The boss of Australia’s only “deep tech super incubator” has a simple message for the NSW government following the unveiling last week of plans for a new tech mega precinct on the edge of the CBD: Don’t forget us.
Cicada Innovations chief executive Petra Andren welcomed the initiative but said she is concerned that the Cicada – recognised as the best tech incubator in the world – had been left out of the state’s planning so far.
She is also concerned that the working definition of a ‘startup’ is too narrow, and not inclusive of more science-focused companies.
“It’s great that they’re trying to find a more permanent home. It’s been a bit transient in the past in Sydney, so the ability to actually create something and have a long-term plan is great,” Ms Andren told InnovationAus.com.
“But my concern in reading announcement was that it’s obvious that we happen to be in the middle of this and we’re not mentioned. Yet we’re the largest deep tech cluster in Australia,” she said.
“I’m hoping that we will be involved because we can do so much more, we can really expand on what we’ve been doing. It would be a missed opportunity if not.”
Cicada Innovations is an incubator for deep technology startups: That is, “unique, proprietary, hard-to-reproduce science-based innovation”.
It has worked with more than 300 companies, with its portfolio companies raising more than $320 million in funding and government grants.
It is privately owned as a for-profit joint partnership between the Australian National University, University of New South Wales, University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney.
Cicada Innovations is based in Eveleigh, right in the middle of the area earmarked by the NSW government for the major new tech hub.
But it was not included in the announcement nor invited into the taskforce overseeing its development, although representatives from two universities that are among Cicada’s owners have been included on the taskforce.
Cicada was named the “top incubator in the world” by the International Business Innovation Association earlier this year.
Last week, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian revealed the state government’s initial plans to develop “Australia’s Silicon Valley” from Central to Eveleigh, with an aim to create 10,000 jobs by 2036.
The state government has not revealed how much funding it will be committing to the new hub, but it’s expected to be at least an order of magnitude more than the $35 million over five years it is providing to the Sydney Startup Hub.
A taskforce has been established to guide the development of the hub, led by Jobs for NSW chair David Thodey, with the first meeting held earlier this week.
Ms Andren she wasn’t consulted before the announcement, and is now attempting to meet with Mr Thodey to discuss the plan. Her chief concern is that government will focus on software and app-focused startups rather than the science-focused tech firms included in Cicada’s cohort.
“What worries us is that often the definition of a startup doesn’t include us – that’s an Australian phenomenon where we think of a startup as being digital software, whereas Cicada is deep tech. Our 75 companies are everything from robotics to agritech to AI – things that take a bit longer and need the infrastructure,” she said.
“It might not be as sexy as an app or a marketplace, but these industries can have impact and put Australia on the map,” she said.
“It’s not as quick and direct and it takes a bit longer, but this has the potential of being a long-term home and it should have a long-term plan that’s inclusive of not just the digital industry, but the ones that really need the infrastructure.”
“We don’t know what they’re actually planning but it’s glaringly obvious to us that we have been left out to some extend.”
Cicada will be suggesting that the tech hub plans include equipment and infrastructure to assist these deep tech companies, and improved collaboration with the nearby universities.
“We’re talking about businesses that are working on tangible things, we need to be looking at specialised rapid prototyping labs,” she said.
“It would make a huge difference to these companies that are now sending components to China and waiting three months for them to come back. That’s one of the key things that our companies want.”
“There are lots of things I’d be looking at rather than providing desk spaces.”
The government taskforce is now seeking business and community feedback after holding its first meeting earlier this week. It is expected to report back to government in November.
The tech hub would seek federal infrastructure funding and is likely to feature residential developments and a wide range of businesses, Mr Thodey told InnovationAus.com.
While it is to be concentrated in the Central to Eveleigh area, it would also cast a broad net to “include the inter-relationship in the Pyrmont, Ultimo and Surry Hills” areas.