Tag Archives: start-ups

Spark festival

Researchers urged to stop hoarding knowledge

Dom Price, futurist and head of R&D at Australia’s most successful startup tech firm Atlassian has an impassioned and personal plea for academic researchers: stop hoarding, let go and act now!

Speaking to science and technology researchers, business owners who’ve commercialised research and fledgling research-based startups, Price stressed that perfection is the enemy of progress.

“You need to have progress and a little bit of perfection. ‘Scrappiness’ should be part of innovation!” he said.

Price’s view on how to get scientists to focus on progress is to start by sharing unfinished research early.

His opening address to Inspiring Australia’s Commercialising Research forum held at Sydney School of Entrepreneurship Monday as part of the Spark Festival warned that if scientists continued to hoard knowledge in a quest to attain perfection, they will certainly miss opportunities to scale up and translate their research into useful, global solutions.

Research is a skill not a job

Adding to this provocation, Price referred to research as a skill – one among many other skills required to scale up knowledge and build large-scale businesses that are capable of global reach. While he appealed to businesses to give researchers the freedom and time to “do the scary stuff,” Price argued that maintaining a sense of urgency was critical in order for Australian scientists to be able to take advantage of commercial opportunities as they arose.

Speakers and delegates participating in the half-day Commercialising Research forum challenged traditional research-business stereotypes and looked at the culture and collaborations necessary to achieve translational opportunities in building Australia’s most successful startups. How do you turn pure research into something that works for the commercial sector and society as a whole?

The initial panel pondered whether academics are insular and business short-sighted. Chaired by Refraction Media’s Heather Catchpole, they considered the need for researchers  to “go and knock on industry doors” and “… even annoy them a bit”.

UNSW’s Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla, director of Sustainable Materials Research & Technology, stressed not only the importance of leveraging research funding, but the importance of businesses to leverage research. Sahajwalla also urged researchers to share their vision in order to seek investment.

Investor Martin Duursma from Main Sequence Ventures echoed her call for researchers to talk themselves up. There was also a plea to researchers from Tim Allison, the CEO of TechFit, a company currently partnering with four universities, to please stay in Australia.

New frameworks for graduates

A recurring theme throughout the forum was for stronger engagement with the industry and business sectors so that research driven start-ups can work. Many participants called for new frameworks to involve PhD students in industry settings early in their studies and better mechanisms to assist early career researchers to develop industry networks. 

An exciting element of the forum was listening to researchers discuss their commercialisation journeys and hearing from business owners who are successfully breaking the mould.

A highlight was a commercialisation masterclass during which Dr Noushin Nasiri was coached by patent attorney Dr Gavin Recchia, entrepreneur Natasha Rawlings and business advisor Dr Julie Wheway, who has specialist expertise in research commercialisation.

The young UTS post-doctorate researcher has invented nanoscale breath sensing technology that has attracted much interest from industry. A skilled science communicator, Nasiri has spoken publicly about her work, including at FameLab and TedX Sydney. She enjoys the contrast science communication offers to remaining isolated in the laboratory and on the publishing trail.

Nasiri’s communication efforts have paid off handsomely with offers now coming her way. But she needs support to navigate her future. The expert panel advised her on the next steps, raising issues like IP, future goals, teams and support.

Echoing Prof Sahajwalla from the first session, Nasiri’s message to other researchers is to embrace science communication through any and every forum available so as to present research findings to a wider audience.  You never know where this may lead.

Yes, you can fail in research

Another speaker was Dr Dharmica Mistry from BCAL Diagnostics who is developing a novel blood test for breast cancer. Her message was that failure is okay – but you need to learn and move on quickly.

“You need to feel safe enough to have a go,” she said, adding that she found the hardest part of setting up a business to be managing expectations, timelines and shareholder demands. Learning on-the-job was the most important part of the journey.

For Prof Michael Whithford, founder of Modular Photonics and Director of the OptoFab Node, the hardest part of the commercial journey was managing human dynamics, personalities and skill sets. Other challenges have been working out the best rate of growth for his company. Whithford believes that to fully develop research talent, “… you need to push researchers in their natural direction and support cultivation”.

Spark Festival continues throughout the week, with many more forums on offer.  

Follow the new Research Futures channel to explore how academia, government and business can find better ways to ensure effective transition from research knowledge to scalable, global commercial outcomes.

The Commercialising Research forum held at Sydney School of Entrepreneurship was convened by Jackie Randles, Manager Inspiring Australia (NSW) as part of the 2017 Spark Festival. Join the conversation at #researchfutures #sparkfest

Discover research futures

valley of death

Top 25 insights: valley of death

There are two potential ‘valleys of death’ for R&D spin-off companies. One is in translating their research concepts into prototype products. The other is in maturing from prototype to full commercialisation.

Here, leaders of the Top 25 Science Meets Business R&D spin-off companies answer the question: Which valley of death was most difficult for your company, and what was key to getting over the hurdle?


Taking the prototype through to full commercialisation was probably more difficult for us due to the complexities involved.

This included high-tech scale-up manufacturing, which we do at our bio-manufacturing facility in Malaga. Today, we have the ability to expand production as necessary, as well as refine and develop our processes in-house to accommodate new products and product improvements.

There was also a focus on generating sales once CardioCel was commercialised. Just because a product is approved doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be used straight away by the intended customers.

We’ve focused on educating the market about the benefits of CardioCel, such as its biocompatibility and lack of calcification (hardening) at the site of surgery. We’ve also built a strong global sales and marketing team who work closely with our customers to understand their needs.

