Australia: nation of inventors or innovators?

November 10, 2015

Karen Taylor-Brown shares ideas for an innovative future from last week’s inaugural Science Meets Business event.

If Australia wants to become more than just a land made up of quarries, farms and tourist beaches, it has to ensure more scientists and engineers are trained to drive innovation, warns Dr Katherine Woodthorpe, Chair of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, and panellist at last week’s inaugural Science Meets Business event.

The event, hosted by Science and Technology Australia, aimed to “kickstart a reshaped and refreshed conversation on ways to boost collaboration between Australia’s great businesses and scientists”.

Speakers at the event came from a wide range of industry, government and research, each presenting their ideas for an innovative future.

Keynote speaker Dr Larry Marshall, CEO of CSIRO, celebrated ‘deep tech’ as an ecosystem of plenty, responsible for 100% of US jobs last year. In his experience, deep tech entrepreneurship creates a virtuous cycle of innovation.

Marshall wants to meet industry halfway, working together to understand what customers want. This is not an overnight solution, he warned. “Both CSIRO and Australia will be in beta for the next five years.”

In exploring problems of “diagnosis and lifting the game”, Ken Boal, Vice President at CISCO Australia and New Zealand, said businesses should lean in more, connect with universities and help in the translation of research to the wider community.

Australia: nation of inventors or innovators?

Intrinsic to this translation of research outcomes is a STEM outreach program to schools. Professor Ian Frazer AC, Head of the Diamantina Institute at the University of Queensland, identified the roots of the problem beginning where schools focus on students achieving high-performance marks. Science is tough, and often students are advised to choose an easier subject to maximise their score. He also emphasised the need to place greater value on science and teachers.

Hugh Bradlow, Telstra’s Chief Scientist, suggested that technology could be part of the education solution. If technology is able to reduce costs of education, then perhaps we can pay our teachers more and attract a higher calibre of staff, he proposed.

The Hon Karen Andrews MP, representing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, believes business and science need each other, and Australia needs both. Even though we don’t know what the jobs of the future are going to be, we know there will be core skills required, like coding and data science, she explained. Maths and statistics will be in high demand, alongside creative thinking and entrepreneurship. Andrews is putting together an action plan to connect industry and research.

While the official announcement was still under wraps, Australia’s next Chief Scientist Alan Finkel encouraged a celebration of Australia’s achievements and an effort to build upon the engagement that already exists, like relationships between Rio Tinto and the University of Sydney, and GlaxoSmithKline and Monash University.

Woodthorpe suggested that superannuation funds have a role to play in Australia’s innovation growth, and that fund managers need to realise this in order to support their next generation of members. Another barrier to innovation is the lack of digital experience in the top 300 ASX companies. Boards need to see technology as a future business model, not a piece of equipment, she said.

Newly returned from the US and now heading up Commercial Strategy at the Kinghorn Centre for Clinical Genomics at the Garvan Institute, Dr Russell J Howard has had recent success at raising capital for a new venture. He believes the three key imperatives to commercialisation success are:

  1. To nurture smart capital, and to show founders how to create good intellectual property;
  2. To create an innovative environment;
  3. To enable access to experienced management – people who have experience in commercialisation.

Finally, Mr Peter Yates AM, Deputy Chairman of the Myer Family Investments talked about his own support of start-ups. He likes to collect entrepreneurs rather than artists – in 15 years both have usually increased in value!

– Karen Taylor-Brown, CEO and Publisher at Refraction Media

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