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Flying high with Queensland Chief Entrepreneur Steve Baxter

Google isn’t coming to Richmond,’’ says Steve Baxter, Queensland’s own version of Bill Gates, as he holds court in the Richmond Shire Council’s conference room.

Mayor John Wharton looks at the ceiling, thoughtfully, as if the arrival of the world’s leading technology company in his western town is not such an outrageous proposition.

Richmond, halfway between Townsville and Mount Isa and built largely on the back of sheep and cattle still grazing on its perimeters, is unlikely to host a visit from Larry Page and Sergey Brin who 20 years ago founded the multinational tech company whose rainbow coloured logo is almost a symbol of the age of connectivity.

But Richmond, on this warm March morning with the council’s air conditioner softening the mid-morning heat in the conference room, is hosting a visit from Baxter, a mega-rich tech head on a barnstorming tour of the west.

Steve Baxter, the flying state chief entrepreneur, at Archerfield Airport, before flying out west to talk to innovators on the ground. Picture: Steve Pohlner/AAP

Baxter is the current Queensland Chief Entrepreneur, and the closest thing this state has to those tech pioneers like Gates, Page, and Steve Jobs of Apple fame who have forged path ways into a brave new world, much like Cornelius Vanderbilt did two centuries ago when he started laying down rail track across the vastness of continental USA.

A human spark plug, crackling with an energy which appears to ignite all surrounding life forms, Baxter was born not far from Richmond, in the town of Cloncurry.

He was raised in Emerald, went to high school in Rockhampton, joined the army and developed a reputation as a tech head, not because of his expertise in his chosen field of guided weapon systems, but because he could swiftly fix damaged binoculars and compasses.

In 1994, at age 23, Baxter put all his money ($11,000) on the line to launch his first startup, SE Net, before selling it a few years later to Ozemail/UUNet, a company connected to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

As a follow-up act, Baxter teamed up with schoolmate Bevan Slattery in 2001 to launch PIPE Networks, a provider of wholesale telecoms infrastructure which they later sold for $373 million. Then Baxter headed to California in 2008 to work with Google, founded Brisbane’s first serious tech-based co-working space (River City Labs) in 2012 and still found time to become celebrity on Channel Ten’s Shark Tank Australia where he and fellow “sharks’’ gauge business proposals from aspiring entrepreneur-contestants.

The upshot of all this activity is that Baxter is filthy rich – rich enough to own the magnificent vintage Aero Commander which he flew into Richmond, rich enough to invest money in a proposed flying car and rich (and perhaps generous) enough to put in a volunteer year as the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur, taking over the role in October 2017 from Mark Sowerby.

Which is what has brought him to Richmond to chat with Cr Wharton and a few locals who have Baxter-like ambitions all of their own. Baxter’s overriding brief in the State Government-appointed role is to lend support to Queensland entrepreneurs, and he does so with a fervour bordering on the religious. But at the centre of his expansive ambitions for this state lies 4000km of fibre optic cable running up Queensland’s east coast and west to Mount Isa.

Much of that cable has been there for 20 years, part of the infrastructure of Queensland Rail and other government-owned corporations.

It’s our own 21st century version of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s railway tracks – the trigger for a social, cultural and technical revolution as remote from our thoughts as the modern day city of Chicago was to Irish labourers hammering rail spikes in 19th century Illinois.

“This is the most important project this state will undertake since it began paving roads,’’ says Baxter, who prefers a road analogy over the rail.

“But the beautiful thing about this project is that the ‘road’ is already built. It’s just a matter of doing a bit of kerbing and channelling, and we can start driving on it.”

Queensland Innovation Minister Kate Jones is on side, announcing earlier this year that the Government was looking at ways to access that network.

“We’ve just started an investigation to see if there’s an opportunity for us to use more than 4000km of fibre optic cables to open it up to business and Queensland communities,” Jones says.

But Baxter doesn’t like words like “investigations’’ any more than he likes “feasibility study’’ or “consultation with stakeholders’’.

His Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur is inside the Innovation portfolio, yet Baxter hates the word “innovation’’ possibly more than he despises the word NBN (National Broadband Network).

Baxter prefers action over words, reality over perceptions. He sees solutions to most of our challenges arriving via an energetic private sector, enabled and backed by governments, but allowed to roam free as its creative energies and risk-taking impulses shape societies.

A symbol of that vigorous spirit of creative private enterprise is sitting opposite him in the Richmond council chambers in the form of William Harrington, the young man who has prompted Baxter’s observation that “Google isn’t coming to Richmond’’.

Richmond grazier and computer engineer William Harrington.

In Baxter’s view, Google, with all its attendant energy and creativity, doesn’t need to come to Richmond, largely because Harrington is already here.

Harrington’s family has owned Olga Downs Station, 50km outside the town, for several generations.

On Olga Downs stands a large tower erected by the US army on Castle Hill in Townsville in 1943 when the world was at war, and the Japanese were streaming southward towards Milne Bay in New Guinea.

That tower, long ago decommissioned, ended up on Olga Downs via a deft bit of bush horse-trading which involved, among other things, a bottle of whiskey.

