​Time to scale, not venture capital, holding back Australian startups: Data61 CEO

Adrian Turner, Data61 CEO, has said the biggest problem facing Australia's startup scene is not access to capital, rather the time it takes to get a product out in the big wide world.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The biggest problem entrepreneurs and startups are facing in Australia is not access to venture capital, rather it is time to scale, Data61 CEO Adrian Turner has said.

According to Turner, approximately AU$680 million of venture has been sunk into the Australian ecosystem over the past 18 months.

"I don't think the problem is around venture capital in the country," he said. "I think the problem is not early stage, seed stage, it is scale time: Time to scale really matters."

Drawing on his years of experience in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, Turner believes it is the country's culture that is inhibiting startups from scaling.

"Australia has so much potential, all the talent is here, all the ingredients are here, but we're holding ourselves back," he said.

"Data61 is an amazing asset for this country. The reason I came back from Silicon Valley was I think this is the group that can change the trajectory of the country."

There are 1,100 people that make up Data61, including one third of Australia's total IT PhD students, with the organisation currently working across approximately 190 projects with other parts of its parent, the CSIRO, as well as industry and government.

"We're focused on data and the lifecycle of data in the form of a network that's designed to collaborate and help small business grow," Turner said.

"If you've got an idea, we can bring the intellectual property, we can bring talent and capability to it, we can bring global relationships to it, and really accelerate time to scale."

Turner believes Australia as a country needs to come to terms with what entrepreneurship actually means.

"I think we're stuck in the 80s ... we've got to define, 'What is an entrepreneur?' Because in other parts of the world, being an entrepreneur is to have an idea about something," he said.

"If you think about those founders -- this is probably going to be sacrilege leading an organisation with 680 PhDs -- the Google founders dropped out of a PhD program, Elon Musk dropped out day two, Steve Jobs dropped out. I'm not saying people should drop out, but what that's symptomatic of is such a passion and itch to go change something that really needs to be changed -- that entrepreneurial drive.

"I see that inside my organisation every day, it's just not called that."

Additionally, Turner wants to see the skills gap addressed, saying it is another predicament the country is faced with.

"The biggest problem is skills, we don't have enough people, and that's not something you can just throw money at -- it's something we should have thought about 10 years ago," he said. "I think we've got a challenge."

"Imagine a world where Microsoft comes to me and says, 'Alright Adrian, we're going to take care of all of your education, you don't have to pay for any of it but we want 5 percent of everything that you earn over your lifetime'. It's a complete realignment of incentives."

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced he wanted to make maths and science compulsory until students finish high school in a bid to increase the uptake of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects in the country.

"This is a big priority," he said.

"It's one of the areas we've gone backwards actually. In my generation you had to do maths or science to complete high school. Many parts of Australia now, you don't have to do that. We've got to get back to that and ensure that everyone is very literate in those STEM subjects. Science, maths, technology -- that's the future."

Turnbull pledged AU$48 million to improve STEM literacy in December, along with AU$51 million to help Australian students embrace the digital age and prepare for the jobs of the future.

The AU$51 million will specifically go towards the formation of IT summer schools for students in years 9 and 10; an annual "cracking the code" competition for those in year 4 through 12; and online computing challenges for year 5 and year 7 students.

Teachers will also receive assistance with access to online support for preparing digital technology-based curriculum activities.

The five-year cash injections formed part of the government's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Also on Friday, the federal government announced that the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group was selected to join a pilot for the national Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program of the Athena Scientific Women's Academic Network.

SAGE is an accreditation and improvement program promoting gender equity and gender diversity in STEM organisations.

AU$13 million was also pledged under the innovation agenda for the SAGE program.

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