle Turner
Dr Kyle Turner
To say that Dr Kyle Turner is an unusual person is an understatement.

A jack of all trades – and master of many – the epidemiologist academic turned startup founder turned startup investor has lived many lives in his 39 years. 

Born in the rural town of Dubbo, NSW, Turner, a Wiradjuri man, followed in the footsteps of Eora man Bennelong, the first Indigenous Australian to visit England in 1792, when he headed there to study in 2017.  (A side note: Burnum Burnum would also head there in 1988 to claim England for Indigenous Australians.)

Dr Turner’s trip was to the University of Oxford to complete a PhD in epidemiology 2017, having since published widely on the burden of chronic disease, with a focus on prevention of disease.

But life as an academic is not for everyone, and he wanted to make a big impact beyond academia.

“I was teaching at the University of Melbourne and had an academic career laid out in front of me, but over time I became quite cynical about a lot of the research that was coming out of universities,” he said.

“For academics publishing papers is our currency, and I wanted to do more with my degree than publish crappy papers that no one will read or use. I want to have an impact.”

His passion for preventive health, especially in disadvantaged communities such as those of many First Nations Peoples, eventually led him to the actual terra nullius of the startup world.

Between 2019 and 2022, Turner raised more than $3 million to launch Pearlii, a for-profit social enterprise that uses world-first AI technology to scan photos of teeth and gums for common dental problems, bringing free dental check-ups and free oral health education to the world for the first time.

“I got the startup bug; you can move fast, you can scale and you can have a huge impact in a short amount of time,” he said.

For a while, Pearlii was doing well: Turner had a team of 19, and at one point raised enough money to do outreach in countries like East Timor. But Covid hit, and by the time it left it took with it much of Pearlii’s business.

“We got hit pretty hard and lost a lot of money,” he admits.

“I also made many mistakes, of course, which I can see now – but that’s the benefit of hindsight.”

Pearlii is still in operation and now profitable. Dr Turner has expanded his role as an entrepreneur by joining several boards (including Charles Sturt University), as well as becoming an investment manager for a new $30 million venture capital fund, to be launched later this year, investsing only in First Nation businesses.

He also mentors a number of First Nation founders, and has dedicated the last three years to mentoring candidates through the Minderoo Foundation’s accelerator program. However, early in 2024 the program’s funding was cut, leaving a gap for a First Nations Peoples’ only startup accelerator.

So Turner decided to step in and step up.

“I’ve always worked in health, and having also started a couple of businesses, as well as now being an investment manager, I have been involved in all parts of the startup journey,” he said.

“So when I realised there was no longer an accelerator for First Nations Peoples anywhere in Australia, I applied for LaunchVic’s targeted pre-accelerator grant – and I was lucky enough to get it.”

LaunchVic awarded him $400,000 to build out the pre-pre-accelerator program, supporting Indigenous founders at the earliest-stages of their entrepreneurial journey, and Kyle plans to induct the first cohort before Christmas this year.

He’s one of seven new pre-accelerator programs LaunchVic has backed with $2.4 million in grant funding to offer free support to aspiring startup founders in Victoria.

“In total, we will help 40 First Nation founders over the next two years,” Turner said.

“It’s crucial we address the lack of First Nations leaders within the business community. We want to play our role in growing the ecosystem.”

The pre-accelerator, named ‘Ochre’, after the natural earth pigment used to make paint used by First Nations Peoples – will also be run with his friend Kayla Cartledge, a proud First Nations woman and founder of OurSonglines, a platform dedicated to promoting and preserving the rich cultural heritage of First Nations Peoples throughout Australia.