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Canberra seeks four regional spots for startup incubators

The Australian government has kicked off the hunt for four organisations in regional locations to deliver incubator facilitator services for its Entrepreneurs' Programme.

The Australian government is looking for four regional incubator facilitators, seeking an individual or a small organisation in each area keen to take on the initial 12-month responsibility.

In a request for tender (RFT) published over the weekend, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science explained that the four entities will be contracted to provide the Regional Incubator Facilitator services under the Incubator Support element of the federal government's Entrepreneurs' Programme, which is one of the measures funded under its AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The purpose of the facilitator role is to provide feedback and guidance, and assist potential regional applicants for the Incubator Support initiative. The Regional Incubator Facilitators will assist in developing projects and support regional startups by providing links between business, industry, and universities, aiming to encourage regional innovation.

The successful individual will be required to become, if not already, a body corporate under the Corporations Act 2001 for the duration of the initial one-year role, with the option for two 12 month extensions.

The incubators are to be located in, or within reasonable travelling distance of, Northern Queensland, covering from Rockhampton up to Cairns and central Queensland with the ability to service Darwin if required; and another in Central and Mid-North New South Wales and Southern QLD, covering from Dubbo up to Toowoomba, including the regional centres of Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo, Tamworth, Armidale, Lismore, and Toowoomba.

The third location is required to cover Western Australia's southern region, covering the regions of Peel, South West, Great Southern, and Central and Southern Wheatbelt, with the ability to service areas in the state's north if required. The fourth location is to be South West Victoria and South East South Australia, covering from Bendigo and Torquay in Victoria across to Victor Harbour in SA, with the ability to service Tasmania if required.

The AU$23 million Incubator Support initiative, formally kicked off in September 2016, provides grant funding to new and existing incubators and "experts in residence". Both categories require a funding contribution from applicants.

The government expects the initiative to support new incubators by targeting innovative startups to assist them to trade internationally, expand the scale and operations of existing incubators to increase the startups' chances of success in international markets, develop new startups with a focus on international markets, and create opportunities for startups to develop sustainable businesses through access to open public data.

Speaking at the initiative's launch over a year ago, former Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Greg Hunt said the government's AU$23 million funding pool will be distributed via an application process.

Changes to the Incubator Support initiative were then announced by Minister Craig Laundy in December, aiming to make the initiative it more accessible for regional applicants.

For new and existing incubators, grants up to AU$500,000, which the department labelled a "more generous funding ratio of 65 percent" are available where at least 80 percent of project activities are being undertaken in a regional area.

Incubators can also access matched grants of up to AU$100,000 to engage experts-in-residence from Australia and overseas or fund outgoing incubator employees to visit host incubators and expand their international networks, providing it facilitates Australian startups.

Originally announced as an AU$8 million initiative, the incubator support program was allocated a further AU$15 million over four years as part of Malcolm Turnbull's election campaign in June 2016.

Since the innovation agenda was unveiled, the federal government has also kicked off its AU$11 million startup landing pad initiative aimed at helping Australian entrepreneurs take their ideas to international markets.

The inaugural landing pad was unveiled in February 2016, with the government selecting Silicon Valley's RocketSpace technology campus to kick off the initiative.

Tel Aviv was then announced as the second host city for the government-funded project; Shanghai was unveiled as the desired location for the third landing pad; Berlin was revealed as the fourth location; and Singapore was confirmed as the fifth and final landing pad spot the following May.

When announcing the AU$11 million landing pad initiative, Turnbull said the billion-dollar promise would be used to incentivise innovation and entrepreneurship, reward risk taking, and promote science, maths, and computing in schools.

"Australia is falling behind on measures of commercialisation and collaboration, consistently ranking last or second last among OECD countries for business-research collaboration," he said. "Our appetite for risk is lower than in comparable countries, which means Australian startups and early stage businesses often fail to attract capital to grow."

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) looked into the effectiveness of the country's innovation agenda, revealing in September that the government program lacked the ability to assess its outcomes.

"Much of the advice was general in nature and did not present quantitative or in-depth analysis of problems, expected impacts, or how outcomes would be measured," ANAO said.

"Limited or no advice was provided to government during the design process on a range of implementation matters for the agenda as a whole including: Implementation risks, governance, and evaluation arrangements."

A day after the ANAO report was published, Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison hit back, saying the government was unapologetic.

"The criticism that has been made of we are moving too quickly, and the government is not going to make apologies for moving too quickly to get in place the right incentives ... to drive jobs to support the economy," he said.

"If the criticism that is going to be made of us is that we are moving too quickly, then I think that is something the Australian people will thank us for."

Updated at 4.00pm AEDT, January 16, 2017: Updated grant information to reflect changes introduced in December and confirmed the contract period has two extension options

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