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Startup focus: Q&A Part 1 with Incubate’s James Alexander

Incubate is a startup accelerator and entrepreneur events program developed by the University of Sydney Union. We recently caught up with James Alexander, co-founder of Incubate to get the inside word on how it all works.

James co-founded Incubate with the backing of the university. He manages the program, advises the startups, and manages mentor relationships. Passionate about helping young entrepreneurs succeed, James has worked with companies like Freelancer, Atlassian, Posse, and Deloitte in Sydney.

As far as the entry mechanics go, Incubate is open to students, researchers and recent alumni of the University of Sydney, with two intakes per year in summer and winter. Between 60 and 100 startups tend to apply for each program, with eight teams selected to be a part of each program. There’s a lot of incentive for startups to get involved, including $5,000 in seed funding, on campus co-working, expert industry advice, and mentoring from some of Australia’s most experienced business minds.

James Alexander

Part 1 of our Q&A with James

Can you give readers an overview of the selection process? How does a student or startup co-founder get into Incubate, what are you looking for specifically?

James:

Sure. So we actually go around campus holding a number of info sessions and talks where we target a specific pool of subjects, interests and groups in the areas of entrepreneurship, computer science, and software.


From there, we encourage people to apply online and complete a simple application form. We actually don’t ask for a business plan, which might be surprising to some in the business community. The idea of submitting business plans is a little outdated, so instead, we ask for a short written pitch where applicants explain their idea, state what they want to gain from Incubate, and show us how they can commit to launching the startup. They can also submit a short video or attach whatever else supports the application.
 

What’s the selection process, how is a startup idea actually given the green light to get into the program?


James:

Once everyone has applied, five to 10 of our mentors go online and assess each application via a five star grading system. Anything three stars plus gets through to the next stage – which is a face-to-face interview. Out of 60 to 100 apps, about 20 tend to get through to the interview.
 

This is where it gets really interesting. Applicants interview with myself, an Incubate staff member, a resident mentor and one or two external mentors from our network. There’s usually an outside mentor who’s seen all the applications, and one who hasn’t, which helps with bringing a completely fresh perspective on the day. The founder expects they are coming in for a formal pitch, but it’s usually much more of a conversation! We want to chat about what they’re doing, why they think it’s an interesting area, and why they personally want to work on the idea.

 

We do get them to pitch the idea of course, but there’s a lot of pre-interview discussion the applicant hasn’t seen – this becomes the basis for our questions and the interview itself. Our team has already explored the idea in-depth, looking at why the opportunity may work, or why it may struggle to succeed. So you could say the interview is an informal but highly informed process!

 

Where do the “aha” moments come from when you’re assessing the idea and its founders?

 

James:

Well, the thing about combining startups and a student environment is very often the lack of a precedent for the founder. We’re taught to look at the data – for example, a person’s past, their history, and their achievements. But when you have no past business history concerning a startup, you have to look at the opportunity in a different way.

 

So instead of focusing on what’s been done in the past, or where the weaknesses in the idea exist, we flip this around and focus on the strengths. Unlike with some established businesses, it’s always easier to spot weaknesses with a startup. And it’s always safe to assume plenty of reasons why something won’t work. Therefore, we’ve found it’s best to ask why an idea will work, and what are the top reasons this idea has merit.

 

And generally, this leads us to prioritising the founders themselves. We dive into their motivations: why are they passionate about this idea? What is the unique perspective they bring to solving the problem at hand? Why are they pursuing this idea, this inherently riskier idea, rather than following a path of more study or a graduate job? This is what we’re really looking for, and by focusing on the founder or team of co-founders, we can uncover this sort of information.

Stay tuned for Part 2… or to learn more now, visit https://incubate.org.au/

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