Tonsley’s turn at being an entrepreneurial playground


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By Melissa Keogh

It was 2008 when Mitsubishi Motors announced it would draw the curtains on its Tonsley factory, but fast forward nine years and the bustling industrial suburb is now an entrepreneur’s playground.

The 61ha precinct has progressed into Australia’s first innovation district.

Tonsley is now a workplace for 1200 people including researchers, innovators, and business founders ­– more than when Mitsubishi finished production in 2008.

It’s is home to innovators as diverse as spirited SA inventor Scott Boocock of Hegs pegs to global engineering and advanced technology firm Siemens.

It leads a transition from traditional mass manufacturing characterised by billowing smokestacks, to a new age of smarter and cleaner advanced manufacturing.

Driven by the State Government and its agency Renewal SA, Tonsley underwent a physical redevelopment, targeted business attraction and support to encourage a culture of collaboration and entrepreneurship.

“The bold vision was to use urban redevelopment as a vehicle to drive economic transformation,” says Tonsley precinct director Philipp Dautel.

“It was for a creative innovation district that brings together research and education institutions, established businesses and start-ups, business incubators and accelerators, the government and wider community.”

Tonsley’s modern and inspiring layout impressed the Australian Urban Design Awards judges as recently as October 2017, when it took top gong for a large scale development.


Tonsley precinct director Philipp Dautel.

The precinct is also connected to GigCity, an Australian-first network connecting entrepreneurs, start-ups and big businesses to speeds up to 100 times the national average.

Philipp says businesses that settle at Tonsley are selected based on their ability to enhance other enterprises around them.

He says Tonsley is a “61ha playground to test and try entrepreneurs’ new ideas in real life applications”.

“For example, driverless pods developed by one of our resident companies, RDM, will be used to deliver parcels within the district to help trial this technology,” Philipp says.

The district’s centrepiece is the open-air MAB, a space re-adapted from Mitsubishi’s Main Assembly Building, and has internal forests, shops, cafés, offices, workshops and laboratories.

The Main Assembly Building is the focal point of Tonsley and where many entrepreneurs and start-ups work their magic.

The Tonsley site has transformed from the former factory of Mitsubishi Australia, and before that Chrysler, into a thriving new-age hub for entrepreneurs, start-ups, education institutions and industry leaders.

Philipp says Tonsley continues to attract strong commercial interest, with an increased number of tenancies in the MAB.

Tonsley has four areas of industry focus: health and medical, clean technology and renewable energy, software and simulation, and mining and energy services.

Some of Tonsley’s biggest players include technology giant Siemens, MAB anchor tenant SAGE Automation, and leading device manufacturer Micro-X.

International optics firm ZEISS is currently building in the MAB a premises which will employ 120 people.

Philipp says opportunities for budding entrepreneurs to network with large companies happens by simply fetching coffee from Tonsley’s cafés.

Micro X ___ _____ make their way through the urban forest within the MAB.

Matt Waltho, left, and Jed Gunn from the Renewal SA Tonsley team make their way through the urban forest within the MAB.

“The cafés and retail spaces are centred at spots where people need to get out of their offices so they have these meetings that happen by chance and that’s where the real magic happens,” he says.

“Google offices around the world are known for the way they have reimagined traditional workplaces.

“We’re taking that concept one step further by completely rethinking urban redevelopments and integrating work, life and play to create a district that is productive, convenient and enjoyable.”

Like many parts of Adelaide’s identity – including its small bar scene and North Terrace’s growing biomedical precinct – Tonsley has flourished in recent years.

Philipp, who was born in Germany and moved to SA six years ago, says it was time for Adelaide to “suddenly have something different”.

“I often compare SA to a start-up business because we’re small and humble,” he says.

“If you want to get stuff done as an entrepreneur, SA is definitely the right place to do it.”


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