James Riley
March 19, 2018

Something going on in Adelaide

SA Election

Something going on in Adelaide

Adelaide: Big enough to be interesting, small enough to see the moving parts

South Australians woke to a new Liberal state government this morning for the first time in 16 years following the election of Steven Marshall on Saturday. He takes the reins as Premier at an interesting time for the state, with its tech and innovation sectors on the cusp of a renaissance.

The rest of the country might not have been paying attention. But there is something really interesting happening in South Australia. With the election of a new government, it is worth noting some of the under-the-radar efforts of the outgoing the Weatherill Labor government.

There is a baby-and-bathwater homily that could be inserted here, but it is probably unnecessary. Obviously a new government brings change, but Marshall and Weatherill might have been running a joint-ticket on innovation.

Certainly there is a recognition on both sides that the green shoots that have appeared in tech startupland, advanced manufacturing, in renewables and in health and biomedical must be encouraged.

InnovationAus.com visited Adelaide a couple of weeks ago at the urging of the state government’s Chief Innovator, Thomas Hajdu, an exceptional, high-energy strategic thinker on innovation ecosystems from the US.

We had talked over the phone in the preceding few months, and he’s pretty convincing in arguing that something special is happening in Adelaide that is not well understood, and which is not being covered in its mainstream one-newspaper-town media.

So we went and had a look. And yes, there’s a lot going on. Adelaide is big enough that it can attract smart people doing interesting things, and small enough that you can see all the moving parts and how they join together.

Over the next few weeks we will be reporting on some of those moving parts, and hopefully painting a picture of what’s happening in South Australia and where it sits within the broader national innovation infrastructure.

Mr Hajdu has worked out of Adelaide for the past several years courtesy of a distinguished talent visa and an enthusiasm for the Fleurieu Peninsula after a career – and great success – in creative tech as founder of famed music production house TomandAndy.

He spent a day showing us around the South Australian ecosystem and introducing us to the people in the engine room.

Speaking before the state election, Mr Hajdu was slightly nonplussed about its outcome, maintaining there was an apparent bipartisan support for the ecosystem efforts, and while a new government might bring change, the “train has already left the station”: A critical momentum had already been build.

Central to this momentum is defence spending generally, and the $60 billion submarine commitment specifically.

This might be obvious to all, but it doesn’t get said enough: While Australia might be some submarines at the end of the process, the value from the project will be derived from its industry development heft – from the products that will be commercialised and the capability that will be developed along the way.

Christopher Pyne can be a polarising character in politics, but he should take a bow on the Adelaide submarine build.

Secondly, Adelaide is becoming a case study in the notion that a tiny band of energetic ‘doers’ can move the needle dramatically, in a kind of Brad-Feld-in-Boulder kind of way. There is a tight circle of collaborators.

To anyone outside of South Australia, the only name you will hear is entrepreneur and Liberty House Group founder Sanjeev Gupta – which is an incredible story in itself, given the Whyalla rescue and now the ambitious drive into renewables.

But there are others. Jana Matthews has been pivotal in the Adelaide tech startup ecosystem, but so has Mr Hajdu (who among other things was a primary driver of the ambitious GigCity fibre roll-out), which also has attracted a largest bipartisan tank of support.

There is significant returning talent – Google Australia’s director of engineering Alan Noble, and quantum mechanic and Silanna Semiconductor chief scientist Petar Atanackovic are both University of Adelaide alumni, both returned after significant careers.

Petar Atanackovic spent a career in Silicon Valley building next generation semiconductors. He says the longer he was there, the more he wondered out loud “why can’t I do this at home [in Adelaide]?”

He is one of a very small handful of people working in his high-value niche – and just by returning attracting both money and other talented people into the city. (We will profile Dr Atanackovic in the coming weeks.)

It is worth noting also that while the mainstream political narrative paints South Australia’s renewables policy as folly, the state has built considerable expertise both in renewables and in battery storage. Internode founder and Adelaide resident Simon Hackett has been active in developing new battery tech.

And while the federal Coalition has tried to paint Saturday’s election as a rejection of South Australian energy policy, renewables has strong public support among locals – to the extent that Steven Marshall all but matched Labor’s policy on rolling out a “virtual power plant” of battery storage units across the state. The differences are at the margins.

The newly-constructed Royal Adelaide Hospital has had its teething problems, documented in the mainstream. But what has not been written about is the health and biomedical centre of excellence that has grown next to it, with two research universities, the CSIRO and the CRCs forming the largest single bio medical tech precinct in the region.

Other infrastructure assets include Tonsley Park, the former Mitsubishi plant site that was acquired by the state government. This is interesting. The site is now an advanced manufacturing hub, and while it has taken some time to get right, is starting to fill up.

The Tonsley site could more easily have been sold as a giant Bunnings hardware store and Miller’s Storage facility or some such suburban effort. Instead it is now book-ended by the STEM faculties of the nearby Flinders University at one end and a TAFE at the other. It is connected to gigabit internet. It is being filled with high value, high IP manufacturers.

Steven Marshall has been elected as premier at a pivotal moment for South Australia. There has been a great foundation of entrepreneurial activity laid without fanfare but with great momentum.

InnovationAus.com will be tracking the journey, and profiling the foundational layers of the Adelaide ecosystem in the weeks ahead.

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