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Kickstart innovation culture

Kickstarting the innovation culture

On Monday 7 December, in his first major policy announcement since becoming Prime Minister in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull unveiled an innovation package to drive an “ideas boom” in Australia.

Speaking at CSIRO in Canberra, Turnbull and Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Christopher Pyne announced $1 billion in government spending over four years. The funds, says Turnbull, will kickstart an innovation culture in Australia.

“This statement is an absolutely critical part of securing our prosperity. The big shift is cultural – if we can inspire people to be innovative, the opportunities are boundless,” says Turnbull.

The plan outlines 25 measures across four key areas: culture and capital; embracing risk; incentivising early-stage investment in startups; and addressing governance issues through the establishment of two new bodies to oversee the plan: the Innovation and Science Sub-Committee of Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister, and newly established independent advisory board, Innovation and Science Australia.

These, according to Pyne, will “put science and innovation at the heart of government policy”.

“I wrote a list of expectations before I went in and got to tick everyone of them,” says Dr Tony Peacock, Chief Executive of the Corporate Research Centres Association (CRCA). “Now startups will be much better placed to raise their own funds,” he says.

According to Peacock, by changing the insolvency laws, such as reducing the default bankruptcy period from three years to one, and making it easier for startups to gain access to capital, “the government has put the ball back in the innovator’s court”.

The biomedical and biotechnology industries have also welcomed the announcement.

“We are keen to see this positive policy transformed into action that makes a difference to Australia’s ability to commercialise and benefit from our world-class research and development,” says Dr Anna Lavelle, CEO of biotechnology organisation AusBiotech.

The plan represents a major step forward for science innovation in Australia, according to Dr Peter French, CEO and managing director of biopharmaceuticals company Benitec Biopharma, and “is the most exciting and refreshing statement of vision for Australia that I have seen from our politicians”.

French, named this month one of Australia’s “Innovators of Influence” by the Australian Science Innovation Forum, says that ”rewarding academics for working with industry is well intentioned, but without safeguards, could end up being counter productive to Australian innovation”.

The package includes a $100 million boost to the CSIRO budget, reversing the $110 million cut under the Abbot Government last year. The Government will also co-invest with the private sector in the $200 million CSIRO Innovation Fund for new spin-out and startup companies and services created by research institutions. Biomedical research will also benefit from a $250 million Biomedical Translation Fund.

These funds will support investment in spin-off and startups, to develop and commercialise promising products and services from Australia’s research community.

Science research will receive an injection of funding, with $520 million for the Australian Synchrotron facility and $294 million for the Square Kilometre Array over the next decade. The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) will also receive $1.5 billion to deliver world-class research facilities to Australian researchers in Australia and abroad.

The package also includes a $36 million Global Innovation Strategy to support collaboration between Australian researchers and businesses with their international counterparts. Landing pads for Australian startups and entrepreneurs will be established in Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley and three other key locations around the globe.

There will also be a $99 million investment in programs to improve digital literacy and skills in STEM amongst young Australians. And $13 million will be made available to increase opportunities for women working in research and STEM industries and start-ups.

“Innovation and Science are two sides of the same coin, and this plan will bring them both together: driving jobs, growth and investment and igniting a national ‘can-do’ attitude,” says Pyne.

– Carl Williams