After almost six years of operation, the Australian Institute for Innovation (a2i) has closed its doors, having reached the end of its operational funding.
The think tank formed in August 2010 was dedicated to lifting the quality of policy discussions and improving innovation outcomes in Australia. Its operations were initially supported by in-kind services from Minter Ellison and Access Economics.
Subsequently they were backed by funding from governments and innovative organisations including the Victorian Government’s Department of Business and Innovation and the University of Queensland.
The decision to ease operations was unanimous among the Institute’s four directors, namely, Paul Cheever, Julian Day, Tim O’Connor, and Alistair McCreadie, all of whom brought extensive experience in innovation, government, intellectual property, corporate, and capital markets to the table since their appointments.
Mr Cheever, the a2i Co-founder and Chief Executive of the Institute, said, “to continue forward and be effective as a corporate entity, we would need a significant amount of money for staffing and resources. There was strong consensus that it’s appropriate to stop formal operations now and that we would be more effective operating individually.”
Throughout its years of operation, a2i has centred its efforts to energise collaboration between the private and public sectors to advance Australia’s interests and opportunities in the global marketplace.
While the Institute hasn’t achieved the major breakthrough it sought – or been awarded a ‘seat at the table’ – Mr. Cheever said “it has been able to give some balance to perspectives between design-led and research-led innovation at a time when government policies were very much focused on design-led innovation”.
Closing the Institute would not mean the loss of its input. He added, “The credentials of the present and past directors of the Institute has been extensive, representing exposure to more than 500 start-ups, and to the history of innovation policy development.”
Although we may have lost a representative voice for Australian innovation as a2i wraps up its operations, Mr Cheever intends to continue to express his views on innovation and policies through consultation, blogs and whitepapers, and contribute his extensive knowledge and expertise to the start-up community.
His work in innovation started in the 1970s and 1980s. He is recognised as the investment adviser who guided and implemented the construction of Australia’s largest venture investment portfolio, for Westscheme, the Perth based superannuation fund.
Westscheme was a foundation institutional investor in five Australian venture managers, as well as investing in established managers.
Beginning in 2002, he initiated the design of Australia’s world-first Commercialisation Collaborations, which have brought long term institutional capital together with new life science, engineering and other technologies emerging from Australia’s leading Universities and Medical Research Institutes.
Today he remains involved in four of these Collaborations which provide seed capital to nine Universities and 27 Medical Research Institutes.
He uses the analogy of the blind men describing the white elephant to describe one of our largest impediments to innovation.
“Very few people have a concept of the whole innovation landscape. We haven’t articulated well what it should look like. Policies are often influenced by well intentions, but sometimes hold very narrow views of what an effective innovation system is.”
Citing a transaction in the manufacturing process that he is working on with a local startup, this particular company is a typical ‘scale-up’ having progressed from the initial startup phase with a proven product and market opportunity. It now needs further capital and expertise to make the product a commercial reality and compete on the world stage, which is significantly lacking for this group of businesses.
“We are missing the pieces within our innovation program. It’s not just the money but the experience: organisations need to go through the process from being venture organisations to growth organisations.”
He also believes that government support has to move beyond just investing funds into incubators, to mobilising capabilities that exists within those technology transfers. The end result would be an Australia that is attractive for investors.
He calls out that a market intervention approach adopted by the UK and US is what set their policies apart.
“When something happens, they [the government] either interrupt or provide support to accelerate or expand it at key opportunities or inflexion points,” he said.
“To make things happen around innovation from a policy perspective requires an amount of leadership and invention risk—not a risk that Canberra and governments are accustomed to.”