Local disruptors hardwired into Turnbull’s Innovation Agenda

Soldering SMD components to veroboard


Executives from big name corporate and global brands were once the favoured pick for government boards and committees providing advice on industry policy settings, but Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s highly publicised ‘Ideas Boom’ has gone for a distinctly home grown approach.

Mr Turnbull and his Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Christopher Pyne, on Tuesday rolled out a “new look” Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) board, with recruits drawn heavily from the ranks of Australia’s ascending and established technology entrepreneurs and serial investors.

Among those scoring influential appointments include Scott Farquhar, co-founder and chief executive of software developer Atlassian, Paul Bassat, the co-founder of Square Peg Capital and online job market SEEK and Daniel Petre, a partner in local venture capital firm AirTree Ventures.

Other additions on ISA Board are:

  • Dr Alan Finkel AO, Australia’s Chief Scientist (Deputy Chair);
  • Ms Maile Carnegie, outgoing CEO of Google Australia and New Zealand and incoming Head of Digital at the ANZ Bank;
  • Dr Chris Roberts, Non-Executive Director ResMed;
  • Dr Michele Allan, Chancellor Charles Sturt University (reappointed)

The move to bring local talent, particularly from the software development and online commerce sectors, onto the statutory board of Innovation and Science Australia is a conspicuous shift in industry policy because it tilts towards building a strong, local hi-tech and computing sector that than can self-generate exports – as opposed to relying on multinationals to propel or acquire Australian companies.

Despite a conspicuous lack of direct government support compared to the minerals, manufacturing and agricultural industries, Australia’s tech sector over the past decade has still managed to generate some conspicuous international successes – often only to see them snapped up by multinationals after their founders struggled to garner sufficient backing to grow to a global scale.

The ‘big picture’ message from the top in Canberra now is that policymakers and the public sector need to quickly find ways to muscle up national capability in ‘smart’ industries, especially those  based on technology and intellectual property, to create a tangible counterbalance to exposure from commodity markets around minerals and energy.

“The innovation agenda is absolutely critical for Australia’s continued successful transition … from an economy that was fired up by the mining construction boom… Inevitably it was going to tail off so what comes next? What comes next is innovation, open markets, investment, entrepreneurship, enterprise,” Mr Turnbull said at a press conference announcing the new appointments.

To get that happening, the Turnbull government is clearly turning to those whom have been at the forefront of disrupting traditional industries and challenging existing business models as opposed to recruiting ‘safe bet’ appointments from established sectors.

Innovation Minister Christopher also openly acknowledged a strong change in tack in the latest appointments, pointing the need to stimulate employment.

“The people that we’ve appointed to this board are quite different to the previous board members because we want to have a focus on the way of creating jobs and growth through the innovation part of our economy,” Mr Pyne said.

According to the PM’s office, the new Innovation and Science Australia Board will also have a broader scope for embedding innovation and efficiency into wider policy “including advising the Government on strategic innovation and science priorities and investment.”

One area of innovation both local industry and the public sector are sure to be watching closely over coming months are policy settings around giving local companies, start-ups and innovators better access to almost $60 billion in procurement spend the Federal government shelled out last year.

Pressure is also mounting on the Commonwealth to put its internal government spending to better use in supporting local industry and innovative start-ups by following purchasing reforms broadly similar to those instigated in New South Wales and Queensland that have eschewed cumbersome tendering requirements in favour of pre-approved supplier panels and “e-marts” for products and services.

In the case of New South Wales, some of the procurement innovations are directly aimed at saving money by opening-up markets traditionally dominated by incumbent suppliers – like transport and fleet services – to competition from on-demand “sharing economy” services like GoGet and even Uber.

Clearly, the hope is that if the government gets its settings right the equivalent of an Uber will be able to launch and grow from within Australia rather than selling out to overseas investors at an early stage.

Mr Turnbull said it was vital that the government worked closely with industry and academia and business and venture capital to “ensure that we get the right inspiration [and] the right stimulation for investment.”

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