Elon Musk Likes it Here. Will Other Tech Innovators Follow?


A self-driving vehicle in Tonsley, an old factory converted into a start-up hub. Adelaide is trying to recast itself as an innovation center for Australia and the world.

ADELAIDE, Australia — Tom Hajdu, a globe-trotting entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in music from Princeton, parked his Toyota Camry and walked us toward a former Mitsubishi auto factory that shut down a decade ago.

It has recently been reopened with high-speed broadband, Ping-Pong tables and room for hip start-up companies. Under the old industrial roof, the message was clear: This working-class city is doing everything it can to recast itself as an innovation hub for South Australia and the world.

“There’s a corps of people here who will be driving into the innovation economy,” Mr. Hajdu said. “You get on the bus or you get out of the way.”

Adelaide is the understated capital of South Australia, a mostly rural depopulating state. Like so many rust belt cities worldwide, it is trying to recover from a manufacturing decline by hunting for innovation buzz — that glow of techno-progress that can propel a place from downbeat to in demand.

It’s Pittsburgh, shifting from a dying steel town to a “city of renewal.” It’s Chattanooga, the old Tennessee railroad town, becoming “one of America’s most start-up-friendly cities.” It’s even Dresden, the German city flattened during World War II that’s now the heart of “Silicon Saxony.”

In Adelaide’s case, Elon Musk has already helped: He introduced a new rocket at a space conference here last September, following up in November by building the world’s biggest battery, which has already driven down local electricity prices.

But this city of 1.3 million — with its aging population and unemployment rates that are often among the highest in the country — needs an even bigger jolt. Frustrations have been building for years as Adelaide’s factories shuttered, with Holden closing its plant last year, bringing an end to Australia’s auto industry.

The response is what’s interesting: Quiet Adelaide, a former industrial center now seen as a laid-back community of churches and retirees, is banging the table for change.

Voxon Photonics, a creator of holographic technology, is one of the companies based in Tonsley.

Last month, voters kicked out the Labour Party after 16 years of running South Australia, electing the more conservative Liberal Party and its leader, Steven Marshall, the owner of a furniture business, on the promise of economic growth.

The new government is even pushing for a new visa to draw foreigners who want to start businesses in South Australia — a break with national Liberal leaders who have restricted skilled immigration.

Even before that, Mr. Hajdu, 55, a Canadian transplant and co-founder of an Los Angeles-based incubator called Disrupter, was becoming Adelaide’s networker in chief. A talker in a T-shirt, the son of a free-market economist who founded a well-known Canadian think tank, he is among a crew of boosters constantly battling skeptics.

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Peter Bordes

Exec Chairman & Founder at oneQube
Exec Chairman & Founder of oneQube the leading audience development automation platfrom. Entrepreneur, top 100 most influential angel investors in social media who loves digital innovation, social media marketing. Adventure travel and fishing junkie.
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