Govt role for our hard hit ecosystem


Joan Westenberg
Columnist

Over this past weekend, the federal government unveiled an Australian coronavirus app and a Whatsapp news service designed to provide citizens with up to date, real-time information about the pandemic. The interesting part is that it was developed in tandem with home-grown tech giant Atlassian.

These are not normal times. While some have criticised government for being slow to act, it has shown a remarkable agility in opening up this level of collaboration with the tech ecosystem, and in recognising the value it can offer in a resource and time sensitive crisis.

In doing so, it may have also proven that there is space for governments to collaborate more with the ecosystem and with our local startups in the future, after the crisis has passed.

Sydney skyscraper
Govt role: Collaboration in an age of Covid

But that demonstration of Australian tech’s capabilities is still a tiny example of the value in the sector. At the end of the day, it is just one mobile app, and it has taken a global crisis unprecedented in the modern era to prompt government to reach out to the ecosystem with such haste.

It comes at a time when the tech ecosystem is beginning the fight of its life.

The pandemic itself continues to represent an existential threat to Australian businesses, with major corporations and small businesses both sharing the brunt of an economic disaster. I don’t use that the word ‘disaster’ lightly. it perfectly encapsulates what is unfolding before us.

The tech ecosystem is facing a challenge that many of its companies, by nature nascent and early-stage, are not going to survive.

I’ve spoken to founders in the past week who have had investors withdraw from funding rounds without warning, leaving them scrambling to make up the difference between finalising their raise and failing as a business.

I’ve spoken to VCs who are far from optimistic about their fund’s performance looking into the year ahead.

When you add it up, you can see an ecosystem that is entering crisis mode, and the startups and companies that make it through will likely be fewer in number.

Early reports of impending layoffs at major companies are accompanied by a seemingly endless parade of developers and teams putting the call-out on Twitter for new roles as their companies cut costs, cut staff and try to stay afloat.

Corporate incubators, accelerators and VC funds were already under threat, and there are rumours that many will be cut entirely while their parent companies fight for air.

Yes, it’s bleak. No, I don’t come with hope. I’m a realist, in that sense.

What I will say is that the only way that the ecosystem survives this is through ongoing government commitment, investment and support. Tech in this country will need more than government collaboration on a tech tool in order to exist in a recognisable form, in a post-Coronavirus world. It will need serious backing and a strong safety net.

If the much-touted benefit of the ecosystem as being a jobs provider is going to see fruition, startups must be able to access benefits and stimulus that lets them to maintain their runway, achieve some semblance of growth, and continue to invest in local talent.

Without those provisions, the existing federal and state investment into the sector of recent years will have been a wasted effort and be seen as a failed experiment.

Does there need to be a specific support package for startups and technology companies? Possibly, possibly not.

Do we need initiatives that will support startups and their employees in accessing the existing support packages as the crisis worsens? Almost certainly.

One thing is for sure. We can work together to grow the tech economy and we can use the expertise that we share to demonstrate the value in future investment in our tech infrastructure and support networks.

But we will not be able to do that without the public sector.

Joan Westenberg is a columnist for InnovationAus. She has written widely on the startup sector in Australia. Her work has appeared in Wired, the AFR, New York Observer, and San Francisco Chronicle. Joan has also led communications at technology startups and non-profits.

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