Data61 plans to bank more on corporate funding

Data61 has announced plans to rely on both corporate and federal funding to help put Australia's R&D sector on the international map.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Data61 has outlined its plans to eventually be funded 50-50 by the Australian government and corporate organisations.

Speaking to media on Wednesday, Data61 CEO Adrian Turner revealed that he hopes to build Data61 to focus not only on growing revenue, but also on the quality of its revenue.

"Right now, a lot of our revenue or funding comes from government, and more does than doesn't, so the strategy of reaching out and how we're approaching the market, who we're approaching, we want that balance to be more 50-50 in terms of government and corporate funding," Turner said.

"The 50-50 is achievable. The key is it's not focused only on revenue, but on the type of revenue and the projects of where we could really add value. We're not Accenture, where we work for hire; we really want to solve really hard problems and result in new industry creations.

"For example, we had one session with a bank where the mandate going in was to come up with three ideas to transform the bank, and we did. Each one of those three could be new industry sectors, so that's high-value work," he said.

This goal forms part of the organisation's broader plans to become a global network to bridge industry, startups, universities, and the government to move Australia from being a "sales and marketing subsidiary" to a country that companies will look to for primary research and product development.

Data61 was formed after the Australian government decided to merge the digital productivity arm of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) with National ICT Australia (NICTA) in August last year.

The federal government, at the time, said the combined forces would "supercharge" Australia's technology environments.

Turner explained that with Data61's 1,100-strong workforce -- including 415 students -- and its relationship with 31 federal and state government partners, 91 corporate partners, and 29 university partners, it can help companies source talent.

"There's this enormous critical mass capability by bringing together CSIRO digital productivity team with the NICTA team, and at a time where these talents and resources are globally scarce. These companies overseas can't hire the talent we have here inside the organisation and the network," he said.

Data61, according to Turner, also plans to grow Australia's product management market by forming a specific unit for this within the organisation.

"One of things that has caught me by surprise coming back is we don't have strong product management as a country in tech; there are exceptions, but we just generally don't. Speaking to some of the big, successful home-grown tech companies, they go offshore to get product management," he said.

Turner added that the organisation will work across four main research areas: Cyber physical, such as the Internet of Things, robotics, and autonomous systems; machine learning, such as cognitive learning and artificial intelligence; software and computational systems, including cybersecurity; and cognitive behavioural sciences and economics.

Turner also said that Data61 will help Australia address two primary market failures: The lack of infrastructure that exists to support entrepreneurs to build new businesses, and the fact that companies do not think on a global scale.

"We're going to go where corporate R&Ds get allocated, and what we're going to do is convince these companies that Australia is a place where primary R&D can take place; we've got the talent and the capability to do primary research and development," he said.

In the past, funding and talent retention for Australia's research sector has been an issue. Last year, the CSIRO announced that it would be axing more than 500 jobs after the government's 2014-15 Budget cut AU$111.4 million in funding to the research organisation.

Prior to that, the CSIRO announced that it would cut 300 full-time jobs after receiving AU$32.2 million in funding in the 2013-14 Budget purely to make redundancies.

NICTA has faced similar issues, with the Coalition in September 2013 cutting AU$42 million in funding in an effort to improve the Budget bottom line by AU$6 billion and reduce government debt by AU$16 billion.

However, in December last year, Data61, together with CSIRO, received a AU$500 million cash injection under the federal government's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda.

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