Spirit of innovation is alive and well
Article originally posted in the Australian October 7, 2017 by Sarah-Jane Tasker
You’ve heard of Wi-Fi. Used Google Maps. And know about Cochlear implants.
Did you also know that Australia is home to these inventions? Australia might be a small isolated country that will never match the scale of tech mecca Silicon Valley, but the spirit to develop world-leading technologies is very much alive around the island nation.
Petra Andren, who heads “super incubator” Cicada Innovations, is excited about what is being rolled out of her NSW headquarters — technology that rotates a radiotherapy patient instead of the device, cow-chasing robots, a tool to save the Great Barrier Reef — the list of bright ideas from enthusiastic young entrepreneurs is long.
When you enter the incubator at the Australian Technology Park in Sydney, a robotic “cicada”, complete with eyes that light up and legs that crawl, sets the scene for the innovation bubbling away in the historic building.
One of the celebrated innovators at the incubator, which houses 400 people, is 30-year-old Sean Pollock, co-founder of Opus Medical.
His infectious enthusiasm is a good sign that Australia’s innovation future is bright.
The young doctor developed Breathe Well technology for his Masters and PhD in medical physics. It is a device that guides patient breathing during chest radiotherapy, which allows the heart to be further away from the damaging radiation beam. This means significantly reduced collateral damage to the heart and lungs during radiation therapy for breast cancer.
Pollock says he has thrived in the innovation hub environment where like-minded individuals can collaborate and share ideas. Andren says she loves watching unusual pairings combining at the incubator to create fascinating outcomes.
“We have themes we are focused on, but it’s what happens when the chemist meets the mathematician meets the artist; that is when really cool things happen,” she says.
Plenty of “cool things” have happened in the Sydney innovation base, including the development of robots for military training.
The founders of Marathon Targets were in their early 20s when they secured their first contract for the robots, which was valued at $40 million. They have since signed contracts around the globe and they are also now working with Domino’s on a robot that delivers
Andren says she is positive about Australia’s ability to foster future success stories to rival the big ones already celebrated.
She dismisses claims the country does not have the right risk culture, and pushes for more role models in the field to be highlighted — not just the 20-year-old, T-shirt wearing app developer.
“If a start-up is defined as a 24-year-old drinking Red Bull in a co-working space developing an app to jump the coffee queue, well that is not going to be exciting for everyone,” she tells The Weekend Australian during a tour of Cicada.
More than 75 per cent of people working at the hub have PhDs, or higher, and its main focus is “deep technology”.
Andren adds you won’t find apps or marketplaces in her space. She points out that agtech is the next area of innovation on which she is focusing her efforts, saying that Australia should be the global leader in that space, but nobody has yet cracked it.
Cicada’s agtech accelerator commercialisation program, GrowLab, is mainly looking at robotics and artificial intelligence and is already supporting the development of robots to milk cows when they want to be milked — a move that is said to increase output by 40 per cent. Another start-up is looking at an implant for cows to measure biometrics.
Steve Brodie, executive manager of innovation for CSIRO’s accelerator program, ON, says Australia has a history of being strong at the front end of innovation — doing high-quality research and developing great inventions. He adds the country is getting better at creating value from innovation.
“Up until now, much of the growth in the Australian start-up community has been in the digital space,” he says. “This will continue to expand, but we are also now seeing a move into hardware and innovations in the med-tech and sci-tech areas.”
Niki Scevak, co-founder of Blackbird Ventures, believes that in the not-too-distant future the most valuable Australian company will be a technology company, not a bank or miner.
“If you look at the world’s most valuable companies, they are tech companies: Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. They are not banks or mining. It’s inevitable that situation will play out in Australia,” he says.
Australia’s current batch of tech success stories started out about 10 years ago — Atlassian, Campaign Monitor, Envato and Freelancer. Scevak’s says they all succeeded despite having no money in the beginning and no help.
“The magic of Silicon Valley is when a founder of a company succeeds they invest and help the next generation succeed. That was largely absent in Australia,” the venture capitalist says.
Those pioneers of 10 to 12 years ago now form the support community they lacked and they are starting to invest and help the next generation.
Scevak says that momentum will hopefully mean that the 15 to 20 tech success stories Australia celebrates now, will become 50 to 100 over the next five years.
Charlie Day, chief executive of Innovation and Science Australia, will soon deliver to the federal government a road map on what Australia needs to do to become a more innovative nation by 2030.
He hints that it will focus on key sectors that need to make adjustments to further support innovation, such as education, business, research and government. He adds there is also a need to shift the country’s culture.
“Sometimes we don’t have as much ambition as we should. There is an opportunity for Australia to set its goal a bit higher,” he says.
“We hope in the future, innovation, research, the exploitation of major ideas, will be a major feature of the Australian economy.”