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Reimagining University Innovation

Reimagining University Innovation

Accelerator Software

Reimagining University Innovation

In this episode we’re exploring how Universities must reimagine innovation in order to survive and thrive, in a Covid-19 world.

Today, we are very lucky to be joined by Matt Salier who is the director of RMIT Activator, RMIT University’s home of entrepreneurship. Matt has a wealth of experience in the university innovation space and is a leader of an awesome team driving entrepreneurial education, launching and scaling startups both here in Melbourne, Ho Chi Minh City and beyond.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FU4vNY5x05k&t=1067s

Brian: Likewise. The first question we always kick off with is: can you tell us, what are you working on right now?

Matt: I suppose you’d have to be living under a rock not to know the challenges facing the education sector at the moment. There’s a lot of work going on internally, particularly at RMIT, but really across the sector. It’s a really systems-level change event, right? This is not going to be solved by lopping the branches and trimming the edges. We have to rethink how we structure ourselves, rethink how and what we’re providing to who.

It’s a perfect place for a place like Activator and a place like the capabilities that my team have to have a real impact across the university. We’re working a lot more on internal innovation. We’re working with teams across the university and help them reimagine how they might think differently, but then start to operationalize that.

Simultaneously, we’re doubling down on our entrepreneurship programs for our startups. We had our capital board meeting just last week, and again had some incredible examples of founders just really doing amazing things, not unlike yourself.

There’s a lot going on. We’ve just secured a big regional entrepreneurship program with a Spanish wind turbine company in Western Victoria. We’re in the midst of going through the design process for that, and I’m really excited.

We also have just landed an indigenous scale-up program. It will be adding to the suite of indigenous programs we’ve already run to take 20 indigenous businesses already at market to that next level, whether that be into new products and services or into new markets.

So there’s some really interesting things to still be working on whilst we’re dealing with that really challenging systems-that-will-change stuff.

Brian: Absolutely. It sounds like you guys are definitely not sitting still.

Matt: [laughs]

Brian: So what I’m hearing is there’s kind of three different zones there: there’s the internal entrepreneurship piece, there’s the external partnerships piece, and then there’s the review of what’s happening now in terms of the landscape and how the university and the university business units such as Activator sit in amongst all of that.

Matt: I think it was really a bit of a shock to see QUT cancel their entrepreneurship program. I know talking to colleagues around the place that [03:22] they’re cutting backing. We’ve trimmed what we can do, and as I said that sort of internal pivot shifts where we deploy resources, of course.

But crises are the perfect time to innovate, to try new things, to test, to iterate and to learn how to do things in different ways. The pandemic, as terrible as the health crisis is, it’s just really been a catalyst for the business model challenges that universities and the education sector has as a whole.

RMIT’s [03:57] exposure to international student revenue wasn’t as bad as some, but it’s not insignificant. But that gives an impetus to think about how you might redesign, and for us, for Activator, the entrepreneurship is at the core of how RMIT thinks about itself and defines the journey for its 90-odd thousand students. We’re really pushing hard to amplify how we operationalize that.

You mentioned Vietnam and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The last cohort of our pre-accelerator had seven teams from Vietnam, 11 teams from Melbourne going through together. So that was great. There were slightly different stages, and that’s a bit of a program challenge, but the amazing connectivity that was created because of that, we couldn’t have anticipated. We’ve got Vietnam students now placing into Melbourne startups and Melbourne students placing into Vietnam startups — cross-cultural communication, the amplification of both of the businesses and the student experiences on both sides is tremendous. That’s exactly why entrepreneurship in the university setting is so critical.

Brian: It’s quite interesting when you touch on that. It’s that idea of, as almost all evolution, forced evolution, right? So universities and the innovation ecosystem have found themselves in a more or less non-negotiable situation at the moment, which is essentially “evolve or maybe don’t survive.”

Matt: Go the way of the dodo. That’s right.

Brian: Correct. [laughs] And when we look at it here, you’re talking about this idea of cross-pollination of skills between two startup ecosystems thousands of kilometers apart. That really brings us into that idea that in the adaptation to this new challenging environment, people are really finding or people are testing the limits of what technology can do to allow them to collaborate.

Matt: Absolutely. I was saying offline to you, we’re an Office 365 university, a wonderful enterprise stack that does amazing things, but as probably lots of people have learned, its collaboration software in terms of video conferencing through teams was a fair way behind what we’re using today in Zoom, so we just started using Zoom. We went to that, and of course I got the terse email from our chief information security officer saying, “Oh, there’s problems with Zoom,” and some of those were very legitimate.

