WA finds religion in new digital God

James Riley
Editorial Director

Western Australia has unveiled a four-year $20 million innovation program, appointed its first innovation minister, and pledged to leverage digital technology to broaden the State’s economy.

State Development and Finance Minister Bill Marmion has been appointed WA Minister for Innovation, supported by Parliamentary Secretary Matt Taylor. The innovation funding package was confirmed in last week’s WA Budget and the innovation program officially launched by Premier Colin Barnett on Saturday.

While a final version of the State’s StartUp Ecosystem report is slated for publication at the end of the month, the interim report indicates that WA currently boasts more than 335 active start ups, employing around 3,000 people and that since 2011 local start ups have raised more than $100 million in funds.

Bill Marmion: WA’s first ever Innovation Minister has just $20m in war chest

Among its other innovation credentials WA is home to the Pawsey Supercomputer Centre and will provide the Australian home for the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope being built by Australia and South Africa, along with the Pathfinder precursor telescope.

The main focus of WA’s R&D efforts to date have been around the resources and energy areas. But according to Mr Barnett: “The package aims to ensure WA’s brand becomes synonymous with innovation, creativity and digital technology.”

As part of the innovation plan Mr Marmion has pledged to convene an innovation summit, champion “Techtober” toward the end of the year, and establish a web portal to connect innovators, incubators, mentors and investors.

The Government will also run a Start It Up challenge with $100,000 in prize money to encourage the private sector to use Government data to create innovative services and products following the launch of WA’s open data policy last year.

Readify’s WA team has already leveraged that policy and this week unveiled an app that displays WA hospital emergency waiting times, revealing which hospital residents should drive to.

The Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (Giles Nunis) and the Department of the Premier and Cabinet will be responsible for developing and administering the innovation package.

But a spokeswoman for the University of Western Australia, which runs Perth’s Innovation Quarter designed to spur collaboration and innovation in the State, noted the lack of detail in the announcement adding that “our research, development and innovation people would prefer to see more details before commenting.”

WA Labor Leader Mark McGowan didn’t hold back though, and in his Budget reply questioned; “Where in this budget is an indication of an IT strategy, a research strategy and local content in manufacturing science and technology?”

While the initiative was more broadly welcomed by industry, WA’s Innovation funding is seen as a small drop in a big bucket.

To set the investment in context, last week’s WA Budget also earmarked $16 million to establish a regional film fund. The $20 million innovation budget seems comparatively measly given the potential impact of innovation on the State economy.

WA’s StartUp Economy Preliminary Report suggests “The impact of disruptive digital and internet technologies in WA’s economy by 2025 could be more than $76 billion per annum” – 25 per cent of GDP.

To get that benefit however will require more than $20 million over four years. The $1.1 billion Federal National Innovation and Science Agenda is instead going to have to act as the major spur to WA innovation.

It’s also a centerpiece policy for the election.

WA is a broadly conservative-held state; all 12 WA Federal Members are Liberal, while WA’s Senators number six liberals, three Labor, two Green and one Palmer United. While the Barnett State Government is somewhat on the nose – largely over the economy, jobs outlook and a perception that it failed to capitalise on the resources boom – the Libs seem set to dominate again at the Federal election.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was in WA on Monday (for just 14 hours by the AFR’s reckoning), though his main focus was on the role the state will play in the Defence ship building programme rather than spruiking his innovation agenda. Labor’s Anthony Albanese was also out and about in Perth this week.

Whatever the election strategy, there seems little doubt that the Coalition still holds the innovation talking stick at present.

Justin Strharsky, director of StartUp WA, and founder of Unearthed, said there was broad excitement among Australian entrepreneurs and innovators, but noted that this was being driven by NISA rather than State innovation agenda. He nevertheless welcomed the Barnett Government’s acknowledgement that “Innovation is key to the diversification of the State’s economy.”

With just 11 per cent of the nation’s population however WA will be tasked to attract and keep top digital talent to drive its innovation agenda. Mr Strharsky said; “We have seen some top talent leave Western Australia for the Eastern States and overseas.”

He acknowledged that “In the national dialogue Western Australia has to struggle to make itself heard.”
He believed however that the elevated innovation agenda might help stem the exodus of talent, and added that the final StartUp Ecosystem report which will be published at the end of the month will feature recommendations for the Government on how to best spend its $20 million.

Mr Strharsky said that WA based innovators were already leveraging their proximity to Asian marketplaces, could take advantage of the time zones and Federally funded startup Landing Pad in Singapore, and also establish themselves as centres of excellence focused on WA’s traditional areas of strength in mining, resources and oil and gas.

Mr Strharsky said Unearthed has been working in this field and on the weekend ran a hackathon in association with BHP Billiton attracting 90 teams, which developed 19 prototypes addressing five challenges BHP had identified. He said that the best of those ideas would be accelerated – but that it was the Federal rather than State innovation agenda likely to provide the greatest support.

Damian Cook, a Perth based entrepreneur associated with Tyresales, a joint venture with CarSales, and Audience 360, said that the scale of WA’s innovation budget “smells a bit like tokenism,” and worried that the funds could be “soaked up in bureaucracy.”

He said that WA had a strong R&D heritage – but mainly focused on resources and that for the tech sector $20 million over four years “is not going to be world changing.” More important was the Federal innovation agenda and its encouragement for entrepreneurs he said.

Alan Osrin, managing director of Sage Software Australia, lived in Perth from 1999 to 2015 when he relocated to Sydney. He believes that the WA Innovation plan is “a fantastic initiative”.

“The mining boom has come off and a lot of people have lost their jobs. They need to be creative to sustain themselves,” he said, adding that there was enormous technology talent in WA where Sage retains a development facility.

According to Mr Osrin; “Is the fund sufficient? Probably not but it’s a good start.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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