Now, it stands festooned with a cluster of 21st century dishes which no longer warn of enemy air raids.

Instead, they capture oscillating radio waves blasted into the air by transmitters, at the speed of light, transforming those waves back into electrical signals and flinging them out to Harrington’s neighbours who are now able to watch Netflix on TV.

Harrington is essentially a miniature version of Telstra, and possessed of the sort of youthful energy and optimism Baxter wants to see flowering across the state.

A few years ago Harrington started an electronics company on his family property which is right at the edge of the 3G range, but his connection was too slow and too expensive.

So, Harrington got hold of the tower, built a wireless link from the homestead with ADSL in town and relayed the connection to run his business, which immediately began to grow. He then partnered with Field Solutions Group to provide a carrier for his service “Wi-Sky,’’ then partnered with Richmond Shire Council to assist in funding the $200,000 service now available to the entire town and surrounding properties.

Baxter is deeply impressed by the Harringtons of this world, and Harrington is no lone wolf.

There’s a small but growing tribe of these new-age tech pioneers spreading across Queensland.

In Bundaberg, Luke Baker grew tired of waiting for the NBN to reach his home and realised congestion and slow speeds would be part and parcel of the Government-backed network even when it arrived.

He created a company “Open Cloud’’ and is now supplying customers with high-speed, competitively priced wireless internet services using his own network powered by the latest wireless technology.

Baker notes that one local real estate company had employees who could lose up to five minutes an hour just waiting for browsers to load, until they switched to his services. “The increase in productivity has been amazing,’’ he says.

Bundaberg’s Luke Baker has started his own wireless service called Open Cloud on the Steve Baxter roadshow.

More than 1600km away in Mount Isa, Mel Antherinos is not exactly a tech pioneer.

She makes fascinators, those head adornments that women wear to race days anywhere from Townsville’s Cluden Racecourse to the Kentucky Derby.

Driving Baxter to the airport after his visit to Mount Isa, Antherinos has him briefly fascinated by fascinators.

She’s so in tune with the online retail world, the thought of an actual real-life shop with streams of customers holds absolutely no interest for her.

“I don’t really want to own a shop at all. I think it would just slow me down,’’ she says.

Antherinos prefers sticking to the creative work she loves – making hats – and it’s proving extremely lucrative for a businesswoman whose creations are now winning fashion on the field competitions.

A fast internet in Mount Isa would merely speed up the process of doing business but she’s not overly worried about the speed of her present connection.

But to Baxter, this pleasant Mount Isa woman selling hats to Texas racegoers is just part of the connectivity miracle unfolding across the globe.

Steve Baxter and Mel Atherinos.

On the plane trip across the west, all undertaken at Baxter’s expense, Baker, the Bundaberg whiz kid who has joined Baxter’s travelling show, impresses fellow passengers with his tales of the Tennessee city of Chattanooga which fell into an economic pit when the southern railroad left town in the early 1970s.

Chattanooga reinvented itself as “Gig City.’’ It was the first US city to have its own, home-built one gigabit per second fibre optic internet network, and it’s now awash with venture capital funding startups which super charge the economy.

Baxter believes we can be a Down Under version of Chattanooga if we can just get governments to unleash the power of that 4000km fibre optic cable which already exists.

“It’s a facilitator, an enabler. No one really knows what can happen when the internet becomes available at high speeds,’’ he says.

Baxter knows 99 per cent of Australians (including most journalists) don’t really understand the technology behind this strange new landscape. He does, but he also understands it from the perspective of (former US Secretary of Defence) Donald Rumsfield’s famous theorem that there are things about technology that he knows he knows, there are things he knows he doesn’t know, and there are things he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

That is to say that Baxter, one of Queensland’s high priests of technology, cheerfully admits he has no real idea what our technology-fuelled future will look like.

Connectivity will produce a world he believes will be, quite literally, beyond our imagination.

Recently, that endlessly active brain of his was simultaneously charmed and intrigued by the sight of his beloved four-year-old daughter placing her fingers on the printed page of a book, then flexing them outward in an endearing attempt to make the page expand like it does on her iPad.

“I have to tell her, ‘sweetie, books don’t work like that’,’’ he laughs.

But that incident reinforced his belief that there is a generational brain soon coming to maturity that has an entirely different view of reality, unencumbered by the 20th century version.

Those newly minted brains will throw up entirely unprecedented concepts. And that, in turn, has him convinced that it’s the under 25s who are where the action is when it comes to new ways of utilising connectivity.

With a giant bankroll at his disposal, he’s already got runs on the board for funding seemingly outrageous proposals, including that flying car.

Drones, he notes, are scaling up payloads and every two years their capacity doubles. It stands to reason that a drone carrying 40kg now will be capable of carrying humans in a few short years.

We’ll summon them via an App, they’ll arrive without a pilot and pick you up and put you down.

“The future is limitless,’’ Baxter says. “Queensland has to be part of it.’’

* Michael Madigan accompanied Steve Baxter on the trip out west to meet the entrepreneurs.

Michael Madigan, The Courier-Mail

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