But we pushed on, and we went back to our mates there at the [06:42] office and said, “Well, here’s why we’re using it. Here’s how we can achieve as close to experiential, that visceral experience that’s required when you’re innovating, when you’re collaborating and co-designing with different disciplines. This is how we’re doing it.”

So we use a combination of Zoom with Miro, a whiteboarding program, a cloud-based program like MURAL, Padlets and some other things as well to actually create this really quite impactful experience. Year-to-date to June last year, we had about I think 950 attendees to programs and workshops. Year-to-date January to June 30, we had 3,700.

So we’ve amplified quantities and everything [laughs] but we’ve amplified our reach and the impact we have on students and startups and the corporate innovation ecosystem that we work with by using those tools. We ran a great webinar series really early on in March. I think we’ve seen these peaks and troughs of webinars and everything else as well. Everyone with a camera is an expert now. We ran some great webinars and engaged our corporate partners and talked about innovation in crisis and so on. We ran a couple on cyber security, pulling out some of this stuff around Zoom.

How do you do virtual education, whether that be accredited or whether that be startup acceleration style activities? How do you do that with the tools that you need to have available? We’ve experimented, and some of it didn’t work, but we really learned a lot. We’re using Miro, and we were part of a couple of global groups of accelerator networks and learning design networks, so you have these learning designers. Two of the teams were on one Monday night with a bunch in Europe.

We think we’re using Miro to an extent that others aren’t to use it to facilitate versus actually just… So we’ve actually designed a little Miro course that we’re going to be testing next week —

Brian: That’s pretty cool.

Matt: — for that reason because educators are also struggling. They’re getting all these tools thrown at them. “This can do that.” But you’ve got to learn that as well, plus make sure it’s designed in such a way that the learner, that the customer goes through the process. It’s exactly what a university should be, and I think we’re modeling it really well. But it hasn’t been without its hiccups: passwords and [09:20] office negotiations, shall we say, [laughs] notwithstanding.

Brian: That brings me to a really interesting question, which is around the fact that obviously, Activator sits as the home of entrepreneurship inside RMIT University. For those who are listening or watching and are not familiar with it, I think RMIT has — is it over about 100,000 students?

Matt: About 92,000.

Brian: That’s close enough to 100,000. [laughs]

Matt: Big numbers. [09:45] [laughs]

Brian: It’s quite a lot. My question here is: what do you think the role is of Activator and similar programs in other universities in educating the university as to the possibilities out there?

Matt: Spot on. I think that’s internal innovation, that internal entrepreneurial approach, hence the pivot to that. We took one whole team of 90 people through a two-day hackathon a couple of weeks ago for that purpose. They had some projects.

Universities have a business model that’s 900 years old. It’s based around an agrarian calendar so that the boys — because it was only boys — would go back and tend the fields in summer. We haven’t had that level of change [laughs] or evolution, as you said earlier.

Our role, absolutely, I think, in the internal places, [10:42] inside, help do that train-the-trainer bit, help lift up the levels of understanding how to embed entrepreneurial content or entrepreneurial thinking into everything, from what the student experiences in a course sitting in front of the computer or, heaven forbid, when we’re back in a tutorial or in a workshop, but also to help understand how to embed that into programs and to be comfortable with real-time, real-life learning.

A lot of the education I did when I started university way, way, way back was very static. Today, we know that that’s just not the world, even if we just took it from a technology point of view, let alone a business model point of view. If you can’t keep up with the digitization, the ability of what those tools enable you to do to create impact, whether that impact is economic or it’s environmental or social, cultural, political, whatever it is…

So our role is very much to help those that are training the students, the 92,000-plus, to embed entrepreneurial thinking and consider how to change the way education is manifestly experienced, and then simultaneously to help professional support and the research staff.

We’ve got a wonderful research program that we’re running in combination with the University of Melbourne, taking 35 researchers through essentially an ideation-to-MVP. These are early-career PhD researchers, the perfect time to help them think differently about how they might consider their research having the impact they want. Translation. We’ve seen programs like CSIRO’s ON Prime and others that have done a bit of that as well.

So we sort of cross over the student piece, the internal professional, academic and research staff. COVID has seen more of them coming to us to help them do that than we’ve seen before. The computer science guys are redesigning their whole curriculum. We’ve got 500-odd students that go through that program a year before they specialize in all the amazing technology side of things. They’re looking for us to embed hackathon design sprint experiences in very technical degrees so that we get that user-centric, customer-centric, problem-centric approach rather than perhaps technologists building technology because it’s called tech. That actually doesn’t solve anyone’s problem.

