Alan Noble on the StartupAUS origins


James Riley
Editorial Director

The first Crossroads report, published in April 2014, contained a foreword written by Adrian Turner that started with the line “Australia is facing some tough decisions that will define its prosperity and place in the world.”

When he wrote that introduction, Adrian was still living in Silicon Valley, having not yet been recruited to return to Australia to run the CSIRO’s Data61 unit. In fact, he had just written a book Blue Sky Mining: Creating Australia’s Next Billion Dollar Industries.

That first line of the first Crossroads report still resonates today. It is a message that Adrian Turner continues to deliver to anyone who will listen (the only difference now is that he brings a more pointed urgency, and adds a specific focus on the algorithmic economy that will define Australian prosperity and our place in the world.)

That first Crossroads report is a very different document to Crossroads 2020. In 2014, the innovation landscape was a very different place. And the report had to get basic: ‘What is a startup?;’ ‘Why unicorns matter;’ and ‘The case for economic diversity’ are section headings for a wider audience that was really coming off a crude knowledge base.

These are questions that have already been answered in the Australian mainstream in 2019.

The Crossroads report is the product of the advocacy group StartupAUS, of course. Its formation can be traced to a roundtable meeting of 50 ecosystem leaders in Sydney in March 2013. From that meeting some moonshot goals for the Australian startup sector were agreed on, and the broad policy needs to achieve those goals were agreed on.

That meeting has become an important landmark in the evolution of government attitudes to startups and tech innovation policy, if only because those 50 gave their blessing to StartupAUS to go forth and advocate.

StartupAUS

StartupAUS began as an odd mix of corporate influence and grassroots organisation. Critics call it Google astro-turfing, but the reality is slightly more nuanced than that. Google was and still is an influence engine-room, but it could not have advocated nearly as successfully without the imprimatur of a broader community of interest. And the same is true in reverse.

StartupAUS co-founder and former Google Australia director of engineering Alan Noble was a driving force behind that original roundtable – and he remains on the StartupAUS board.

It is instructive that Mr Noble said Google felt it had more in common with local tech companies – and particularly with tech startups – from a policy point of view than it did the other tech multinationals. Google was trying to grow a large, globally focused engineering operations, while the other multinationals were by-and-large sales and marketing offices.

Mr Noble had spent 20 years outside of Australia in a variety of roles, including 16 years in or near Silicon Valley. He had worked at four startups – two he founded and two he joined. By 2006 he was back in native Adelaide when Google came knocking.

In establishing the Google engineering operations in Australia, Mr Noble found himself working directly alongside government relations people for the first time. The challenges back then have a familiar ring – talent acquisition issues, visa issues, employee share scheme (or lack thereof) issues.

“That was really the first time ever that I really started to have an appreciation of how good policy can make a difference,” Mr Noble told InnovationAus this week. “And how important it was to encourage good policy.”

During this period, working with Google in Sydney, Mr Noble says he infused himself in the Sydney startup ecosystem, getting to know the players, not because he had a formal role via Google, but through personal interest.

“I got to know some of the players, obviously Mike and Scott over at Atlassian, and Mel and Cliff at Canva. I already knew Bill Bartee – who’s now at Main Sequence Ventures – and he introduced me to Niki [Scevak] and Rick [Baker] at Blackbird.”

And that’s how it went. Mr Noble sort of opened up Google to host events on behalf of others, and got to know the ecosystem over time, from coworking spaces, incubators and accelerators – he came close to Peter Bradd from Fishburners and James Alexander at Sydney Uni’s Incubate.

Older contacts like Sandy Plunkett who had recently returned from the US, and SydStart founder Pete Cooper, and Pollenizer’s Mick Liubinskas ultimately became part of that initial roundtable, along with Sally-Anne Williams (who was working with Google, now with Cicada), Matt Dawes (Google then, AWS now) and Shoes of Prey’s Michael Fox.

“Google saw more natural alignment with other tech companies, even if they were tech startups,” Mr Noble said. “Google has a large R&D presence in Australia, whereas most multinationals did not – they were essentially sales and marketing operations, so they didn’t really feel the pain of what it takes to attract and retain tech talent like Google did.”

“It became clear that there were these areas that needed policy fixing and there was a good alignment with the startup community. Not on all the issues, but on enough that it made it worthwhile.”

That’s the origin of StartupAUS, and it has quite easily been the most effective advocacy outfit in Australia, with its former diplomat chief executive Alex McCauley the industry’s best spokesman.

It is probably not ideal that a serious lobby be started under the wing of so powerful a multinational tech player, but it has been far better than the established industry groups, and it accelerated the government’s thinking – in spite of the bleakness of the period between the 2014 Abbott-Hockey budget and the launch of the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The startup sector in Australia in 2013 was “nascent” or “embryonic”. But it needed a kick-start. It might be at that point again. The fractured nature of tech advocacy – there are more than 30 industry groups – makes it difficult for government to separate the signal from the noise.

It is time that the industry found a way to provide a whole of economy voice.

Alan Noble reflects on the formation of StartupAUS: “I just thought if we can get a bunch of smart people in the room … let’s get some investor types, some entrepreneur types, some service providers – and even a few folk from government as observers – then let’s see what we can do.”

The launch of the 2020 Crossroads report is the sector’s most significant coming together. It is the sixth iteration of the report. Like the others it is a celebration of progress and a statement of where to now.

So I asked Alan Noble what’s missing now, what’s the single biggest issue the industry faces today in relation to government policy. And he says it’s urgency.

“Rather than point out one or two burning policy issues, I think there is a broader thing here,” he said. “What we are missing is a sense of urgency of as a nation that kind of transfuses all kinds of areas … like ‘she’ll be right’,”.

“It’s cultural. It gets reflected in [attitudes] like ‘We don’t need a Minister for Innovations because … we’re Australian’.”

It is probably time for the sector to muster a louder, more coherent and more coordinated voice. Fragmentation won’t get us where we need to go.

As a footnote, it is worth adding that since leaving Google Australia after 11 years in April last year, Alan Noble has returned to his roots, founding a tech startup  (albeit this time a not-for-profit startup) called Australian Ocean Lab – of AusOcean – based in his home town of Adelaide.

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