StartupAus: The politics of power

James Riley
Editorial Director

StartupAus is a hugely influential voice in the Australian tech and innovation landscape. It is self-described as the “peak advocacy group for startups.”

But the thing about StartupAus is that it has been unknowable. It has no membership. There is no way to understand how the composition of its board is decided. Or what issues it will focus on.

It is opaque. Its policy advice to government is framed through unknown assessments and processes.

Alex McCauley: Will need all his diplomatic skills at StartupAus

What is undeniable is that as ‘innovation’ has evolved in Australia to become a cause du jour, StartupAus has grown to be one of the most powerful lobbyists in Canberra.

The group is not everyone’s cup of tea. But it has been undeniably effective, and ultimately positive.

If the conversation was about diversifying the economy and getting the message out about the technology that is re-shaping the world, then pushing hard on entrepreneur-focused themes was a good place to start.

StartupAus last week re-arranged the deckchairs, with its extremely well-qualified advocacy and policy officer Alex McCauley taking over as chief executive. The organisation’s first CEO Peter Bradd – who was already on the StartupAus board – is now chairman.

Mr Bradd replaces Google Australia’s engineering director Alan Noble as chairman.

StartupAus began life with the support of Google in 2014, which had funded a ‘moonshot’ report for the Australian startup sector. It brought together 50 VC and entrepreneur leaders for a two-day talkfest that set goals for Australian policy-makers to shoot for – and the broad policy ideas to get there.

It was ambitious, seeking to boost the contribution of Australian high-growth tech companies from 0.2 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent in 20 years. It has produced a couple of follow-up reports along the way.

The organisation has grown with the support of Google, while also adding other outside partners that include Salesforce, Xero and River City Labs.

But it is Google’s support, and the very real star-power of Alan Noble that left the impression of StartupAus was a ‘Google show.’

Mr Noble is a genuine hero of the Australian industry. When we get around to building monuments for the people who made a real difference along the way, he will get a prime place.

But if perceptions count (they do), then it is a good thing he has stepped aside as StartupAus chair.

As for how the rest of the board is decided, who knows? There seems to be geographic representation – which a board member from Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and a couple from Sydney. But maybe that’s by accident, who knows?

When StartupAus was created – that is, when those 50 leaders were brought together for that original confab about the future of startups in this country – it had been assumed by at least some of them that this would be a membership-based organisation.

Well that never happened. There are good reasons for that. Member organisations are difficult, clunky and expensive for one. Democracy is messy.

Some of the leaders involved in that first moonshot meeting are unimpressed with the closed-shop operation.

Which brings us to Alex McCauley and 2016. Mr McCauley is charged this year with pulling together a bigger set of corporate partners, to bring some University and research voices into the Startup tent, and to build-out relationships with membership-based industry groups like AVCAL and the Australian Information Industry Association.

StartupAus is also commissioning a series of analyst reports this year, Mr McCauley says, into policy areas of specific importance to the startup sector.

The first policy focus for the year is on R&D tax concessions.

It is an election year, and for the first time in living memory the broad innovation sector has the enthusiastic support of both sides of politics. Specific policies are different, but there is genuine goodwill toward ideas that assist energetic entrepreneurs and local businesses.

That’s a rich environment in which to influence. Mr McCauley is impressive and brings a measured approach to the role.

It’s going to be a big year.

[Correction] An earlier version of this story stated that StartupAus had recently announced that the role of chairman was now a rotating position. This is incorrect. The chairman role has always been a rotating position at StartupAus, with board member Glenn Smith being appointed chairman for a period prior to Alan Noble.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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