SPARK REIGNITED: Australia’s largest startup event, Spark Festival, refreshes after director departs

- June 5, 2023 3 MIN READ
Now federal minister Ed Husic at a Spark Festival-backed talk in 2018. Photo: Narelle Spangher, ANE
The annual Spark Festival, the largest national event for Australia’s startup community, is the latest victim of a reduced funding for the sector, with the director departing and the board looking to refresh the event to present later this year.

Festival director Maxine Sherrin left the organisation on Friday after nearly seven years, having successfully kept the show on the road during Covid and lockdowns with online events that saw the festival expand dramatically from its Sydney base.

Sherrin told Startup Daily that while existing supporters had renewed their commitments to the 15-day festival, the organisation hadn’t been able to attract the level of funding needed maintain Spark as an ongoing year activity.

On Tuesday the Spark board, led by UTS head of startups Murray Hurps, said the festival will continue this year, thanks to the ongoing support of sponsors, but they’re keen to hear from the sector about what they’d like to see in the event.

“The Spark board is taking this opportunity to design what makes sense for the future of Spark’s festival in 2023, and beyond,” Hurps said.

“This will include a new (and renewed) set of partners, clear messaging around the goals and focus areas, revised board membership and most of all: continued service to connect current and potential participants in our tech startup ecosystem.”

The board is seeking comments on its LinkedIn post here.

“Connectivity will continue to be a defining characteristic of successful tech ecosystems and economies, and Spark is dedicated to continuing to drive this connectivity,” Hurps said.

He paid tribute to the outgoing director saying “Nobody could have achieved what Maxine has achieved, been loved by so many, or been such a pleasure to work with”.

Hurps said the Spark board “will be making more announcements over the coming months, but for now we just want to start a conversation”.

Bright sparks

Former Spark Festival director Maxine Sherri

Sherrin said the board is looking at the best way forward to support the changing needs of startups and others in the ecosystem, pointing to the return of Startup Muster and Tech23 as positive signs.

“The board is currently appraising how best to work with the funding that is available, but I’m afraid at this stage it’s hard to commit to dates for Spark Festival in 2023,” she said.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work all of us have achieved in growing and connecting the ecosystem since Spark first began in 2016. The change is quite eye-watering and that’s all down to people who ran events, participated in meetups, or shared your learnings and connections so generously.”

“And a massive thanks to all the organisations who have supported Spark financially and in-kind throughout the years: your contribution has built the ecosystem we see today.”

Sherrin said she’s going to take a couple of weeks off and work out what’s next.

“It’s sad to think that Spark in its current form may be ending. But it really pumps up my feel-good factor to think of the thousands and thousands of tiny connections made, all those light bulb moments that have been sparked, and what might now emerge,” she said.

“When I first started in this role on almost exactly the same day back in 2016, I knew hardly anyone in the startup community, had vaguely heard of this cool place called Fishburners, and was quickly google such terms like fintech and SaaS so I wouldn’t look like a complete n00b.”

She chuckles at the similarities to startup life in feeling daunted that she “needed to deliver something with maximum impact, in a very short timeframe and with minimal resources”, thanking the NSW Government and City of Sydney for their foundation funding, alongside Michelle Long, Victoria Moxey, and Jack Qi and his team at William Buck,

“It’s hard to place a commercial value on things like ‘community’, your commitment to doing that is incredibly appreciated,” she said.

“The thing that struck me right from the get-go was how willing people were to get involved in the project that became Spark Festival. And that was because 2016 was absolutely the right time to start something that joined the dots and created the networks and connections that build this thing we call a startup ecosystem. And now it is absolutely the right time for something new.”

  • Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said the 2023 Spark Festival was not going ahead based on Maxine Sherrin said the board was pausing activities. This was incorrect and Startup Daily apologises for the error.