Can you launch a tech company from Kakadu?
Mikaela Jade never imagined she would be the founder of a tech startup.
For the first ten years of her career, the Cabrogal woman worked as a park ranger in far north Queensland and the Pilbara region of northern WA. Having studied Environmental Biology at the University of Technology, Sydney, Mikaela spent a decade at the grassroots of environmental science, before taking up a post with the Federal Government’s Reef Rescue Taskforce and moving to Canberra.
Fast forward to today, this scientist-come-public servant is now founder and CEO of Indigital – a tech startup run out of Kakadu, offering innovative ways to digitise and translate knowledge and culture from remote and ancient communities. Mikaela and her small team at Indigital use drones, 4D mapping software, image recognition technology and cultural law to bring the world’s cultural sites alive through augmented reality. Her AR mobile app ‘Indigital Storytelling’ powers economic development for Aboriginal communities through digital storytelling on Country, independent of internet connectivity.
It’s not your stereotypical tech startup story. But then, Mikaela is not your stereotypical founder. All of her technical skills have been self-taught – driven by an inquisitive nature that has been passed down through the generations.
“Technology is kind of in our blood and I have always been inquisitive about computers,” Mikaela said.
“My great aunt is in her 80s and she’s been running a computer course in Sydney for the last few years, teaching old people to do tech stuff. I guess, it’s kind of in my family.”
Even so, Mikaela never saw technology as anything more than a tool or something to experiment with.
“I built webpages back in the 90s and just experimented in technology but not considering it a career path… (Before Indigital) I’d never created and I’d never built anything like an app before.”
It was a random “brain explosion” that set Mikaela on the path to creating her own tech company. After spending a day at the University of Canberra Innovation Labs as part of her work with the Federal Government, trying out Google Glass and Augmented Reality, a spark went off.
“I went home and had a shower, and this idea came to me about telling my own people’s stories through augmented reality on country. And it was… yeah… it was a brain explosion that happened. I got out of the shower and told my partner this is what I am going to do.
“It had never been done in a cultural context and so I had all those challenges and barriers. People were saying, ‘No, you can’t do that. You don’t have enough money.’ But I thought, ‘Well, I’m a scientist and, you know, we should be doing experimentation and nothing is impossible.’”
Despite her determination, while Mikaela was able to secure an Innovation Connect grant from the ACT Government, finding a team to develop and trial the technology proved a major challenge.
“I approached the market in Australia and no one would work with me. It came towards the end of the grant and we hadn’t spent any of the grant funds and I was literally sitting at 9 o’clock at night on my bed, crying my eyes out, thinking that I would have to give all the money back because we hadn’t been able to find someone who would work with us. So, I just started cold calling companies around the world. I got on the phone to Canada, to the UK, and I said, ‘I come from Australia, I have this amount of money, and this is my dream.’ And one company got back to me and said, ‘Ok, we love it. It’s bold. It’s never been done before and we are going to work with you.’”
That one phone call was the beginning of a two year project, building algorithms to make the technology work, and then trialling it with Indigenous artists both in the city and in remote Arnhem land. Corresponding with her developers on the other side of the world, Mikaela took the technology out on country, using photogrammetry to capture natural objects, which were then able to be recreated with 3D printing by the development team.
But it was different phone call that saw Mikaela’s fledgling startup take another unexpected turn.
“My partner was offered the job to be Park Manager of Kakadu. So that was really hard decision because I didn’t know if it was going to work in Kakadu or not, but I wanted to support him and it was a good opportunity so I said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ And I started this crazy journey of trying to build my tech start-up from a remote area, in a community where I really don’t know anyone.”
The move was a change of pace in Mikaela’s rapid startup journey.
“The idea of what I was trying to do was such a foreign concept to people here and, at the start, I was just really frustrated because I knew exactly what needed to happen and I had to wait to bring the community on board. I wanted to release this app, but I really did have to take my time.
“I was really lucky that I could walk into this community as an Indigenous women and build rapport with people and I was able to make connections with the women here and they took me on country and showed me how to do weaving and immersed me in their culture.”
Mikaela described this intersection between the accelerated processes of building a tech startup and the considered time it takes to build relationships on country as somewhat of a paradox – but one she believes will make her business stronger as it grows.
“What I’ve learned through taking the time to build relationships is, I think, my company will be more successful because I invested time with people first, rather than trying to just build the tech and get it out there and see if there was a market.
“I really spent a lot of time with elders from all around the world asking, ‘What are you most proud of? What is your most pressing need? What are you most afraid of, and what can you do to help?’ And so, I spent the last three years talking to people at the United Nations level about this stuff, and on country about stuff, and then really building something that meets their needs rather than just going in and building an idea.”
It’s the ultimate example of the importance of customer discovery – understanding the needs of the market to avoid building the wrong solution.
“I am really thankful that I took the time because the technology has accelerated so much over the last three years that I can now do what I wanted to do back three years ago. And if I had just built it within the first six weeks of doing it, it would have fallen over and been a little bit crappy. So I’ve been able to work more strategically.”
Mikaela’s story is one that has now been shared the world over. Earlier this year she was invited to Canberra to present her technology to the Prime Minister before the watching eyes – and cameras – of the national media.
Mikaela’s expertise has also been sought out by the United Nations and she has been appointed a UN Permanent Forum Indigenous Issues delegate, recognised as a leader in the field of the ethical digitisation of cultural heritage & knowledge.
And of course, most recently, Mikaela joined the group of esteemed advisors working with SheStarts – a program she believes could change the direction of many women considering building tech businesses, especially due to the community it brings together.
“It’s great model for people that are new to startups and tech, because you do need to have real conversations with people that are living this experience as well. While my family are very supportive, it’s hard to talk to them about startup life because they have never been through a startup experience. So, it’s really important to make connections with other entrepreneurs.”
Mikaela is truly one-of-a-kind – an inspirational leader for all Australians. But in amongst all of her incredible achievements is a simple story of having an idea, pursuing a dream, and believing in the possibilities of technology.
As she continues to grow her business, Mikaela shows us all that with the right partners and support, and a good dose of passion and determination, anyone can take a great idea and build a successful tech company… even in Kakadu.