We’re seeing great examples of that activity which is, again, an indication of that entrepreneurial spirit, the DNA within RMIT that says, “This is important.” Enterprise-led and connected is important for the education that those 90-odd thousand students get being relevant.

Brian: It’s curious when we think about the business model evolving — again, forced evolution. There’s a combination of inevitable — pre-COVID, there was just changing behaviors in terms of people having a bigger appetite to consume digitally and in a just-in-time or always-on way. Do you see a situation where the university model would actually move more towards an always-on scenario where people have kind of continuous intake, or do you think it would probably remain in an, as you say, agrarian-calendar-based intake because that’s just the way the model is?

Matt: I guess that’s the harsh take on it. Clearly, many universities, including ours, have tried to adapt parts of it, but I guess my point is that at our core, we’re still predicated on the same model that existed where 900 years ago someone came up with the idea of imparting knowledge in the way that we do. There’s a number of really good reports, there’s different ways that the education sector is seen to perhaps evolve because of this.

I’ve been listening to Scott Galloway. Scott Galloway’s got a great podcast. It’s worth checking in on Professor G. He’s an NYU Stern marketing professor who very bluntly laments the changes that are coming, but is fully endorsing… He’s looking at the US college system, he’ll say the Tier 3s will disappear, some of the Tier 1s will still retain and maybe consolidate to your point about focusing in, and then the Level 2 colleges will just have carnage. That’s one of the biggest higher education systems in the world, so Australia could look at that as a model of what might happen here.

I do think there’s lots of different ways universities can go. You look at how very research-intensive universities are now challenged because international student revenues were helping cover the gap of investment required in deep, long-term research which is absolutely critical. That yet-to-be-applied, yet-to-be-translated research is very important for Australia to lift up the value chain globally. Do we want to just be a supplier of knowledge, or do we want to be the creator of it?

I think there’s an interesting moment here. These next six months will really tell how universities in Australia — the 40-odd of us that there are — adapt. Entities like Activator, we’re one of several within RMIT that are helping focus the university on the possibilities. I’m hopeful that my colleagues in these roles in other universities are also being asked to step forward into that role for their university to help reshape how it might look.

Brian: I think in a in a globalized world — again, pre-COVID, probably the apex of globalization, with some of the political players in the US, there was kind of a hit of the reverse gear in some of the globalization that was going on. And then just like technology has been accelerated at this forced evolution by COVID, it asks the question around sovereignty of innovation. So actually building the capacity at home, in whatever nation it may be — obviously in this case we’re talking about Australia — for the ecosystem to grow its own in terms of the creators and the ideators, do you think that universities are uniquely positioned to play a role in sowing those seeds for that bounce-back or positioning for recovery?

Matt: They should be. You mentioned just-in-time learning education earlier, and I think that’s probably one of the spaces where universities have been slow on the uptake. We’ve had, again, a traditional business model where you get a student in, it’s like a three-year annuity work. We just know that that revenue will come for three years. That can lead to laziness in how you might think about that model.

I think universities absolutely have the potential to deliver exactly what you’re saying that, sovereign capability to lift up our role in the global value chains of a knowledge economy, of a knowledge worker base. You see lots of amazing companies in Australia and globally that are embracing how they might achieve that. But I think the jury’s out as to whether that adjustment can be made. I think you have a reasonably adversarial regulatory government environment towards higher education — some of it justified, some of it not — that’s difficult, particularly in these circumstances.

The reality is higher education did an awesome job of commercializing itself to the world to the point of getting to be the third largest contributor to gross domestic product and got perhaps a bit complacent about how well they did that [laughs] and didn’t think about the next and the next and the next. And now, what we see happen is that those countries who were our customers for that wonderful commercialization of a top-quality Western education product have built their own high-quality educational systems on the back of that, as you would hope you would do, building capability in China and Malaysia and India and so on. And now, of course, the reliance on us, it was already plateauing and tapering in some disciplines and areas, and now that reliance has just been, as I said, like fuel on a fire over that change.

We can play that role and should. It’s how well and how quickly the agility of our quite bureaucratically-structured organizations can adapt. That systems change is tough. System change in any organization, from a small scaleup to a big bank or a big mining company, is hard. Universities are no different.

Brian: Absolutely. You’ve got human beings, you’ve got culture, you’ve got systems which are ingrained, and you’ve got the ability for people to only be able to process so much change in one go. For this positioning for a comeback or a bounce back in terms of the innovation ecosystem, there are a number of different players in there. We’ve spoken to universities, there’s the founders themselves who are enabled by the infrastructure provided by those innovation programs, but the player with the most levers is government. They play an intrinsic role in architecting the pathways that are available to those early-stage businesses or to people who may have discovered that as skilled as they are, they might not necessarily have a job in six months or whatever it may be.

