Far north Queensland’s innovation ecosystem has been turbocharged with construction of the $30 million JCU Ideas Lab on the university’s Smithfield campus in Cairns.
The purpose-built lab has been funded by the Queensland Government, Australian Government and James Cook University with equal contributions of $10 million.
The JCU Ideas Lab serves far north Queensland as an innovative centre to translate research, ideas and ambition into products and processes with real commercial application that can drive economic growth and diversity in Australia.
By September 2020, JCU had recruited five tenants, working in fields as varied as fresh food supply chains, wedding photography and wildlife identification through gaming.
Earth Guardians is mapping the world's biodiversity. Its flagship product Questagame is a mobile app game for photographing and identifying fauna, flora and fungi. Sightings are verified by experts, awarded points for the players, and added to the global biodiversity map.
While adults love Questagame, it’s a big hit with students and teachers – 500 schools have signed up to the app. Numbers of users leapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, when teachers needed online resources.
Questagame helps anyone to study nature in their garden, including mapping and finding previously undescribed species. One child discovered a rare grasshopper and was cited as a co-author on an international scientific paper.
Andrew Robinson, co-founder and Chair of Earth Guardians, said the company’s goal was to raise the value of nature in mainstream society.
“Biodiversity is not separate from the economy - it's central to the economy - to tourism, agriculture, energy, education, health and well-being,” Mr Robinson said.
“Earth Guardians is working hard to help make Queensland the biodiversity tech capital of the world.
“What better place? Queensland has some highly prized assets, especially its natural environment. Also, compared with the rest of the world, Queensland has done well in its handling of COVID, and can grow and innovate quickly in this time of significant change when innovation is so important,” he said.
“We’re delighted to be part of the JCU Ideas Lab.
“Questagame is developing new, more inclusive and empowering forms of artificial intelligence to radically accelerate our understanding of the environment. The lab is the perfect opportunity to grow our business – it connects us to the latest innovations in agtech, biosecurity, eco-tourism, STEM education and so much more,” Mr Robinson said.
Farmer meets Foodie is a virtual farmers’ market. The app supports farmers to get good return on their produce, shares the stories behind how food is grown, helps reduce food waste and reduce food miles, and supports commercial foodies in their commitment to using local produce.
Founder Erica Hughes said being part of the Ideas Lab gave access to resources and a community not available in the company’s home town of Mount Molloy.
“Being part of a community of founders on similar journeys is really valuable, along with being a part of the JCU community, with mentoring, sessions and networking,” Ms Hughes said.
“It's also a great location for our team to work and host meetings. I feel very fortunate to be in the first cohort of founders in the Ideas Lab, at an exciting time for far north Queensland!” she said.
The three other founders are just as fascinating:
Album Registry is a photo gift-registry platform, where family and friends can give towards professional photography. It’s popular for weddings and baby showers, and boosts referrals for photographers from anywhere around the globe.
Escavox uses a ‘blue box’ tracking system for fresh produce, meat, seafood and diary. The system provides independent, objective data on the performance of supply chains, from farm to retail shelf. Better-informed decisions can be made about managing product and investing in the supply chain.
TensorWorks is an applied research company providing artificial intelligence and machine learning services to industry, for uses such as creating simulated environments for virtual workplace inductions or testing autonomous vehicles. Tensorworks sponsors the development and ongoing maintenance of numerous open-source projects and community initiatives.
The Ideas Lab is home to JCU Makerspace, a collaborative workspace to prepare students and founders who need critical 21st century skills in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths, by allowing rapid prototyping and proof-of-concept designs of electronic and mechanical devices. Equipment includes 3D printers and a circuit-board milling machine.
“The space is designed to encourage collisions of ideas,” Innovation Facilitator Keith Sue said.
“It’s an incubator program that brings together staff, students and industry, to everyone’s benefit. We’re continuing to recruit founders into the Ideas Lab, and we’d love to hear from enterprises large and small.”
Expression of Interest details are at www.jcu.edu.au/jcu-ideas-lab/connect/founder-signup-form.
This lab will also be the hub for a new partnership between JCU and Optus. The seven-year alliance is valued at approximately $7.7 million, and unites Optus’ next-generation narrow-band Internet of Things (NB-IoT) network and industry prowess with JCU’s expertise in IoT engineering and related disciplines.
JCU is the first university in Australia to offer a dedicated IoT engineering degree.
Activities and projects with Optus will be focused on advancing digital technology across a range of industries and training a workforce for a diversified and digitised northern Australian economy, applicable to sectors such as agriculture, remote health, environmental management and protection, aquaculture and mining.
The partnership will see Optus accelerate the deployment of its NB-IoT network within the JCU Ideas Lab.