Celebrate success to drive innovation ambition: Simmons


Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Quantum physicist and 2018 Australian of the Year Michelle Simmons has warned of a ‘cultural insecurity’ in Australia about creating companies, stemming from a lack of awareness and pride in those that have gotten over the commercialisation hump.

Professor Simmons told a panel discussion with leaders from Cochlear and the NSW Government on Wednesday that more attention needed to be paid Australia’s innovation success stories.

“There’s so many great stories of companies that have come out of Australia that I don’t think are well celebrated in the public domain,” Prof Simmons said.

“The average everyday student at university or school, or the average public [person] might know one or two but that would be it. So somehow we’re not celebrating it and we’re not creating in our young people that sense that it can be done here.”

Michelle Simmons: Cultural change is required to create a national thirst for success

The “cultural insecurity” was a surprise to Prof Simmons on her nationwide tour following her Australian of the Year award in 2018 in recognition of her pioneering research and leadership in quantum computing.

“It was quite a surprise. I had an inkling of that at the beginning of the year,” she said. “But by the end of the year it was reinforced that young people think you’ve got to go overseas to be successful.”

Since winning Australian of the Year, Prof Simmons has gone on to lead the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), building on her and other Australian researchers’ world-leading work in quantum information.

The centre is only one of the doors to commercialisation, though, and Prof Simmons has been working with state and federal governments to bring together the various moving parts needed to turn IP into economic drivers.

In NSW, the government has announced plans for a new R&D agency to be housed within Investment NSW, the state’s new ‘one stop shop’ for businesses.

The new agency was one of five priority areas identified in an action plan to accelerate innovation through R&D developed by David Gonski and NSW MP Gabrielle Upton, who is Parliamentary Secretary to the NSW Premier.

Delivered in January, the plan also recommended the development of an online matchmaking platform for innovation stakeholders like industry, universities and startups, and investors.

Speaking on the same panel, Ms Upton said it was not the government’s intention to match specific stakeholders but to make “the innovation system much more legible and visible”.

“We intend to create the platform where that can happen, and it will enable universities to see more readily what industry is interested in having solved as part of [their] problems. It will enable industry to see what research is on offer,” Ms Upton said.

“We’ll provide that transparency through this matchmaking platform.”

The platform – which the government expects to put to market this year – would be one welcome solution to Australia’s research translation and commercialisation challenges, according to chief executive officer and president of Cochlear Dig Howitt, who also spoke on the panel.

“It is hard to find ways into companies [for collaboration],” said Mr Howitt, whose hearing technology giant has its global headquarters within Macquarie University.

“Certainly we get found a lot by various researchers but I’m sure what we’re actually seeing is a fraction of those who are really looking.”

While personal relationships or “great perseverance” often lead to effective collaboration, Mr Howitt said Cochlear has also created a specific venture group to connect with stakeholders.

“As a company you don’t set up saying ‘okay, what we’ve really got to be doing is looking out for all the inquiries that come in and work out how we manage them.’

“You’d like to but there’s a lot of other things you’ve got to do.”

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