From that perspective, and stepping back for a more macro point of view, how do you think government can play a key role, maybe partnering with universities to enable this positioning for a comeback?

Matt: They clearly have a role. The reality of the next 6 to 12 months at least, perhaps not longer, is the government will be the biggest investor or the spender or lubricator of the economy to get some type of bumpiness out of it and has done a good job in the main today. I think there’s some challenges ahead still.

But I think the risk with government intervention is — and you’ve seen it with the announcements around the change to the ratios that the government pays universities for particular types of degrees — it’s almost like government rather than the market is making an assessment of what the skills and jobs need to be. Hopefully, that’s market informed, but the market is usually the best and more agile determinant of that versus a bureaucracy, that being a government or the university itself.

The risk you run, particularly with some of the education policy changes that are ostensively to help change business models in universities, is that you just become a factory for the skills that at a point in time were determined to be necessary versus being able to help you adapt to market demand and get better at the just-in-time piece.

Look at our RMIT online offerings and they can, from start to finish, spin up a new short-course program — six weeks usually — in about eight weeks. They talk to the Australian industry group we identify.

We did this [23:12] last year with blockchain. We identified two or three blockchain courses that were in demand, one that was focused on board director understanding of technology changes and DLT and how that would impact other IT professionals in starting to think about the implications, and another at a broad “here’s what blockchain and distributed ledger technology could do.” We’re able to do that in a really short time frame, spin it up, get industry partners — Palo Alto Networks and others — get Australian industry groups and those that say, “Yes, this is what we want,” and then it’s in market.

That sort of agility is what you want to do. The risk of government intervention saying, “We’ll pay you more if you do this type of degree or this type of accredited program,” is that all of a sudden, resources swing to that because that’s where the money will be, and you might miss the opportunity to actually service a need that has been there all along.

The big risk of government intervention in education is the impact on creative and humanities subjects. We would say across the board, RMIT is a design technology enterprise university. That design component, that very important humanities discipline actually brings so much breadth and opportunity to technologists and marketers and business students when we’re trying to create businesses or create projects for our corporate partners.

To just say, “Well, that’s not important, and STEM’s only important,” the market doesn’t work that way, and innovation doesn’t work that way. It happens at the edges of all those experiences. If innovations happens at the edges of all these different disciplines and you’re disincentivized to focus on one of them, then clearly innovation is going to suffer.

Brian: That makes perfect sense. If you subsidize an industry in an economy, it will thrive. It might operate inefficiently, and you might even operate at a loss. If you take away subsidies — for example, in the European Union, almost every country has received some kind of a subsidy for one of their national industries that probably took a hit when they became part of the market. But the idea was that they wouldn’t penalize them for joining, so they would subsidize the industry even though it might not be commercially viable.

I think it’s interesting to say the government definitely has a role to play in supporting and leading when it comes to those education subjects, but the danger, of course, is on the flip side, you’re taking away the market’s voice in some ways, which is an important part of innovation.

Matt: It’s just how you balance it, certainly.

Brian: So Matt, tell me: what is your biggest learning over the last 12 months? There’s an easy question for you.

Matt: [laughs] Twelve months? For me, it’s been pivoting again. It was really, really fortunate that I started with RMIT in August after having built the New Venture Institute in Adelaide at Flinders University for the past seven years. That was another one of my startups. That was from two bits of paper and a bit of runway, “See what you can create.”

Seven years on, the biggest learning for me with Activator is that it was a scaleup. There had been an investment, there was a tremendous base, there were things that probably hadn’t worked, as is always the case. It was a great opportunity to really get into that, and we made wonderful headway. We got an awesome team really starting to hit their straps, and instead of February, [snaps fingers] what happened?

My biggest learning is that I still enjoy that challenge of a significant pivot, a significant fracture. I can see that path for Activator to build on this amazing foundation that it had in the first two and a half years of its life, and as we start to get to that third, fourth year, at the back end of this year, it’s just that that ability to pivot. Learning that I still don’t mind doing that —

Brian: [laughs]

Matt: — learning that I can I can help a team adjust and adapt to that. We did a great exercise where we took everyone in the team — we have an education and product team and they do a brilliant job of delivery for all the programs we do, but we had every single person in the team deliver a workshop on a topic that we teach founders and students to us as a team.

