Australians are great at getting new ideas to work in the laboratory but fail at commercialising them. The answer could be anything from making ICT gurus into rock stars or joining the European competitiveness and innovation framework program, according to a panel discussion at CeBIT today.
NICTA CEO Dr David Skellern said there is a AU$3 trillion global ICT industry that Australia could exploit, but Australian products only make up for 0.02 percent of that amount: "We have a huge opportunity to go global but we don't."
According to Dr Mark Anderson, DSTO chief of command control communications and intelligence division, it has to do with our inability to cross the "valley of death" — the gulf between an idea that works in the lab and an idea which can be commercialised.
Anderson believes there's a product progression scale from level zero to nine, where level zero describes a product which is a "gleam in the eye" and level nine depicts a shrink-wrapped product ready for market. Australians are good at progressing a product to level five — where it works in the lab — on a shoe string budget, but moving the product from prototype to commercial venture is where Australian innovators hit the wall, he said.
One method of crossing the valley of death is by having government research labs such as NICTA and DSTO create spin-offs, but Jason Calacanis, former entrepreneur in Action Sequoia Capital and now CEO and founder of Mahalo.com isn't convinced it's the best approach.
"The people who want to work in a research lab are not the kind of people who want to branch out in a company," he said, and recommended the government should steer clear in general.
"Forget about the government, they'll screw it up," Calacanis added.
According to Calacanis, government research agencies are not the path to an innovative culture. "Government folks tend to be in government roles for a reason," he noted.
In order to build an innovative culture, Calacanis suggested running a competition like Australian Idol for ICT projects, where each contestant gets AU$100,000 to get their product to market. The media needs to follow the competition all the way, he said and "make them into rockstars".
Australia needs to think about "how can we be a place where these rebels thrive", he said.
NICTA's Skellern agreed on the principle of creating an innovative culture, saying Australians "absolutely have to do that", but continued that government research agencies are important. "You've got to have the fundamental research," he added.
Skellern believes Australia should follow Israel's lead. In November, the country negotiated its way into one component of the European competitiveness and innovation framework program, which supports SME innovation, providing better access to finance and delivering business support services.
"I think we should buy into the European framework," he said, adding that it would be difficult for Australia to get an innovation ecosystem up and running alone. "Where Israel made the right decisions, we didn't."