In this exclusive interview, freshly-minted Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy told InnovationAus.com that he will host a weekend ‘government hackathon,’ drawing together the disparate interests of the tech eco-system to flesh out the best policy ideas for growing the sector in Australia.
Startups, venture capitalists, accelerators, incubators, researchers and tech sector leaders would be brought together to mash policy ideas together, to develop a series of policy plans that government would potentially adopt to improve entrepreneurial outcomes, Mr Roy said.
“That’s the sort of way we will start this [development of innovation policy],” he said. “It’s a lot different from the public service in Canberra telling people what we’re going to do.”
The weekend event, which replaces the computers and coding of a typical ‘hackathon’ with ideas and policy thinking, is expected to be held before the end of the year.
Mr Roy said he had already discussed the idea with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s newly-appointed Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos, and with officials from the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.
“It would be a disruptive weekend, a hackathon, and [we would be asking] what are the policy objectives, what are the KPIs that we’re going to measure it by, and what are the policies that we’re going to potentially adopt,” he said.
The hackathon would provide a public forum to reset the Government’s innovation agenda, and give the industry an opportunity to put forward new policy thinking.
The event is similar in design to very effective Public Sphere initiative hosted by former ACT senator Kate Lundy in early 2009, when Gov 2.0 and Open Government thinking first gathered momentum.
It is not yet clear who will be invited to the hackathon, or how those invitations will be prepared. But Mr Roy said he wants to open the process to a broad cross-section of interests across the whole tech eco-system.
“I want to make sure that there is competitive tension in the room,” he said.
In being given the Innovation portfolio as a junior minister under Christopher Pyne, Mr Roy – at 25 – became the youngest ever MP appointed to the Ministry. As a long-time supporter of Mr Turnbull, and a strong advocate in government of startup interests, the appointment was not entirely unexpected.
In the past several years, Mr Roy has been a regular visitor to startup incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces across the country, and taken a keen interest in policy development in the tech startup sector.
Along the way, he has undertaken policy research tours of the global innovation hotspots, including Israel, Boston and Silicon Valley. He will lead another delegation to Israel next month.
Just two days into the new job, I travelled to Canberra to sit down with Mr Roy to discuss his ambitions for the industry, and the policy ideas he believes will grow the eco-system, and grow the economy.
What do you want to do with this role [of Assistant Minister for Innovation]?
Wyatt Roy: Our country has experienced a remarkable quarter of a century of uninterrupted economic growth. That is the most incredible story anywhere in the world, and it was driven by economic reform, productivity and our resources [sector].
And if we are going to continue that trajectory of economic growth, of increasing job opportunities and rising within standards, then we need to diversify our economy. We need to be embrace innovation, and put entrepreneurship of the heart of our economy as a country.
So the objective is to continue this miraculous story [of economic growth] through a new wave of reform, and by embracing innovation and entrepreneurship across all our industry sectors. That’s the broad picture.
And you will be focused on startups?
Wyatt Roy: There is a spectrum here. We shouldn’t say which part of the spectrum we prioritise, or which is more important. But I think we can put some very big runs on the board very early in the technology start-up space. There is a lot that we can do there.
But that shouldn’t be at the expense or against what we can do at the other end of the spectrum [in other industries] – things like the amazing breakthroughs in medical research, and commercialisation of those great ideas.
If you look at Israel, they don’t do just one thing. They have amazing defence stuff, they have amazing medical research, they have stuff coming out of huge universities. But they also have the most incredible startup technology ecosystem.
This is not one versus the other, it is across the board but I will agree with you, the technology startup space has been overlooked [in this country] in the past.
How do we join those things up, to create an eco-system? What’s the strategy?
Wyatt Roy: One of the things that I’ve heard – from an incredible entrepreneur in Boston – is that if you have money, ideas and talent, then you are going to see success in innovation and entrepreneurship. I think that there are some key areas that we need to look at to achieve that recipe. There are key ingredients in this reform.
The first is – and the Prime Minister pointed this out – is [the need for] a significant shift in Australian culture. We should not underestimate how important this is. The fact that this was one of first things that the Prime Minister spoke about when he took over the leadership, underlines how important this is.
At our best, Australians embrace that deeply aspirational mindset in our collective thinking. We need to [develop] our culture to a point where the next generation of Australians, instead of aspiring to go to the mines and earning $100,000 driving a truck, should say ‘I want to start the next business, I want to create the next big idea that changes the world for the better.’
That culture needs to come from government, from business, from the media. And simply talking about it is a very good first step.
Capital is very important – you guys know the figures in terms of capital invested in startups and there are a number of issues around that. We do need to look at policy settings to encourage greater capital investments in our startups. People tell me in Israel it is about $400 per capita invested in VC on startups, In the US it is $70. In Australia it is $5.
What is your initial thinking [on encouraging greater investment in startups]?
Wyatt Roy: I don’t want to be too descriptive this early in the job. But rather than looking for a single silver bullet, or the heavy-hand of government, that we need to establish a framework through a number small changes that collectively set up success.
One of the first things we need to decide is how we measure this [success], but one type of measurement will be the level of private sector investment. And we may need to look at our tax arrangements
But there are other things, like attracting [home-grown] talent back to Australia, so that our successful entrepreneurs become investors and create their own VC funds.
For every policy initiative we take, we have to be hand-in-hand with the private sector, and we have to look at what has been done successfully around the world.
Finally we have to get better at collaboration and cooperation. We have great ideas as a country, we have lots of smart people, but we haven’t crack the nut of commercialisation. We have really let ourselves down in this area, and we need far greater corporation between government, higher education, science, research and most importantly the private sector.
If we do those things, then we are going to ultimately grow the ecosystem and it is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Out of those three areas, which is the biggest challenge? If you can solve one, which would deliver the best returns?
Wyatt Roy: I think it has to be culture. If we can’t nail that, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how many changes you make to policy settings, if the entrepreneur culture isn’t there. This is the foundation, and it will take time and effort.
That cultural change is the hardest thing to achieve, the thing that would take the longest. But it is the most important.
And then there are the very specific problems with culture inside organisations?
Wyatt Roy: Yes and I will give you a great example. South Korea is really trying to do the same thing when it comes to innovation entrepreneurship (and really every country is competing on this.) When you look at the different challenges in different countries, South Korea no doubt is doing a whole range of policy initiatives.
But their problem is that they have Samsung. Everyone works in Samsung, or wants to work in Samsung, and they have a very hierarchy culture which means you don’t challenge authority. This is not such a good thing when you try to try to introduce disruption and technology. So those are very different challenges exist in a cultural sense in South Korea.
In Australia, we have a different cultural challenge but that we still need to address. And again, when you look at the Israel success story, the main ingredient is that culture.
The key point is – and you will see us do stuff on this – that it cannot be government making policy in isolation. We will be bringing the people from the startup community in Australia, which in the past have been isolated and bring them into the heart of the government decision-making process.
They are all going to have buy into this. It has to be policy that is owned by the ecosystem, and not by the Australian government.
How does that work?
Wyatt Roy: Well, I want to hold a startup weekend, a government hackathon for government policy.
For policy? And what sort of timeframe are you looking for?
Wyatt Roy: Yesterday would be nice. But seriously it’s something I’ve spoken to a few people about, I’m less than 48 hours into the job, but I spoke to the cabinet secretary about this morning and to the department.
But if you think about it, if you can bring all of these moving pieces from the ecosystem together – the venture capitalists, the accelerators, the incubators, the higher educators on the research side of things – people like Larry Marshall and those people at CSIRO. If all of those elements are in the room, then that is how hackathons work so effectively.
It would be a disruptive weekend, a hackathon, and [we would be asking] what are the policy objectives, what are the KPIs that we’re going to measure it by, and what are the policies that we’re going to potentially adopt. and I think that’s the sort of way that we would start this. It is very different to the public service in Canberra telling people what we’re going to do.
I’m still only 48 hours into the job, I’ve still got to check with the PM and others, but that’s my intention. The value of that is you will have public servants sitting in the room, It’s a different way to create public policy.
You’ve obviously got a close relationship with Mr Turnbull. Did you take your startup leadership from him, or was this an area you were already in to?
Wyatt Roy: It was an area I was already in to, but we found a mutual interest. He’s an incredible advocate in this space, and we have lots of mutual interests. This is something we’ve spoken about over many years. It is not a new thing. He and I have done a lot together here.
When I went to Silicon Valley for example, he helped facilitate and organise that with his contacts there, but everytime I talk about it I talk about him and …
One last thing – China and Asia and our tech sector. We haven’t had a huge amount of success in that part of the world.
Wyatt Roy: These are very early days and I’m so optimistic about this. One of the things as a country of 23 million people we need to think about … when people start a business, they think success is selling it to 23 million people.
But if you look at New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Israel – which are each more like us that the United States – they’ve all had success because they look to create companies that are global from day one. They have to be immediately scalable, and part of the cultural shift we need to look at.
The shift is realising that when you start a company in Australia – a highly scalable company – it should not be targeted at a marketplace of 23 million people, it should be targeted at a market of over a billion people in the middle class globally.
That’s a big thing psychologically for us to come to terms with as a country. And things like the China-Australia free trade agreement are such a critical part of this.