We did it as a development piece, we did it as a way for us all to get together, and we used it to work on a particular aspect of a program that we’re trying to do as part of a retro-whatever. It was this incredible, enriching experience. Everyone embraced it, and we had the best time. We were doing two a week for five weeks or six weeks or so. It was really great.

So learning that I still enjoy the pivoting and relish it, and really learning what people are capable of and how to help them see that in themselves as well… It’s been great.

Brian: I love it. So tell me, crystal ball time: Australia’s innovation landscape, 24 months. We’re in July 2022. What does it look like?

Matt: Innovation landscape’s an interesting question, isn’t it? You think about how broad that is, it’s like, “What does the market in Australia look like?” Because I think everybody should be thinking about what innovation is and how it matters. I think there are some macro things.

I’m watching what’s happening with this distributed workforce piece and looking at how NAB just shut down two buildings in Docklands in Melbourne there to essentially mothball them and consolidate staff who are requiring an office back to one office in Collins Street or Bourke Street.

I think there’s going to be a really big shift to this mixed, distributed working model. I think they have a massive effect on what CBDs are, what the commercial lease landscape looks like, what space looks like. I think there’s a misnomer that productivity is lessened by remote distributed working. I think you can actually see really good signs of where that is actually enhanced — perhaps not when you’re doing homeschooling from home as well at the same time, but let’s assume that in 2022, in July, school is back [30:14].

Brian: [laughs]

Matt: I think that’s going to be quite interesting, having companies adjust to a much more rigorous assessment of how they create value, how they innovate, how they disrupt themselves with a distributed landscape, with a different view of space and so on. You see Atlassian have whole business units that only ever have virtual meetings. If one person’s virtual, everyone has to be virtual in that meeting or everyone should be.

Companies like that that are growing rapidly that have found ways through it give you some sort of signpost to what’s possible. I’m interested in that. I think that we will see lots of companies really struggling with that, but I think there’s lots of opportunities coming from it when it’s embraced well.

Brian: It’s one of the things people have said, isn’t it, that the people who are coming through the high schools now and the primary schools, they’re 8 or 15 or whatever it is. They’ve never actually had a job in an office. By the time they actually sit behind their first desk, they’ll probably be looking back at how we worked even just a few years ago and they’ll think that it came out of the Jurassic period or something. “You guys actually went into the office every single day on a packed tram?”

Matt: And that’s the thing: it’s a very Industrial Revolution era evolution, to pick your term, of today. I think it’s just the right time to challenge how productivity — I said about using Zoom and Miro and other tools before, and that has been a tremendous way to create really experiential breakout rooms and really deep value-creating exercises.

There is a visceral nature to innovation that that is required, that physical connectivity, the serendipity of discussions when you’re having a break in a workshop, as you go get some fresh air. “Did you know…?” That intention serendipity, we need to find ways to inject that into all of our lives.

It’s not an either-or; it’s about how we find the blend. I think there’s no such thing as a “When do we get back to normal?” I think it’s about how we architect the new normal. Different sectors will need to do that in different ways, but I think it’s now proven that we don’t need to travel for things as much as we do.

I’ve talked to founders who have raised money off people in these last four months that have never physically met. I think it’s definitely harder. It’s probably less optimal in a longer journey to the same end point, but it’s not not-possible. I think that’s just challenging the way we think about what has to happen.

Brian: My final question to you is: congratulations, Matt. Here is a half-million dollar check. It’s imaginary, unfortunately.

Matt: [laughs] Oh, no.

Brian: You can take this today and you can invest it in any kind of program you want, an innovation or acceleration program. The question really is: what is the niche the startup or industry niche you would choose to back, and why?

Matt: That’s a great question, Brian. We’ve talked about education. I think there’s absolutely a space to invest in that to really make sure that we’re doing systems-level change. That might seem like a copout because that’s the space I’m in, but we’ve seen lots of ed-tech companies disintermediating our industry for years and years and years. There’s some wonderful reports. Navitas did a great one on it.

I think there’s truly a role there, at a real educator level. I talked about train-the-trainer before. I think there’s a massive opportunity there to change the way educators educate for that entrepreneurial capability, that entrepreneurial thinking into everyone they teach, whether it be a corporate staff member or a high school or primary school student. So I’d invest it in helping more of our educators get comfortable with baking in those principles of entrepreneurial thinking and innovation into everything we teach.

Brian: I love it. Matt, you are a gentleman. I know you’re a very busy man, so thank you very much for generously giving us your time today.

Matt: No worries.

Brian: It has been enlightening, and as always, very enjoyable, so thank you very much. You and I will be catching up offline, anyway.


Brian: RMIT Activator. Thank you.

Matt: Thanks, mate. Really appreciate it.

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