As a result, we’ve seen continued quarter-on-quarter growth in CardioCel sales, and the product is now used in over 135 heart centres globally.

venture capital

– Dr Julian Chick, Chief Operating Officer


“For pharmaceuticals the so called ‘second valley of death’ is by far the most significant.

Lack of funding often prevents companies from attempting to cross this valley and causes them to license their technology at an earlier stage and to realise rewards as the licensor takes their innovation to market.

For a small company with limited resources, the key to success here is to understand the commercialisation risks, link the higher-risk projects with partners and try to make that step themselves for markets with lower entry costs and higher clinical need.

If done well, they should end up with a portfolio approach with the risks mitigated but still significant opportunity for value appreciation.”

venture capital

– Gary J Phillips, Chief Executive Officer


SmartCap Technologies had substantial industry support to develop the prototype products, however even with this it was a very challenging process to deliver working prototypes. 

SmartCap was exceedingly fortunate in that CRCMining provided substantially more financial support for SmartCap than originally envisaged, enabling it to finally deploy the prototype products. Those prototypes were sufficiently effective to generate commercial interest from some large mining companies.

So despite having robust plans in place, it always helps to have access to further funding, via investors or other stakeholders with a high level of commitment as well as deep pockets, to overcome unforeseen eventualities.”

– Kevin Greenwood, Chief Operating Officer


“The biggest hurdle may be the combination of the two – translating research concepts (i.e. technical information associated with the technology) following commercialisation into an immature market.

Catapult‘s technology is not a consumer product and therefore is very high touch in terms of its service and client support. Due to the perceived complexity of the information obtained from the technology, part of the trick is to simplify the underlying research concepts to new markets that need a low touch product.”


– Shaun Holthouse, Chief Executive Officer


“I would argue that you should have a prototype – before any spin-off. That way you can at least prove technical viability of your concept. Ideally you would also have done some level of customer validation.

The next step of full commercialisation is definitely the hardest.

In our case it was a matter of finding early customers that were willing to spend time assessing the product and its benefits – even though it was too early to commit to a purchase and full roll-out. This phase was key to understanding the market and adjusting our path.”

– Gary Pennefather, Chief Executive Officer


“The first phase is the most difficult – a poor prototype will show its deficiencies later in development. A prototype needs to demonstrate a safe and efficacious profile, and that it will meet the need you have defined in the target market.”

Michael Kotsanis_intext

– Michael Kotsanis, Chief Executive Officer


“Translating research concepts into clinical proof-of-concept [was the most difficult] due to the dearth of venture capital available in Australia at that time.”

– Professor Maree Smith, Executive Director of the Centre for Integrated Preclinical Drug Development and Head of the Pain Research Group at The University of Queensland


“We are in the middle of our valley of death translating our platform into the clinic and we have not yet overcome it. Data is key, but one needs the funds to produce the results! So, we are seeking investors wherever we can find them and buddying up to big pharmaceuticals who have the muscle to progress our technology.”


– Dr Jennifer Macdiarmid, pictured above with Dr. Himanshu Brahmbhatt, joint Chief Executive Officers and Directors 


“Both were as difficult – but they had different hurdles. Key for both was having the right staff and people to address each hurdle.”

Stuart Smith_intext

– Stuart Smith, Chief Executive Officer

Click here to see the full list of Top 25 Science Meets Business R&D spin-off companies.

Firing up our start-ups

Firing up our start-ups

Stories of ‘unicorn’ Initial Public Offerings and billionaires in their 30s are great. But it’s the creation of quality jobs that truly makes innovation a national priority.

A recent report from the Office of the Chief Economist showed Australia added about one million jobs from 2006–11. Start-up companies added 1.4 million jobs, whereas older companies shed 400,000 jobs over the same period. But it’s not any start-up that matters; only 3.2% of start-ups take off in a dramatic fashion, providing nearly 80% of those new jobs. While Australia has a relatively high rate of companies starting up, the key seems to be getting more of them into high-growth mode.

When Israel faced a massive influx of immigrants after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it turned to innovation as a means of providing jobs. Given the country’s lack of natural resources, they didn’t have a choice. A population of four million people taking in one million more meant Israel had to become an innovative economy.

They grew their investment in research and development dramatically – to the point where Israel is now one of only two countries consistently spending more than 4% of GDP on R&D.

Israel has translated that spending into high-tech export success. Now, multinational technology company Intel employs over 10,000 Israelis. The Israeli Government is hands-on in its approach to de-risking early stage companies. But this is not achieved through government spending alone. In fact, the Israeli Government’s share of total R&D spending is just one-third of that of Australia, and its higher education sector is just one half. Business carries the lion’s share of R&D spending in Israel, making up 80% of the total, compared with 60% in Australia.

in text graph2

If we want jobs, we need innovation. We are in a unique period when there seems to be complete political agreement on this point. If we want innovation, we should take lessons from wherever we can learn them to develop the Australian system. A lesson from Israel is to use government spending more effectively at the early stages of company development to shift more start-ups into high-growth mode. If we could double the current 3.2% of today’s start-ups that become high-growth companies, we could provide more rewarding jobs for Australia’s future.

Israel concentrates almost 100% of its government innovation support for business on small and medium-sized enterprises. The comparable figure for Australia is 50% – a big hint for what we could do differently to fire up our start-up sector.

–Tony Peacock

Tony Peacock is CEO of the Cooperative Research Centres Association and founder of KnowHow.