Just when the new Prime Minister’s mantra is ‘agility' and 'innovation’, it’s odd that a program that promotes Australian innovation is facing the chop from government funding. I attended the Australian Technologies Competition awards night on October 20, 2015 and was surprised.
The above image shows the winners, from left: Juliette Warren (Autodesk), Robert van Merkestein (Calix), Andrew Okely (Calix), John O’Brien (Australian CleanTech), Phil Hodgson (Calix)
What is the Australian Technologies Competition (ATC)?
It’s a national competition to attract the ‘ground-breakers, risk-takers, challenge-seekers and game-changers’ of Australian technology, according the ATC website, and to showcase their innovations to global markets.
Focused on technologies for Advanced Manufacturing, Built Environment, Food and Agritech, Energy Technologies and Mining Technologies, the competition is a springboard for useful inventions that also have sustainability credentials and global potential. Such as GreenSync, a cloud-based power grid monitoring system, that locates, forecasts and manages peaks to enable balancing of power demand. A pretty practical idea, I'd say.
So what’s new?
There are lots of showcases for technology startups aren’t there?
Well, yes. I’ve certainly attended a few innovation fora and showcases over the years, mostly those matching innovators with potential investors. Frankly, most of the early stage tech companies I saw then, were anything but ready for market. In many cases, they couldn’t even distill their advantages into lucid pitches, let alone resource and implement practical business development strategies over several years.
At the ATC awards this year, I was surprised to find that the 30 finalists who presented were both articulate, and highly focused on practical, success-linked business criteria. Such as Pacific Management, a cloud-based real-time monitoring system for air quality, noise, water and weather, that enables more organisations to operate closer to communities with less impact. A really useful idea, I think.
Another star-gazing exercise?
I’ve also seen a few startup programs in my time and found that, unwittingly, they can include starry-eyed companies with limited real-world potential who probably should have been shown the door.
Exploring further into the ATC, I found that the judging criteria for the ATC were published in detail - and were stringent too – hopefully designed to weed out the wishful-thinkers from the real game-changers. The criteria included customer fit, market potential, business model, leadership and financial management experience, technical validation and protection, as well preparedness for operational risk and alliances. Applicants couldn’t easily bluff through these questions, had to show and tell, using specific examples. I like this sort of rigour, especially when applied to technology companies, not just their innovations. Things were getting better.
The judges were of a high calibre too, including current specialists in intellectual property, capital markets, sustainable environments and technical innovation, with decades of relevant experience, mainly in industry. Meet them here. By now, I was thinking that the ATC finalists might be of a much higher calibre than I expected, too.
At a time when Australian private investment in new technologies is plummeting, I’d like to see practical encouragement of innovators, not just more showcases.
Trophies aren’t much use in the real world, so it was reassuring to find that the ATC isn’t just a competition; it includes a development program which teaches and mentors semi-finalists, in four stages over an eight month period. Also, after the awards, the top 30 winners receive ongoing guidance plus exposure to overseas markets through the AusIndustry Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Program and International Market Entry Acceleration Program.
Private sector sponsorship is practical too. Autodesk provides its world-class software at discounted rates for applicants, so they can design, visualize and simulate their ideas, with the same advanced tools available to global players. The other main sponsor is Australian CleanTech, an Adelaide-based firm with strong ties in China, who works only in clean technologies – facilitating investment, organizing events and providing access to CleanTech market indices in both countries. Australia is great at innovation - yet lousy at backing it - so Australian CleanTech could make a big impact here.
Australian CleanTech does a lot of the heavy lifting for ATC too: its CEO, John O’Brien, is the driving force and tireless contest organizer. On the awards night, he was the Contest MC too, making sure everything ran with Breitling precision and George Clooney charm. I didn't expect to be impressed that evening, but I was.
What about value?
I’ve worked with a few government incentive programs over the years, and was often struck by the lack of endpoint. What did taxpayers actually see for their unknowing generosity?
Digging more deeply into the ATC, I found that the economic value had been tracked this time, and by the government. The Government’s own figures show that its $750,000 investment over the five years of the ATC has created over $250 million worth of economic value. That’s an ROI of 33,333%; a pretty acceptable rate, I'd say.
An established bunch
When I took a closer look at the applicants, the 2015 ATC crop was a far cry from some of startups I'd seen over the years.
