Thursday, April 29, 2010

Innovation week at ANU

Greeting from the last Innovation Week at ANU event for 2010 at "spacedock" (aka John Curtin School of Medical Research), Australian National University, Canberra.

Dr. Thomas Barlow, research strategist, former political advisor and columnist for the Financial Times, and author of "The Australian Miracle". He talked about "Innovation in Australia". Thomas grove a humorous introduction describing the ANU as an oasis of civilisation in
the politics of Canberra. He then suggested Australian might be the only developed nation with an extended period of GDP growth in recent years.

He then explored the myth of the "lucky country" pointing out that Australian has high levels of working hours compared to other developed
nations and that even resources extraction requires technological skills and hard work. Australia's economic growth has been accompanied by an "explosion" in investment in R&D (1.7% of GDP?), greater than the UK.
Australian university have doubled their investment in R&D, joining the "category A" nations, with small populations.

Thomas claimed there have been a revolution in Australia's R&D capability, but few have noticed. However, his comparisons are with the USA and UK, which are now not leading technological countries. He argues that this is a perception problem and attributes this to the structure
of the Australian economy. Previously a major area for R&D was in telecommunications. This investment does not appears to have paid off,
in comparison with Finland: we do not have a Nokia. Australia has had a boom in the services sector. However, this is not visible to the general

Thomas pointed to Westfield has a highly innovative company developing shopping malls. Australian IT companies adapt existing technologies developed elsewhere which help other industries. The Australian coal industry invests heavily in mathematics.

Australian is at the bottom of the "category A" pack of countries. As a result very high levels of investment are needed to create outstanding
universities, Thomas suggests. Instead Australia spreads its investments across a large number of institutions across the country. Also Australia
invests in more researchers, rather than giving each researcher more.

There is a bifurcation happening between research and teaching at university. Those doing teaching are finding it harder to access reach
grants, even as those increase.

All this was good news: we are doing better than we thought, but Thomas argues that this is now a problem. The "Luck Country" adapted technology
from the world. The mood changed to say that Australia had to build its own unique technology. Australia is now providing resources and ingenuity to allow China and India to industrialise. Thomas argues that it is dangerous for Australia to try and emulate China or Finland.

This was a passionate presentation, but at the end I was not clear as to what it was we should be doing.

I asked what we, as a nation should do (on the assumption that minister's offices will be reading this blog posting). The response was that Australia should take the best ideas from round the world and build on them. Universities should aim for high visibility, high impact work.

He said that numerous specialised schemes to help individual industries should be scrapped.

Dr Alex Zelinsky Information Sciences at CSIRO then argued the problem was not government programs, but a cultural issue. Alex has a slide with a photo of a person holding a light bulb. Light bulbs seem to be a theme of innovation events. He injected a does of practicality by pointing out that innovations have to be desirable and viable in the marketplace (or for society generally).

Alex showed examples of unusual inventions which were very original, but did not really meet an unmet need. He argued that innovation is about people building teams, rather than technological gadgetry. Judgement is needed to asses how mature a technology is and when t is time to protect the intellectual property.

Alex pointed out that commercialising research requires 10 to 20 times as much money as the prototype development cost. "Smart money" investors provide relationships as well as early stage funding.

Alex then went through some examples, starting with "Seeing Machines", which listed n the London Stock Exchange, five years ago. It had a way to monitor the face of a driver of a car for safety reasons, funding by Volvo. Seeing machines started without a strategy or plan, simply with
the aim for a spin-off company. Instead of a mass market product costing $200 for the automotive market, the company instead produced technology for medical diagnosis of glaucoma. Alex pointed out that the profit margin for medical instruments was far larger than for automotive equipment. Medical researchers were encourages to publish papers about the product, to confirm its strong research underpinnings.

A higher profile success is CSIRO's patents for the wireless LAN. The CSIRO IP was turned into a chip set used by CISCO. So far CSIRO has
received $US200M with much more to come. The work has a strategy. Alex suggested that this was a good model for new developments, in areas of
optical communications, data storage and clean technology.

The last example Alex gave was the application of optical analysis for driver fatigue, but not for passenger cars, but in very large and expensive mining vehicles. Apart from higher margins, a benefit of this market is that trucks are much roomier than cars, and off the shelf equipment can be used, rather than miniaturised custom equipment. This provided an example of an adaptation for an existence Australian industry: mining.

This was the third and last of the innovation week events. While better than the first of the week, it was not as good as the usual weekly ACT
Innovation presentation. The lesson I have taken away from the week is that innovation is about doing things, not talking about them.

No comments: