Former CSIRO chair David Thodey says the growth and development of Australia’s innovation ecosystem since 2015 had been exciting – remarkable even – but a lack of clarity in long-term national industry strategy had been limiting, nonetheless.
Just weeks after stepping down from the board of the national science agency which he chaired for six years, Mr Thodey says there is reason for optimism.
It was encouraging that much of the development of the local ecosystem was coming from industry, and exciting that more capital was flowing to VCs, and then into innovative local enterprises.
The states had become more active in building initiatives that encouraged the growth of the tech ecosystem. And the CSIRO had really stepped up its desire for greater commercialisation. All of this is good, he says.
“But I think that the lack of clarity in industry strategy is really not at a level that could really accelerate that growth.”
As a Patron of the InnovationAus 2021 Awards for Excellence, Mr Thodey was reflecting on the progress the tech industry has made in Australia. He doesn’t criticise directly and chooses his words carefully because they carry a lot of weight these days.
“I am always inspired when I look at the UK and the EU, with the really great industry strategy that they write and then refresh, every two or three years,” he said. “From that flows really strong science and research priorities, and then funding flows.”
These high-level, industrial policy discussions and designs and revisions allow a big picture view of where different parts of the ecosystem plug into each other, and to keep track of the long-term, “ten and 20-year bets” that require longevity, long-term capital, and patience as new industries emerge.
“So, consistency of industry policy is really important. And we can see that from the agriculture or resources sectors, where we have had tremendous policy over a long period of time that has driven great wealth and quality of living for this nation,” Mr Thodey said.
“We need to do that [long term policy direction] in these other areas of technology and innovation – in healthtech and biotech and all these other areas.”
The big ticket initiatives announced in recent weeks around supporting capability building in quantum technology and artificial intelligence were welcome and should be applauded.
“But they are not set against [a] blueprint of where we need to go, and I think we would benefit as a nation by having that blueprint.”
Reflecting on six-years as chair of the CSIRO, Mr Thodey says the national science agency is immensely valuable to the nation with broad and deep expertise that can be brought to bear on the Australia’s thorniest challenges and greatest opportunities.
“It’s just one of the best assets that this country has, it really is truly spectacular,” he said. “My favourite part of [that] job was actually being with the scientists and seeing what they’re doing – all 5,500 of them.”
“It is such a diverse organisation, from the square kilometre array to all of the energy work, to fire resilience, to genetic engineering to animal health.
“If you are staring at big changes, or national challenges like drought or climate change or fires, you need a multi-disciplinary approach to solve those problems. You can’t just have a single scientist sitting somewhere working on a fire-retardant chemist, or a single scientist working of a water management for drought,” he said.
“You have this incredible asset in the CSIRO that has all of this multidisciplinary capability that has been developed over time to bear on a problem. And if CSIRO is working with universities and partner research organisations, it can be an incredible enabler.”
Mr Thodey congratulated all of the entrants and finalists in the InnovationAus 2021 Awards for Excellence, wishing them all the best.
“One of the things we need to do more of in this country is to really celebrate the incredible talent that we have in this country.
“We need to celebrate them, applaud them, encourage them – and to create that community and get them talking. Because those connections can create enormous value.”
David Thodey is chair of Xero and Tyro Payments and is on the global board of Vodafone. He has been Patron for the 2021 InnovationAus Awards for Excellence. At InnovationAus.com, we are grateful for his support and for the positive role he continues to play across the innovation ecosystem.
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