Media Release: Startup Gippsland announces 2020 Incubator Program award winners

Startup Gippsland announces 2020 Incubator Program award winners


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On 27 November, twelve businesses from across all six Gippsland local government areas came together at the  Startup Gippsland 2020 Incubator Pitch Final, competing for a share of $8,000 in prizes, sponsored by Regional Development Australia, Telstra, AKQA, and Commonwealth Bank Australia. In addition, AKQA provided one winner with 6 months of mentoring.

This year, 56 individual entrepreneurs and teams participated in the Startup Gippsland Incubator program, learning valuable business skills and methodologies over the course of 12 weeks of instruction from expert facilitators, mentors, and guest speakers. Two businesses from each LGA were selected in semifinal events to make up the final twelve.

In a live virtual event, each of the finalists pitched in front of  an audience of over 200 viewers from across the region, to a judging panel including representatives from Melbourne Angels and Startup Victoria, in addition to representatives from our sponsor organisations.


“When we first began planning Startup Gippsland in 2018, we weren’t even sure if there were any startups in our region. Now we have over 100 amazing program alumni who are all working towards creating a better future for Gippsland”Dr. Elena Kelareva, CEO, GippsTech, Startup Gippsland Program Director.


“2020 has been an incredibly hard year for everyone, and on top of the pandemic, Gippsland has also had to recover from one of the worst bushfire seasons in history. It’s critical that our region empowers entrepreneurs and innovators who will create new industries and jobs for many years to come.” – Dr. Kelareva, continued.


“It’s always going to be a challenge starting a business and bringing an idea to life, and doing so in the middle of a pandemic takes a pretty unique kind of person. Every one of our startups have proven their dedication, hard work and grit ten times over! They’ve supported each other every step of the way, despite not actually ever meeting each other face-to-face. These passionate, driven and community-minded founders are the future of business in our region and we couldn’t be prouder.”Dr. Kelareva, continued.


Based in regional Victoria, Startup Gippsland’s focus is to support the development of thriving startup ecosystems outside of the major urban centres.They see this  as a key piece of the puzzle for the future of regional economies. The Startup Gippsland program is designed specifically for scalable business ideas that have the potential to sell at a national or international level.


“I was born in Gippsland, nurtured and educated there, though I felt it was more luck than anything that I found my way to Melbourne. Companies like AKQA felt a million miles away, and I’d like to change that for the next generation. The region is rich in incredible, diverse talent, with a great spirit, and I’m looking forward to us helping not only the individuals there, but the region itself”Brian Vella, Managing Partner, AKQA Asia Pacific (Prize Sponsor)


The 2020 Incubator participants came from a wide range of industries and sectors, from apparel to education, agriculture to consumer technology, and professional services. At the end of the event, three diverse businesses came away with the four awards.


First Prize (Sponsored by Regional Development Australia) Winner: East Gippsland’s Mark Johnstone, from Snowy River Black Garlic 


Second Prize (Sponsored by Telstra) Winner;  and Most Innovative Idea Award (Sponsored by AKQA) Winner: Bass Coast Shire’s Carolyn Woollard, from Code Word Brain


Audience Choice Award (Sponsored by Commonwealth Bank Australia) Winner: Wellington Shire’s Bronwyn Manley, from Bon in the Garden


“There are a lot of people in Gippsland who have great business ideas, but they don’t know how to bring them to life. What do we need to do? How do we get our products out there? Having business expertise available locally is essential — programs like Startup Gippsland help micro businesses become big businesses. It’s instrumental to regional and rural development.” – Mark Johnstone, founder of Snowy River Black Garlic, First Prize Winner


“We’re using our prize money to develop our export packaging. Winning this award means that we don’t have to go into debt or take on partners to push forward with our expansion plans.”Mark Johnstone, continued.


“From my experience, the general collaborative mindset of regional communities is different. Perhaps, because we live in smaller communities. But I think we all share a unique spirit and I know a lot of good can grow from that. I’ve tried going it alone with my business development but now, as a Startup Gippsland graduate, I can definitely say we are all stronger together! I couldn’t be more thrilled to have the encouragement and support of the Startup Gippsland team, associated mentors and my fellow Startups behind me. Startup Gippsland rewards us all with a new sense of connection throughout all the various Gippsland shires and this definitely helps keep the wheels of business development turning more freely and quickly, which will ultimately bring new and exciting opportunities in the region. Carolyn Woolard, founder of Code Word Brain, winner of both Second Prize and the Most Innovative Idea Award.


“Education is a key to success. Programs like Startup Gippsland enable people to succeed and the knock on effect for our towns and Gippsland as a whole will have a positive impact. Startup Gippsland has helped us to streamline our operations, made the day-to-day running of my business easier, and empowered me to work both within the business and on the business. In the past two weeks I’ve been able to hire two locals, a high school student and a mum. We have a chance to teach people new skills and to give young people and parents coming back into the workforce the kinds of opportunities that can be hard to come by in rural areas.” – Bronwyn Manley, co-founder of Bon in the Garden, Audience Choice award winner.


About Startup Gippsland

Now in its second year, the Startup Gippsland Incubator program has innovated to deliver much-needed support to businesses and entrepreneurs across Gippsland, as the region works to recover from the ravages of the most recent bushfire season, and even as the state continues to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19.

Startup Gippsland is a project by the Bass Coast Shire, Baw Baw Shire, East Gippsland Shire, Latrobe City, South Gippsland Shire and Wellington Shire councils, co-funded by the Latrobe Valley Authority, Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, and LaunchVic, and delivered by GippsTech.

Startup Gippsland’s flagship program is the Incubator Program which provides early-stage entrepreneurs with 12 weeks of masterclasses and mentoring to get them to validate, launch and grow their business idea. The Incubator Program in 2020 was run 100% virtually with 56 startups participating across the 6 Gippsland LGAs. There was one cohort of startups per council area.

For more information on Startup Gippsland, visit


Startup Gippsland Incubator Program 2020 Award Winners


Snowy River Black Garlic is grown and produced along the fertile and legendary Snowy River in far East Gippsland. Their aged garlic is delivered to a broad spectrum of consumers, from the health conscious to the everyday person looking to try new foods from all parts of the country. Today, their black garlic has won multiple awards, including a gold medal at the 2019 Australian Food Awards. Most recently, Snowy River Black Garlic have expanded their production and storage capability in anticipation of continued growth, as they hope to become a leading manufacturer in Australia and overseas.


Code Word Brain helps struggling, surviving or thriving students rapidly improve their reading and learning skills. Using a blended learning approach of both online and on-paper, Code Word Brain assists parents in creating home-learning environments that zero in and develop the skills needed for students to thrive in the classroom and throughout life. The programs by Code Word Brain are designed to be highly structured, and offer rewards-based repetition to help children learn faster. They see themselves  as a first step in improving a child’s learning opportunities outside of what they’re already getting at school.


Bon in the Garden provides edible dried flower sprinkles to small and medium sized businesses across Gippsland. The sprinkles are a natural alternative to normal sprinkles, and can be used by cafes, restaurants, caterers, cake decorators, artisan jewellery makers, and in homes by families. Bon in the Garden provides a high end product which benefits the environment by using less packaging, and fewer food miles, while maintaining the garden ethos and standards at the heart of the business.



Natasha Wright, Program Coordinator, Startup Gippsland

hello[at] +61 (0)3 5644 3321

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