According to the ATC, on average, the 128 applicant companies in 2015 were founded 7 years ago and now employ 7 people, they’ve already invested $3.4 million, received grants of $1.1 million, expect revenues of about $1 million this year, and they seek a further $2.6 million in funding.
I’m a marketer not a venture capitalist, so maybe my view on money is skewed, but this funding deficit seemed small. Compared with the targets set by the wistful startups of the past, the 2105 ATC crop - with its global application and revenue potential - had fairly modest expectations, I thought. For instance, Ocious Technology's BlueBottle, a floating drone that can travel and survey the world's oceans, yet is completely self-powered using sun, wind and wave energy. A terrific idea with lots of applications for defence and industry in many countries, I'd think.
And the winners are
According to Ben Waters, Contest Chairman of the Judges, ‘We had a hard task picking the winners as so many of the Finalists have huge global potential. We expect all the Winners and most of the Finalists to see significant export growth and to create many high-value Australian jobs.” I can believe it; the 30 finalists were an impressive bunch. Full contest details here:
These are the winners of the 2015 Australian Technologies Competition (photo below):
- Food & Agritech Award & Best in Show - Calix – a natural, environmentally-safe spray that helps plants fight disease without the need for toxic or expensive chemicals.
- Mining Technologies Award & People’s Choice Award - Southern Innovation – a smart digital signal system that allows faster, safer more accurate handling of radioactive materials
- Advanced Manufacturing Award - Ocius Technology – a clever floating drone for surveying seas and oceans that is powered solely by sun, wind and wave energy
- Built Environment Award - Pacific Environment – real-time monitoring of air quality, noise, water and weather conditions that enables more efficient operation of industries closer to communities
- Global Development Award - Melvelle Equipment – a smart way to remove rusted railway line fasteners, that is controlled, reliable and safe too.
- Energy Technology Award - GreenSync- a clever way to balance electricity usage across power grids, and reduce the negative impact of power peaks
- Alumni Award - Raygen Resources – a previous ATC winner, recognized for major progress since winning the award.
- Innovative Region Award - Greater Adelaide. This is the first time this award was given, and it recognises this region’s exceptional commitment to innovation, including 109 programs, 14 co-working spaces and 11 incubators. As we said in our post South Australia - Basket Case or Renewable Energy Star, this state is punching well above its weight nationally, and setting a high bar for much bigger, better-funded states.
Image Courtesy ATC. The 2015 ATC Winners from Left: Phil Blythe (GreenSynch), Unknown, Robert Dane (Ocius), Andrew Melvelle (Melvelle Equipment), Bob Cart (Raygen Resources), Robert van Merkestein (Calix), Kenneth Taplin (RDA Adelaide Metro), Laura Grundy (Southern Innovation), Andrew Okely (Calix), David Scoullar (Southern Innovation), Peter White (Pacific Environment)
A stunning announcement
For the five years that the ATC has been running, the Federal Government has provided support which, as we saw, has yielded a pretty impressive ROI. It stunned everyone when, at the proceedings' close, John O-Brien announced that the 5th Australian Technologies Competition would be the last, due to discontinued government support.
To me, this is incomprehensible. At a time when traditional manufacturing in Australia is in freefall, and South Australia and Victoria are yet to feel the impact of the closure of three car-making facilities and associated industries, the only answer for Australia is to innovate - not procrastinate.
Risk-taker to the rescue?
I hope that the change of captain will herald a change of heart by the government.
Winners of practical programs like the ATC - who can prove their potential for global reach and revenue - represent the sort of risk we want the government to back, surely? These risk-takers could form the backbone of the next wave of world-class Australian innovators - a wave we desperately need - and for a tiny investment. Compare this risk, investment and return equation to that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, to which the government has committed $24 billion. It’s embarrassing.
Without doubt, Prime Minister Turnbull is being relentlessly lobbied to support countless initiatives, and not all will be chosen. However, consistent with his mantra and persona, supporting a logical, proven program like the ATC would be a low-cost, high-return no-brainer for a serial risk-taker and challenge-seeker. I hope he sees it too.
(By the way, I have no affiliation with ATC, the sponsors of the competition, any of the finalists or any political party. The event was free and I attended and, yes, I did enjoy a glass of wine).
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