Caples: Innovation as the new norm

Margaret Lim

Start thinking ‘innovation as usual’ as the norm rather than the exception, and expressing innovation in terms of the business rather than the system.

That’s the mind-set Victoria’s Lead Scientist Professor Amanda Caples wants compatriots to adopt for the state to get ahead, driving jobs growth and attracting new investments into the future.

Victoria has been working on various innovation agendas for the last 15 to 20 years. Although innovation and technology have been a centrepiece of Australian governments’ narrative for economic growth, achieving an innovative mindset have been a bit hit-and-miss.

Prof Amanda Caples: The importance of defining ‘innovation’ to driving economic outcomes

Professor Caples says it is necessary to first establish what ‘innovation’ means because the term is either misunderstood or interpreted differently depending on who you talk to.

“When it comes to innovation policy, we collectively – governments, industry and the general public – operate on different wavelengths,” she said.

“Think back over the past two decades with both federal and state policy statements heavily oriented toward support of the innovation ecosystem and knowledge creation,” Prof Caples said.

“While this is a globally well-accepted policy position, the unfortunate and unintended effect of this has been that public perception is that innovation equals science and/or invention.” And that’s not the case.

“What I am certain about is there needs to be a common understanding of innovation.”

Professor Caples defines innovation as a set of behaviours or reactions to improve outcomes for customers.

Just like in a business context, the organisation that successfully embraces innovation will ensure it evolves and grows, as circumstances around the organisation change—internally and externally.

“It’s not a single one-off activity, but a continuous feedback loop,” she said.

In order for any society to ‘live and breathe’ innovation, however, she recommends going a step further beyond the definition: provide meaning and relevance to the term.

“We have been focusing a lot on the activities and getting things done, but we should also not lose sight of the big picture; That is, why are we doing this? Once you have that understanding, it crystalises the purpose.”

Having those insights and background will help the community to appreciate the enormous focus and efforts behind the innovation agenda—which is essentially to secure economic success and create jobs.

Professor Caples’ role as Lead Scientist is to address structural adjustment of the Victorian economy and to drive the growth of future industries including start-ups, through the development of industry, innovation and science policies.

With the renewed push towards innovation, there is more ground to cover. And Professor Caples is excited to be in the driving seat and playing such a pivotal role in shaping the state’s future.

Victoria’s $200 million Future Industries Fund launched in March this year zooms in on industry sectors that have the potential to drive job growth and attract investment.

These sectors include Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals, New Energy Technology, Food and Fibre, Transport Technologies, Defence, Construction Technologies, International Education, and Professional Services.

By capitalising on its key capabilities and industry expertise, Victoria has chalked some big wins.

Earlier this month, Victoria’s Industry and Employment Minister Wade Noonan launched a Monash University-based Food Innovation Centre, a one-stop shop for food and fibre businesses to access world-class product and packaging design and development services, sensory evaluation, consumer testing, visualisation, and research laboratories.

With the middle-class population across Asia expected to grow to more than three billion people by 2030, there are real opportunities for Victorian food businesses.

The Andrews Government has set aside $2.5 million over three years to fund the expansion of the centre at Monash, which aims to open new pathways to Asian markets for Victorian food businesses.

In particular it will provide insights into Chinese consumer needs, regulatory requirements and better access to platforms to fast track export opportunities, as part of its emerging collaboration with China-based COFCO Group.

Another recent success has been in the medical and pharmaceuticals sector; a joint venture BioCurate between University of Melbourne and Monash University, which was supported by the state government.

This $80 million enterprise aims to help new discoveries translate successfully into early commercialisation backed by necessary expertise and funding. This is not as straight-forward as it sounds.

The joint-venture will unlock the combined exceptional biomedical research strengths in Melbourne, accelerating new discoveries into new medicines and conferring huge potential health and economic benefits to both Victoria and Australia.

While Victoria’s innovation agenda is headed in the right direction, these successes highlight the importance of collaboration across disciplines and governments.

Professor Caples cited the example of a carbon fibre pilot plant Carbon Nexus, which the Victorian and Commonwealth government have been working on together since late 2000.

The research facility, owned and operated by Deakin University, explores low-cost, high-performing carbon fibre materials that are lighter, stronger, cheaper and much faster to produce.

These materials are increasingly being used in many industries, such as aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, clean energy and sporting goods, replacing traditional materials such as steel and aluminium.

“Over the last six years, the facility has received $103 million in funding from Victoria and Australia governments to help research carbon fibre materials. We contributed the machine while the Commonwealth government contributed the infrastructure around the machine,” said Professor Caples.

Research into fibres, polymers, composites and textiles is carried out as part of the Australian Future Fibres Research and Innovation Centre (AFFRIC), which is a $103 million initiative supported by the Victorian and Australian governments.

Formed in 2013, AFFRIC is a collaboration between Deakin University, CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering and the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing (VCAMM).

It increases the research capacity of CSIRO and Deakin to service the fibre, textile, composite, automotive and aerospace industries. AFFRIC also assists in the translation of research into end-user applications.

When Carbon Nexus finally opened its doors to the world in 2014, it attracted a $23.8 million investment and created 150 jobs at its Carbon Revolution wheel production facility.

“Individual companies couldn’t invest in carbon fibre manufacturing because they don’t have the means. This is a great example of governments working together to invest in a facility for SMEs to access these infrastructures, services, as well as the knowledge that is created around the facility. And that led to an establishment of new cluster of companies around the facility that is growing jobs in Victoria.”

Professor Caples is certain that Carbon Nexus is an emerging success story as Geelong continues to gain recognition as Australia’s ‘carbon valley’ and attract world-leading carbon fibre stakeholders.

“The dry economists argue that competition should be sufficient to stimulate innovation behaviour. I say that competition is necessary but not sufficient,” she said.

“Collaboration with other disciplines is required to yield real outcomes. While collaboration is readily achievable within an organisation, it is somewhat more challenging between organisations, particularly between business and publicly funded research organisations.

“We need to collectively work on a collaboration policy.”

With efforts around a collaboration policy well underway, it would be fair to say that Victoria too is an emerging success story itself.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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