Larry Marshall on startup bingo

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Too much attention is given to tech startups in Australia while successful, potentially lucrative science-based companies are often ignored, according to CSIRO chief Larry Marshall.

At a senate estimates hearing late last week, Dr Marshall was asked about the Startup Muster survey, which found that the number of active startups in Australia is in decline.

But Dr Marshall did not seem all that concerned with the findings, and said that the working definition for a startup is often too narrow.

“There’s a bit of a misconception in what a startup is these days. Startups are just SMEs after the media has lost attention and they’ve become real companies,” Dr Marshall told the hearing.

The science-based companies that CSIRO supports often have far more potential than what many would think of as a startup, Dr Marshall said.

“At CSIRO we do digital innovation but we also do deep science innovation – that’s stuff people don’t think of as technology and innovative,” he said. “But this is amazing science that comes out of this country.”

“It’s the wellspring that feeds these great opportunities for innovative startups, but for some reason they’re not seen as the same as these digital, internet, tech startups,” he said.

“From our perspective they’re every bit as innovative and in many cases more so, and have a more profound impact on the economy.”

The work that CSIRO and its data body Data61 has been doing to support these companies and startups in general has provided a “profound boost to the startup ecosystem in Australia”, he said. This includes national science and technology accelerator ON and the CSIRO Innovation Fund, which has attracted $232 million in investment in a year.

“We’ve taken hundreds of teams from over 30 publicly-funded research institutions through our science accelerator, and spun-out a number of companies. We also house a large number of SMEs and startups nationally. We’ve made a profound difference,” Dr Marshall said.

“Most importantly, the fact that CSIRO stood up a government-based venture fund and out-performed in leveraging the government money almost two-to-one with professionally invested money really got the attention of the local community and international community. We’ve had a profound step-change in the system as a result of our agenda.”

The CSIRO chief’s calls to broaden the common definition of a startup in Australia echo similar comments made earlier this year by Cicada Innovations chief executive Petra Andren, who says deep science companies must be included in the national conversation.

“What worries us is that often the definition of a startup doesn’t include us – that’s an Australian phenomenon where we think of a startup as being digital software, whereas Cicada is deep tech,” Ms Andren said.

“Our 75 companies are everything from robotics to agritech to AI – things that take a bit longer and need the infrastructure,” she said.

“It might not be as sexy as an app or a marketplace, but these industries can have impact and put Australia on the map.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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