Wodonga is prospecting, staking a claim to become an innovation powerhouse.
It is searching for future generations of entrepreneurs to develop and nurture.
The aim is to become a hub of economic opportunity - a breeding ground for innovators, start-ups and new technology.
Last year was a challenging one. COVID-19 imposed uncertainty and upheaval across Australia.
But 2020 also proved to be a year of renewal for Wodonga, with the launch of the Wodonga Innovation Project.
The Innovation Project is building local innovation skills and connections, helping local businesses and entrepreneurs to create new jobs and industry for the region.
Chair Steve Martin says: "The long-term goal is to position Wodonga and region as a hub of innovation - a place for investment, ideas, partnership and economic opportunity. The disruptions of COVID-19 have reinforced the value of innovation and resilience. When change comes, innovation mitigates the negative impacts, and generates new economic opportunities."
The project's establishment was supported by funding from the state government and Wodonga Council.
Delos Delta and the Canberra Innovation Network, innovation and technology experts based in Canberra, were engaged to design the project.
As a first step, in late 2019 Delos Delta and CBRIN facilitated workshops in Wodonga to identify local priorities.
The Innovation Project was welcomed by local innovators, businesses and organisations.
This broad base of support is reflected in the Innovation Project Steering Committee, with representatives from business and associations, local governments, the Victorian government, Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities.
The Innovation Project was ready in early 2020. More than 100 people were expected at the launch event.
Innovation programs, accelerators and incubators were poised to roll out.
Then COVID-19 hit, ruling out face-to-face events and activities for most of 2020.
But the economic disruption and uncertainty made the Innovation Project even more important for the local economy. So, COVID was never allowed to slow down the project.
It would always be full-steam ahead. The project rapidly pivoted to digital interaction and virtual events.
The development of the Wodonga Innovation Project website was fast-tracked.
Social media accounts became the main point of interaction and communication.
Steering committee meetings were held via Zoom. Innovation programs moved to digital modes.
A local innovation co-ordinator, John Elgin (CEO of Murray-Hume Business Enterprise Centre) was engaged to maintain momentum "on the ground".
Two flagship programs of 2020 exemplify the project's purpose and energy: the Youth Innovation Program and the Wodonga Accelerator.
The Youth Innovation Program ran for three months via online workshops, aiming to develop the entrepreneurial skills and innovation capacity of youth aged 15-25.
The program linked teams of young people in the Albury-Wodonga region with local business and innovation mentors, to develop, test and discuss their innovative ideas.
For the 16 young participants, the program culminated in an "innovation pitch" to a panel of experts, where they presented their innovative ideas, products and proposals.
Grace King, 19, won the top award, picking up $1000 for her Plastics to Products pitch.
She proposed using emerging technology to turn soft-plastic waste into new products, reducing local waste and creating local manufacturing opportunities.
Her pitch combined business, technology, economic development and sustainability. We're looking forward to the next steps.
The second flagship program of 2020 was the Wodonga Accelerator.
Delivered via digital workshops, it covered topics such as customer validation, prototyping, business models and raising capital.
More than 20 local businesses and innovators took part. Mr Elgin said: "The accelerator program pushes local businesses and entrepreneurs to turn their great ideas into new products and services. By forming a cohort of like-minded innovators and moving together through a disciplined pathway, the accelerator rapidly catalyses new business ventures."
The Innovation Project promises more in 2021.
The team will expand the project as a regional innovation network supporting the entire region, collaborating with Albury and Wodonga councils.
The project will also align innovation activity with the federal government's Albury-Wodonga Regional Deal.
This year will also bring a host of new innovation, events and programs.
According to Mr Martin: "It's going to be a big year for innovation in Wodonga and region. We're looking to deliver a range of programs, both digital and face-to-face, that will build local skills, create new partnerships, increase our national profile and spark new business."
Another accelerator program, networking events and webinars with international innovation experts are just a few of the highlights.
Everyone is welcome to participate - innovators, businesses, individuals, students, researchers, government officials, community groups and beyond.
We want to build a broad and vibrant network of local innovators, where collaboration and competition generate new ventures, investments and industry.
Brook Dixon is managing director of Delos Delta and innovation project co-ordinator, Wodonga Innovation Project.
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