Five-year itch for grant scheme
Retrofit: Accelerating Commercialisation grant program is five years old this week
Entrepreneur Mark Blum co-founded his property tech startup Cognian Technologies in mid-2016, raising a friends and family investment round to fund a working prototype of its Synchromesh smart building retrofit system.
The Cognian prototype had been successfully tested through Cisco’s Innovation Labs and was being trialled on a non-commercial basis through a friendly customers’ site.
By late 2017, the company was fund-raising again and was looking to apply to the federal government Accelerating Commercialisation – a part of the Entrepreneur Programme initiative within the Industry department – for a dollar-for-dollar matching grant.
Cognian had five employees, a working prototype, a huge addressable global market and a ton of ambition.
“So, the purpose of the [Accelerating Commercialisation] grant was to take it from prototype equipment to commercially deployable equipment and to take us through proper, scalable trials,” Mr Blum told InnovationAus.com.
To cut to the chase, Cognian Technologies was successful in getting an $850,000 Accelerating Commercialisation grant matched by $850,000 in privately raised capital. It now employs 15 people and has a commercial product certified in April with much broader functionality than its original prototype.
The Synchromesh product is marketed as a kind of “wireless canopy” that allows smart building features – from lighting to standard heating, ventilation, air-conditioning – to be retrofitted to existing buildings at low-cost.
Cognian is in the advanced planning to establish its first international office in Europe. It has great customers, although to be fair having only been certified in April it is in the very early days of the revenue stage right now.
It is a company with a great product that has made a promising start. But the point of this story is about the program that has supported it.
The Accelerating Commercialisation component of the Entrepreneur’s Programme is five years old this week. Established in November 2014, it pre-dates the National Innovation and Science Agenda.
In that time, it has handed out more than $200 million across 411 separate grants to individual companies.
Anecdotally, there have been some good outcomes for some of the individual companies that received grants through Accelerating Commercialisation. It is hard to see the bigger picture, because whatever data has been collected on outcomes – if such data has been collected – is not public.
After five years, it should be possible to get a picture of the value of this program. How many of those 411 companies are still in business? How many people have they employed? How much additional money have they raised? Have the founders exited? What is the return to Australia? Are the grant recipients still based in Australia?
If we are going to be spending on public programs like this, surely it is worth applying some mandatory data collection requirements on recipients so that we can better understand how the program is performing, and whether it needs a tweak.
Accelerating Commercialisation keeps an extraordinarily low profile, given the investment from the public purse. Given that it does not celebrate successes in any real sense, you might wonder whether it is casting a wide enough net, to attract the highest quality applicants to the process.
The majority of grants map to the five priority sectors of the pre-NISA, Tony Abbott-era. These are Advanced manufacturing; Food and agribusiness; Medical technologies and pharmaceuticals; Mining equipment, technology and services; and finally, Oil, gas and energy resources.
It was set-up to also support a non-specific, quasi-sixth category of enabling technologies and services that helped under-pin the five target categories.
Many of the grants made in support of this non-specific category were in information technology, software and the like.
In celebrating five years since Accelerating Commercialisation, it might be an opportune time for a significant review, to better understand the impact of the grants made through the scheme, as well as the cost of running the scheme.
Cognian’s Mark Blum says the value of Accelerating Commercialisation is under-sung, and it is not just the dollars that have made a difference for the company.
“[Accelerating Commercialisation] was an excellent process, and not overly onerous,” Mr Blum told InnovationAus.com. “The questions that they asked I believe prepared us well for the questions that investors would ask.”
“Secondly, the process we went through was a solid project management and due diligence exercise that really helped us to set up the business more efficiently,” he said.