June 16, 2017

Sowerby on Aust innovation policy


Sowerby on Aust innovation policy

Mark Sowerby: 'If anyone in government had a brain ...'

The Queensland Government chief entrepreneur Mark Sowerby has almost finished his one-year term in the slot and he is pissed off.

Mr Sowerby admits he had little prior exposure to government before taking the Chief Entrepreneur gig, but what he has seen so far does not sit well with the man who founded the Blue Sky Alternative Investments business in 2006 and grew it into an ASX-listed diversified funds manager with a staff of over 80.

“To be honest my experience with government has been limited and I’m going to limit it to zero after this job – but bloody hell does everyone get everything wrong.

“I came in with fresh eyes and lots of hope and I am just disgusted. It’s extraordinary to me how hard it is to get the simplest things done.

"Government is ruining our country. I am disgusted with every level of government except for local councils which actually do care and do stuff.”

While he puts the boot into Australian government attitudes to change around innovation, tax and procurement policy, Mr Sowerby gives a thumbs up to Queensland Minister for Innovation, Science and the Digital Economy and Minister for Small Business Leeanne Enoch and to Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk’s Advance Queensland program.

Mr Sowerby was installed as the state’s first Chief Entrepreneur back in August 2016 as part of the state government’s Advance Queensland program which is tipping $405 million over four years into the state’s knowledge based jobs sector.

Since taking the Chief Entrepreneur role Mr Sowerby has tried to fulfil the brief to help invigorate the state’s innovation ecosystem and help drag in more investment.

Like many entrepreneurs, Mr Sowerby’s tends to speak bluntly and is impatient for reform. He believes payroll tax is a real drag on early stage companies and their need to hire up quickly when growth spurts happen and that payroll tax should be abolished in favour of a state company income tax system.

“Payroll tax taxes businesses that are growing, income tax taxes businesses that are profitable. If you want (jobs) growth you take away aggressive taxes like payroll tax,” he says. “That means you wouldn’t get taxed for employing people which is stupid.”

Mr Sowerby also believes government procurement policy is crucial to helping local innovators flourish and that Australia should borrow the UK’s SME friendly procurement policies to help bootstrap local innovation.

“The most hated piece of every government is procurement – it’s done horrifically in Australia. No one got fired for hiring IBM but you keep doing it and messing it up. Someone should get on a plane and go to the UK and spend three days there.”

Despite Mr Sowerby’s dim view of our state and federal governments he has high hopes for the future of Queensland’s innovation scene.

“Queensland should and could own this space. The data is really compelling – we just overtook Victoria in the number of startups.”

He maintains Queensland business has a healthier entrepreneurial spirit and that its university system is more collaborative and better geared to commercialise research.

“Queensland universities are better connected, have things they own that are world-class and tend not to fight each other

“There’s very little of the stuff you get in Sydney in particular, but also in Victoria, where it’s the typical Australian thing of fighting over a small pie.”

He also gives a tick to the Advance Queensland Startup Precinct project in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley and the establishment of regional hubs in towns such as Cairns and Mackay.

“I’d be amazed that Queensland doesn’t own this sector in ten years,” says Mr Sowerby who led a contingent of successful entrepreneurs, including River City Labs founder Steve Baxter, on a 6,500 kilometre tour through Goondiwindi, Emerald, Yeppoon, Rockhampton, Charters Towers, Longreach, Mount Isa, Lockhart River, Cairns and Mackay.

The four-day tour engaged with 1300 people across schools, universities, councils, chambers of commerce and businesses and five of the events were sell outs.

Mr Sowerby believes the hottest entrepreneurial area in Queensland is the Sunshine Coast area north of Brisbane and says some analysis by noted demographer Bernard Salt backs him up.

The Sunshine Coast needs a fast infrastructure injection to take advantage of its innate smarts, he says.

“If anyone in government had a brain they would build a fast train to the Sunshine Coast, give them some more money for their CBD make their university put out hundreds of software engineers per year and hey presto you’ve got Boulder Colorado.”

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