04 June 2020

Learning to travel the world in a SolarTuk

A learning adventure around the world (in a solar powered rickshaw no less)

Julian O’Shea

Founder & CEO, Unbound
Master of Business Administration

A University of South Australia MBA and the Pank & University of South Australia Prize for Social Innovation and Enterprise catapulted engineer, Julian O’Shea, into an exciting new international development career path that saw him launch ambitious and impactful projects with the company he established.

Based in Melbourne, but always on the move travelling, Julian is the Founder and CEO of Unbound, an educational social enterprise that leads programs teaching students about important global, social and environmental issues through overseas experiences.

With Unbound, he has travelled the world creating opportunities from new sustainable forms of transport in rural Nepal; to creating maternal health kits in Vietnam; and school outreach initiatives across remote Australia.

“Unbound aims to create programs that students out of the lecture theatre, and connecting with real world issues across the Asia-Pacific region. We take university students to learn from inspiring projects and people across Asia and beyond,” Julian says.

“The idea was to re-think how education can be delivered. Our approach is to work with universities, including UniSA, to design programs that form part of student’s degrees, and make travel and working on social impact projects a part of the university experience.”

UniSA Video

Julian acknowledges the positive impact the Pank & University of South Australia Prize for Social Innovation and Enterprise had in building and establishing Unbound, as the learnings and recognition was a great inspiration.

The Pank & University of South Australia Prize for Social Innovation and Enterprise, now awarded under the Innovation & Collaboration Centre’s Venture Catalyst program, is funded by the Pank Family supporting social innovation and enterprises developed by UniSA students or alumni.

Through the Venture Catalyst program, the Pank Family have ensured that new ideas that come out of the University have the support and mentoring needed to set up a new and innovative social enterprise across the country.

“The UniSA Pank Prize came early into building Unbound, and recognition like this was a great motivator and recognition that I was on the right path,” he says.

“Doing the pitch was a nervous experience – but hearing that I was successful was a wonderful moment in my career.”

Julian carried this support and inspiration into designing the innovative education programs Unbound leads, also involving working with many inspiring partners and projects around the world.

Just like the team’s Nepal Innovation Program exploring community development and sustainable innovation in collaboration with a local social impact organisation, Abari – a world-recognised firm in bamboo innovation.

They have built numerous buildings out of bamboo, including after the earthquake, and continue to innovate on sustainable products and most recently worked together on a bamboo electric cargo bike, and low-cost educational toolkits.

Solar panels

Similarly, in Fiji, Unbound focuses on climate change, and explores actions that can be taken in Australia to avoid negative impacts in the Pacific, particularly around beach erosion and extreme weather events.

This involves spending time in both coastal and interior villages, to gain a great insight into Fijian and Pacific culture, as well as meeting with inspiring leaders who are working hard towards shaping a better future for their country.

“Over time I’ve come to realise that social change is something that happens across disciplines and that sustainable impact needs to be supported. Social enterprises – business that have positive social and environmental impact – are a great way of creating lasting change,” Julian says.

“For me the transition from being a technical engineer, to leading projects and businesses, was a great step forward in doing this. I still consider myself an engineer and am always working on a side project or two – I’m currently attempting to build the world’s fastest solar electric bike, so watch this space.”

Of these side projects, many have of course involved travel, as Julian describes it as one of his true loves. Even though he has visited around 150 of the world’s 193 UN member countries, he’s still on a personal mission to visit every country in the world.

“There are so many wonderful highlights but waking in up in rural Nepal with a hot cup of lemongrass tea and watching the sunrise over the Himalayas is about as good as it gets.”

“I travel there regularly and have some wonderful colleagues that I collaborate with, on sustainability projects – such as building bamboo bicycles and education kits – so it's a great mix of work and play,” he says.

Most notably was a memorable adventure where Julian and a dedicated team converted a Thai-built tuk tuk, into a solar-powered, sustainable outreach vehicle.

The SolarTuk Project took them on many memorable journeys including driving across bumpy dirt tracks across the vast Queensland outback – avoiding the highways and roadtrains (the natural enemy of the slow-moving tuk tuk) – and driving through the Chennai traffic in India. The latter which was an intense experience, and the sheer volume of cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, bikes and cows is something he won’t forget any time soon.

“We drove this zero-emission vehicle across the length of Australia from Melbourne to the Great Barrier Reef at just 50 km/hr, to promote low-carbon transport and explore ways to live and move more sustainably,” he says.

“It got a lot of attention, with so many wonderful communities who hosted us and let us share the story and spark conversations with community, school groups and the media. It was such a silly and fun adventure that we have since taken the tuk tuk and driven across Thailand and India.”

All these experiences have only strengthened his belief that the idea your education finishes when you receive your degree is one that’s long gone. Julian and Unbound embody the idea that lasting change will always be led by local community leaders and it’s great to work and learn together.

“In Australia, it’s exciting to help support emerging innovators with the skills and mindsets to launch projects that matter,” Julian explains.

“I’d encourage anyone to continue to learn and grow throughout their career, particularly in fields beyond their core. Now this can be online, through travel, further study and university, and spending time with people to learn how they live and work.”

“I’m so inspired to see students bring their ideas to life – from projects around fighting waste at music festivals; to creating engagement projects connecting refugees to local residents over art classes.”


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