Govt out of touch with small business needs

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal government decision to lock out most companies from the latest round of its cooperative research funding has “gutted” local firms that had been working on applications and showed it is out of touch with SMEs, hopeful applicants have said.

Round 10 of the Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) was officially opened last week by the federal government. But to the surprise of much of the local sector, this round will only be open for smart recycling projects and will come with less than half the funding offer in previous rounds.

The round will only be for smart recycling solutions, despite Round 8 of the program also adopting this focus, and about $10 million will be on offer.

But due to the short timeframe to make an application and the requirement to have a number of industry partners, numerous companies have spent several months this year working on applications with the assumption it would be open for all sectors.

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These companies have been left “gutted”, as one potential applicant said, by the decision and will be forced to look elsewhere, with some left ruing the wasted time spent on the application.

Laticia Gibson had been working on an application for the CRC-P round for much of this year, looking to conduct a longitudinal study of the impact of her subscription-based platform which helps businesses in regional areas to grow holistically.

“The reality for us was we’d put in a lot of work as a team, including the research partners. Businesses like mine don’t have the luxury of endless pockets and our time is super valuable,” Ms Gibson told InnovationAus.

“We’ve gone and put time, money and resources into creating what we thought was going to be a really good structure for an application, knowing there’s only a small window that it’s open, to get these things in and when we got that it was just a slap in the face.”

Ms Gibson said her grant writer had attended an information seminar on the CRC-P run by governmental officials just weeks before the round was open, and no signs were given that the round would be restricted to only one industry.

“Nothing they said alluded to the fact it was going to change. We all went ahead thinking it was going to be the same parameters as all the previous rounds, or at least the recent rounds. When we got that notification, it was just a bit of a slap in the face,” she said.

“That information session was only a couple of weeks ago. It would’ve been predetermined. I don’t think they should be running information sessions and not giving people a heads up.”

Dr David Rissik, the head of business development at BMT Environment Australia, had also been working on an application for CRC-P Round 10, focused on improving the reliability of catchment nutrient and sediment modelling.

“Our staff had been working for about three months to establish partners, to fine tune what was required to suit the needs of users, to develop the approach that was required and to create a proposal,” Dr Rissik said.

“Our team had been very excited and quite optimistic about this year’s funding round and were gutted when seeing the amount and direction. We will have to look at other avenues to fund our development. This takes staff time and commitment which has costs. Importantly it slows down the development of a product we see immense possibility in.”

Ms Gibson said the latest decision around the CRC-Ps reflected her other interactions with the government through grant and EOI applications.

“The whole process reinforces my overall experience, which is that the government seems out of touch with how SMEs operate and just how much time goes into preparing these documents, and the general disconnect there becomes really apparent,” Ms Gibson said.

“My business bootstrapping this startup has suffered during COVID. Resources would have been used in getting more work for me. We will still use the bones and core of what we wrote, it was time wasted but not completely lost. It reinforced for us that apparent disconnect the government has with understanding what businesses like ours are faced with on a daily basis.”

Going forward, the government should be more open about its plans with new funding rounds and open them on set dates throughout the year, she said.

“There needs to be more transparency with the way you communicate with businesses, and actually try to understand them, not from a bureaucratic sense, but really dig down into the trenches and listen to the feedback, because obviously they’re not taking anything on board,” Ms Gibson said.

A spokesperson for industry minister Karen Andrews said the six-week application window is standard practice for the CRC-Ps, and recycling is a valid area of focus.

“Managing Australia’s waste and recycling is a significant issue, which is why we have focused this round of the CRC Projects program to addressing this challenge,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.

“The Morrison government is committed to creating job opportunities and improving productivity in this very important sector, including its supply chain.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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