​Data61 says Australia is still missing out on innovation opportunity

Innovation is a AU$315 billion opportunity, and Data61 is still trying to convince Australia to take advantage of it.

Australia's research and development (R&D) spend is going down when compared to its OECD peers, and according to Adrian Turner, CEO of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) Data61, this is indicative that something is "systemically wrong".

Speaking at D61+ LIVE in Brisbane on Tuesday, Turner said his organisation is calling on people to form a collective movement to change the trajectory of Australia.

"We're at a fork in the road," he said. "It's now or never for Australia."

Launching a new report from Data61, Digital Innovation: Australia's $315b Opportunity, Turner highlighted that although Australia offers world class research expertise and a skilled workforce, the nation still doesn't quite grasp that it needs to up its innovation game.

He said there's a potential AU$315 billion in gross economic value over the next decade to be made if innovation is taken seriously. The AU$315 billion projected figure is just if Australia reaches parody with its OECD peers, however.

"A critical message in this report is that this next science and technology driven economic cycle is ours to capitalise on, but the opportunity is perishable if leaders across the national innovation ecosystem don't take action now," Turner said.

He highlighted his disappointment while delivering his keynote, noting that Australia's total R&D spend is one-third of what the top five tech companies spend individually on their own R&D.

Also of concern to Turner is not that Australia's top five companies are finance and mining-related, but that the youngest, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, was founded in 1911. He compared the top five to the US, noting in particular that Microsoft is the oldest of the bunch.

The report outlines the strategic areas where Australia can succeed in creating new digital products and services to seed the "next generation of globally competitive industries resulting in economic growth and jobs".

It highlights specifically that the next wave of digital innovation will be driven by technologies that collect, manage, analyse, and use large amounts of data.

"The next wave of digital innovation will be driven by technologies that collect, manage, analyse and use large amounts of data," the report says. "Australian firms could build on existing strengths in agriculture or healthcare and develop new digital products and services, such as remote monitoring of infrastructure or crops, or improved diagnostic methods for genetic diseases, for domestic use or for export."

A key message of the report is that Australia is most likely to succeed if it focuses on producing new digital products and services for industries in which it already has a global competitive advantage, instead of attempting to emulate that which firms in Silicon Valley do.

Data61 believes Australia has an advantage in developing new tech in the areas of precision healthcare, digital agriculture, data-driven urban management, cyber-physical security, supply chain integrity, proactive government, legal informatics, and smart exploration and production.

With precision healthcare pinned to be a AU$30-$50 billion opportunity in the Asia Pacific region, Data61 wants local firms to build on the country's research strength in biotechnology and genomics and use data from Australia's public healthcare system to become "significant providers of precision healthcare products and services".

See also: CSIRO using serverless compute to analyse the human genome

Similarly, with the regional digital agriculture market estimated to be AU$10-$25 billion by 2028, Data61 believes employing mobile sensors, robotics, and machine learning techniques to improve resource planning and use in agricultural production will set the nation up for future success in the sector.

"The next wave of digital innovation demands Australian attention now," the report continues.

"Digital innovation is not just about creating the next Google or Samsung, or creating the next Silicon Valley. Rather, almost half the economic benefit from digital innovation comes from the adoption of new technology across existing industries."

The report highlights that Australia has benefited from digital innovation, but has captured less value than its advanced economy peers, and notes that Australia has not managed to grow strong domestic digital industries.

"Australia can increase the value it generates from digital productivity improvements by investing in more and sophisticated digital capital," the report said.

"Autonomous systems, advanced software solutions, and remote data sensors are all examples of this. It must then boost its multifactor productivity. This involves not just purchasing and implementing new digital investments, but optimising production processes and business models to gain the maximum value from those investments."

Also on Tuesday, CSIRO formally launched a presence in Singapore, with the research body's chief executive Dr Larry Marshall commenting the ASEAN presence would strengthen the bridge between "innovation ecosystems".

The announcement coincided with Singapore-headquartered investment company Temasek becoming the third largest investor in the AU$232 million CSIRO Innovation Fund.

The CSIRO Innovation Fund supports new spin-outs, startups, and small and medium-sized enterprises engaged in the translation of research generated in the Australian publicly funded research sector, including the CSIRO and universities.

Disclosure: Asha McLean travelled to D61+ LIVE as a guest of Data61

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