​LaunchVic gets new chairwoman amid tumultuous year

Laura Anderson assumes the role at Victoria's tech investment body that found itself caught up in the 500 Startups saga.

International business woman, adviser, and philanthropist Laura Anderson has been announced as the new chair of the Victorian government's AU$60 million technology investment body, LaunchVic.

Anderson, who is currently the chairwoman of both the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and Strategic Vision Global, as well as a director and board member at the Australian Grand Prix Corporation and the governor of the American Chamber of Commerce, replaces Ahmed Fahour, who stepped down as chairman of LaunchVic in February when he resigned as CEO of Australia Post amid concerns over his sizeable government-funded salary.

LaunchVic was established in November 2016 and will be given a total of AU$60 million over four years to invest in core infrastructure, improve access to capital for local startups, advocate on Commonwealth legislation and regulation, and engage in startup events, campaigns, competitions, and mentoring programs.

While the government-funded body has invested AU$11.4 million in 28 projects to-date, it this year found itself caught up in the 500 Startups scandal that saw its co-founder and frontman Dave McClure hand in his resignation after being outed by whistleblowers for sexual misconduct towards a number of women in professional settings.

The Silicon Valley startup accelerator and VC firm has a presence in Australia, with the local arm losing its managing director and support from LaunchVic as a result.

Rachael Neumann handed in her resignation in August, telling ZDNet at the time that she resigned from 500 Melbourne because it was unclear during her recent time at headquarters whether the local program would be set up for success.

"500 Startups has a lot on their plate right now with many competing priorities ... So I thought it would be best not to go ahead with the launch [of the local program] at this time and I stepped down from the team," she explained.

LaunchVic said that without "trusted local leadership", it did not believe 500 Startups would be able to build "a strong and inclusive culture, and the social capital it needs" to be able to successfully deliver its program in Melbourne.

"Unfortunately, as we've expressed to 500 Startups, that without Rachael Neumann at the helm we don't believe it will work," LaunchVic CEO Dr Kate Cornick said in August.

LaunchVic confirmed it was not aware that an internal investigation was being conducted into McClure's behaviour until it became public knowledge via a New York Times article, and threatened the possibility of terminating its support for 500 Startups unless major cultural changes are made.

Cornick said in July she was "concerned for the women involved and for the courage it took to speak up on this issue".

"It is unacceptable 500 Startups hadn't reported these issues to us, and that Dave McClure was allowed to travel to Australia to represent 500 Startups," Cornick said at the time.

The state government-backed organisation had committed between AU$2 million and AU$3 million to support the launch of 500 Melbourne. Both Cornick and Neumann assured that the taxpayer funds allocated to 500 Melbourne remains secure in LaunchVic's bank.

A statement from Acting Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade Luke Donnellan on Tuesday said LaunchVic's programs aim to promote diversity and inclusion and the "excellence of Victoria's thriving startup scene".

"Now is the time for our community to lead by example and maximise its potential to create, innovate, and collaborate beyond Victoria's borders, and that's what I intend to do," Anderson said on Tuesday. "I'm pleased to join LaunchVic. The startup community has never been more important or prominent and I'm excited to be a part of that."