James Riley
August 8, 2013

Tapping the NICTA talent pool

Tapping the NICTA talent pool

The ICT sector’s talents fly below the radar in Australia. Photo:Neil Duncan & Deutsche Messe*

It’s a little known fact, but Australia has world-class expertise in the data science hotspot of machine learning. That’s the pointy end of Big Data.

Big Data might be an overburdened term, with hype and rhetoric having made it a marketing catch-all for fairly basic database manipulation. But the reality is that Australia has a recognised pool of excellence in this area, most of it based in Sydney. And NICTA is its Ground Zero.

Senior researcher Rami Mukhtar says NICTA has the fourth largest research team in the world looking at machine learning. It is just off the podium behind Google, Microsoft and Facebook, which puts it in pretty rare company.

The NICTA experience in developing and commercialising machine learning expertise is a case study on the fundamental importance of industry collaboration.

The ICT sector’s talents fly below the radar in Australia. But NICTA’s Big Data expertise did not escape the attention of the Commonwealth Bank, which has been engaged in a two-year collaboration which CIO Michael Harte says has created the best application of the technology in financial services anywhere in the world.

Yesterday NICTA had its funding extended for a year to the end of the 2015-16 financial year to the tune of $42 million. This is money well spent, and the year-long extension gives it some funding certainty to move ahead with.

NICTA celebrates its ten year anniversary this year. It has been a tough ride in a difficult funding environment. And against a tide of ambivalence in Australia about the tech sector and developing home-grown IP, it is starting to make some headway.

Specifically, it has a growing spin-off pipeline and a renewed focused on getting IP out the door. As the affable NICTA chairman Neville Stevens said yesterday, NICTA is focused on wealth creation.

NICTA has grown to become an incredibly important resource for Australia. It provides a level of critical mass in research. It has 580 researchers, technical and professional staff, and 260 PhD students working across 30 research projects, training and commercialisation activities.

We will now see whether that new focus on wealth creation can deliver. Michael Harte believes it will, and in fact aligned the Commbank with NICTA precisely because of that focus.

“We just like the fact that NICTA is about wealth creation,” Mr Harte said.

“That is the primary objective of most organisations, and we support the work that they do because it is mainly in the applied area, and we can use the expertise and the research that comes with that.”

According to Mr Harte, the two-year collaboration with NICTA’s Big Data gurus enabled the bank to build its in-house Big Data capability, which has included the creation of some of the best applications in the financial sector anywhere in the world.

The investment, he says, has been modest and the outcome large.

For NICTA, the collaboration has been a huge part of its own success in the area. Dr Mukhtar, who led the collaboration, is now leading (as chief executive officer) Ambiata, the commercial entity that will soon spin-out of NICTA into the private sector.

Dr Mukhtar says the cost barriers to entry to the big data market are small. But you can have the world’s best team of researchers and get nowhere if you have no data. And getting the trust of a partner – like the Commonwealth Bank – to allow access to data is everything.

Ambiata is currently a wholly-owned subsidiary of NICTA and is preparing to fly the coop. It is one of six companies in the past 18 months that have been readied for take-off. This is a healthy pipeline and reflects a new thinking at NICTA, and mimics the broader strength of the startup sector (in Sydney particularly.)

Minister Assisting on Innovation Kate Lundy says the on-going federal investments in NICTA – which total $130 million over the next three years – will ultimately leverage the bigger investment in broadband infrastructure through the NBN.

“As the roll-out of the National Broadband Network continues, the benefits and opportunities from NICTA’s work will only increase,” Senator Lundy said.

*Photo Credit: by Neil Duncan & Deutsche Messe via http://bit.ly/1dPjq5c

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