Sally-Ann Williams has been the chief executive officer at Australia’s premier Deep Tech incubator Cicada Innovations for just over 12 months, after spending more than 12 years with Google Australia where she was responsible for leading the company’s STEM education & outreach (K-12), research collaborations with universities, and entrepreneurship and startup engagement.
Cicada Innovations is based at the Australian Technology Park in inner-city Sydney and is owned by four of the nation’s leading universities – the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the University of Sydney, the Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).
Cicada has been around for 20 years. And while much of the policy-making spotlight has been focused on the less technical end of the tech startup sector, Cicada has burnished a global reputation as one of the best Deep Tech accelerators in the world.
In this episode of the Commercial Disco, I spoke to Ms Williams about the key characteristics of a Deep Tech startup and why government policymakers need to apply a different policy lens to these science-based ventures.
The pay-off for the Australian economy will be huge over a long period if we can get the settings right.
The thing about Deep Tech is that the products that successfully come to market are very often “fundamental and foundational” innovation. This means that the initial product is also a kind of platform on which other discoveries and innovations can be built over many years.
“Tech is not all equal, and it’s not all the same,” Ms Williams told the Commercial Disco. At one end of the spectrum is the general technology, that is often easy to deploy, perhaps entirely software based, and likely is consumer-facing.
That describes some stunningly successful commercial platforms and products that have spawned multi-billion businesses from a standing start startup. But it does not describe Deep Tech. And adequately defining the Deep Tech phenomena will help to build better policies to exploit it for the good of the nation.
“Deep Tech sits at the other end of that spectrum. Deep Tech is innovations and solutions that are founded in science and engineering. They are heavily dependent on the IP that has been brought to bear in the scientific discovery.
“They typically take a really, really long time to bring to market because of the scientific methodology and engineering testing that needs to happen along the way.
“They are often in heavily regulated areas, if you think about medical devices and MedTech [or] agricultural technologies and food, all of these things have a regulated path to market. [This] is not exclusive to Deep Tech, but typically they do have more testing and rigour involved with them. And they require patient capital.”
Classic examples of Deep Tech success stories in the Australia context include MedTech companies like ResMed or Cochlear. Or even the commercial development of WiFi is an example of an effort that “took 30 to 40 years to become an overnight success.”
“What we are talking about is discoveries and inventions that are made through science and engineering, solving the really big problems of the world, but which take a really long time to do that.”
The thing with the translation of Deep Tech is that it tends to be a step-change solution that has longevity and resilience; “They really do have the ability to make a foundational change in the initial product to market and can also be a platform to build other discoveries and innovations on top of.” Wifi is an example of this.
“Deep Tech is by its nature very long term. The development, the testing, the bringing the product to market – you really need to have some patient capital,” Ms Williams said.
“But you also need to make sure you have the right structural policies and cultural practices in place in the country [in order] to actually nurture it,” she said. “We’re a bit of a mixed bag in our success on that.”
“When it has been done really successfully historically, we have had some really great long-term investments in research – that’s fundamental research.”
“We do need to have those fundamental research funding opportunities available still.”
Part of the challenge has been in communicating the contribution that Deep Tech ventures make to the economy – and the broader good of the fundamental research on which they it is based. The sector has struggled to make Deep Tech relevant to every member of society – and so it is hard to have those policy conversations when people can’t see it.
MedTech advances, AgTech products and services – or food technology more generally – is not always obvious.
“It’s not in the things that you see. It’s not the smart device in your pocket, or the online banking system that you engage with. It’s actually in the hospital that’s saving lives during COVID-19. It’s the new test-kit that has been brought to market that not only diagnoses respiratory illnesses, but tells you where you get antibiotic resistance so that you can get the most effective treatment in time.”
“These are the kinds of things that consumers don’t really see, [and] that politicians don’t see and journalists don’t see either. It is hidden innovation, yet it is fundamental and foundational innovation that is game-changing, and that is a massive, massive boon to our economy and a massive opportunity for us.”
This is not just a policy conversation, it has to be conversation for the business community as well.
“We need a business community that understands the opportunity that they are leaving on the table,” she said.
Ms Williams identifies the industries where Australia has a strong research history that are showing great signs of successful translation, and she explores the policy levers that governments can pull to drive that emerging success.
But its not all about government or public policy. The break though changes in Australia are just as likely to be cultural.
You can listen to Sally-Ann Williams being interviewed on the Commercial Disco podcast here.