Just as some believe that a family member should not mentor a learner driver for fear of passing on bad habits, Buzz Palmer delivers similar advice to aspiring entrepreneurs-seek a mentor outside the family.
The CEO of Small Technologies Cluster and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Monash University, Dr Palmer has a track record in medical and bio technologies that may well inspire entrepreneurs to start on a similar journey to his which began on a council estate in England’s north.
As a nine year old, surrounded by little money and a lack of employment, he fell in love with a red BMW 318. With such a car in his sights, by 20 years of age he had founded a company providing security at events and venues to fund his pursuit of a medical degree.
This led to a PhD in the area of stem cell research and set him on an entrepreneurial trajectory in the field of medical technology.
Along the way he has been involved in 14 start ups as well as becoming a venture capitalist, a journey which saw him relocate to Australia in 2008 where he now heads up Small Technologies Cluster (STC), Australia’s biggest medical technology incubator which focuses on diagnostic innovation, medical devices and bionics.
More recently he has taken STC’s mantra of “innovate, accelerate and actuate” to Monash University where, in a first for Australian universities, he was appointed Professor of Entrepreneurship.
Arguably Australia’s largest university may well become a crucible for entrepreneurship as Dr Palmer aims to forge a closer dialogue between academic research and commercial outcomes.
In the lecture theatre he advises students to get a good mentor “who, while relating to you as a person will challenge your preconceptions. But ensure that person is neither a family nor an investor even though the latter may ultimately become a mentor.”
Monash alumni now represent a potentially valuable pool of mentors he says.
Test concepts and ideas with a view to getting good feedback is a further guideline.
“Attend hackathons and boot camps to help validate ideas. Hackathons are great to help filter out five or six ideas that might work. They also help the aspiring entrepreneurs to build a profile, explore themselves and to step out of their comfort zone. Cross pollination with other disciplines can be very beneficial,” Dr Palmer says.
And he also counsels entrepreneurs to develop a high level business plan that focuses on the processes which a start-up will follow.
With the objectivity of a relative newcomer to Australia, Dr Palmer observes that “Australia, while rich in research talent, gives things away for free. We should have the use of that technology first.
“We need research that benefits Australians so we need to change the culture to ensure the outcomes of research.”
Drawing on the disciplines in which he has been most active, he notes that “we fail to capitalise on our position in the world’s top five in research and health care. “
This may be the result of universities training academics but failing to see the need to encourage entrepreneurs. It may also be that Australia is at the bottom of an OECD list which shows collaboration between universities and industry.
A further reflection of the need for a cultural change is that out of a total of about 100 universities and institutes involved in medical technology, Australia has seen the emergence of a mere 14 start-ups.
“This is not good enough,” Dr Palmer says.
Asked how the Geelong region might foster entrepreneurship and start-ups Dr Palmer says find the low hanging fruit with sectors like the disability industry and advanced manufacturing.
And did he ever own the red BMW which inspired his journey? No, but some car buffs might say the three pointed star logo on his present car means his dream has been realised.