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How Wildlife Drones built world-class animal tracking technology backed by the Canberra community.
Anyone who’s ever tracked tagged animals as part of a research or release program, will know the limitations of existing radio signal tag systems. Climb a tree or mountain to find the highest spot, hold a handheld receiver in the air and track 1 tag at a time — sore arms are part of the job description.
Founder of Canberra startup Wildlife Drones, Debbie Saunders, saw an opportunity to help government agencies, wildlife organisations and zoos track animals right now.
“For wildlife protection or reintroduction, and zoos with captive breeding programs, researchers need to know what happens when animals are back in the wild,” says Debbie.
“Our unique sensor actually listens for the radio signals and tracks 40 tags at a time — the industry has been waiting for a solution that simplifies tracking with real-time data processing.”
If it takes a village to raise a child, Debbie says it takes a city like Canberra to transform from a bird-tracking researcher to tech founder.
The world of business and tech startups was brand new to Debbie, so she had to learn on her feet.
“My career was in bird surveys — I never imagined I’d have a tech startup so I was completely unprepared. How do we look for grants? How do we develop the tech?” explains Debbie.
“But I’m also incredibly determined. I like rising to a challenge surrounded by people who believe in me. I started reaching out. I met people at women’s leadership events, and then discovered the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN). It was invaluable in terms of connecting with the right people.”
Debbie says the networks and opportunity within the Canberra startup and business community are amazing. Debbie used the knowledge she’d gained from her startup community interaction and peers to win an ACT Government grant.
“Until we got the grant, we didn’t even have a drone. That grant helped us develop the tech to bring the big idea to life, and gave me the confidence to convince investors we were a good bet.”
Debbie says finding opportunities to work with other Canberra businesses and startups helped her realise her love for collaboration.
“I went along to a manufacturing group meeting this week and discovered new facilities in Canberra we can use. A community of this size really facilitates those connections.”
Debbie’s advice is simple for female founders considering Canberra to start or grow their business.
“Go for it! Look out for female founders’ groups for an enormous rock of knowledge. Get out there and talk to people even when things get hard — especially when they get hard. You’ll have the support to turn it around.”
Debbie found her first board member through CBRIN’s standing First Wednesday catch ups.
“I actively sought other women and I struck gold when I met the amazing entrepreneur, scientist and investor Sylvia Tulloch who is now one of our directors,” she says.
“There’s been a shift since I was first on the Canberra innovation scene. It’s not all men in suits. It’s a lot more diverse and an exciting place to be. There’s some fantastic women leaders involved in the Canberra innovation scene. It’s real life inspiration — you can’t be what you can’t see, but you can see it in Canberra.”
Debbie’s background in wildlife and environmental studies extends to a love for nature. She’s looking at flexible working options so her team can enjoy more of the great outdoors.
“It’s part of the Canberra lifestyle — our down time is spent getting out in nature with a bunch of fantastic friends. We can walk and ride to school and work every day. The cycle paths and the access to bushland help Canberrans stay healthy — and it’s pretty sunny most of the time even when it’s cold!” she says.
“It’s not like a big country town anymore. We have the talent, the spaces and the opportunity. I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am in anywhere else but Canberra.”