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Good evening everyone. It’s wonderful to be among like-minded folks, friends, and change makers tonight.
I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands we’re on, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
Thank you Tony for that introduction and for inviting me to speak to this esteemed Stanford alumni. It’s terrific to see so many faces that I have had the privilege to work with over the years.
Hello to Mike Zimmerman, who is one of our fund investment partners at Main Sequence – manager of CSIRO’s Innovation Fund – and an executive committee member at the Stanford Australia Association.
Hello to Alison Deans who in on the Main Sequence Investment Committee, and to Jun Qu who’s recently joined Main Sequence as a Senior Associate.
And hello to all of you who share the similar experience of gaining knowledge at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and bringing it back home to Australia.
I’ve been asked to share my personal mission with you tonight – something that I am passionate about.
I am a Physicist by training but an entrepreneur at heart, so that mission begins with science but ends with innovation – which of course never ends.
But if you’re not a scientist, don’t tune out now – I’m also passionate about reinventing Australia’s future, and I don’t think any of you would be here tonight if you didn’t also share that passion.
Science has the unique and wonderful ability to achieve things that were once thought impossible, and to unite people around a mission to achieve something extraordinary.
The 1969 Moon Mission galvanised the public, inspired rafts of other inventions we now use in our everyday lives, and achieved something no one thought possible when it was announced. That mission changed the world as we knew it.
The rocket may have launched in the US, but Australia played a key role in the mission with our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, and our Dish in Parkes, which is now listed on the National Heritage Register.
My mission is to help Australia again realise its potential on the world stage, and again change the world as we know it, to deliver a new generation of prosperity, resilience, and sustainability.
In August last year, as Australia grappled with its first COVID winter, CSIRO launched our program of missions at the National Press Club in Canberra to help address the enormous challenges we face as a nation – from our health and wellbeing to our energy and environment, food and water security, and the transformation of our industries.
These missions – led by science – are inspired by a vision of a different future for our country.
I want to start by talking about that vision tonight, and I hope that will lead into a conversation about a future that we all want to help shape, together.
So clear your mind and get ready to step out of this room. Imagine you are now standing in the main street of a typical town in regional Australia, 30 years in the future.
Welcome to 2050.
Our global population is 9.8 billion, and in Australia it’s just under 36 million.
Way back in 2020, we thought it was going to take two planets to grow enough food to feed this many people, but science has stepped in to meet this challenge, and we’re sustainably producing enough food for everyone.
There’s a small queue at a fast-food outlet.
Zero emissions beef burgers are on the menu, thanks to Australian companies like FutureFeed who are leading the world in emissions free meat and livestock.
Fish burgers are available, sourced from a sustainable Australian white fish industry which is fed on commercial food waste and insects.
Or you can buy a plant-based protein burger, made here in Australia as part of a more than $4 billion industry turning legumes into highly nutritious products that have complemented – not competed – with our traditional animal protein industries.
If you’d like a drink, they’re selling shakes made with dairy that hasn’t come from an animal, but was made using advanced biomanufacturing – a new industrial strength for Australia.
We’re in drought here, and well past ‘Day Zero’ where we used to run out of water, but you can still fill your water bottle with clean water at the tap. Regional towns like this one have water security from stormwater, recycling, and water stored in underground aquifers. They can’t remember the last time they had to truck in water.
It’s hot and it’s dry as you walk down the street. Earlier this year Australia achieved net-zero emissions, but we are still experiencing more extreme temperatures, more extreme weather and fire events, less rainfall, and more droughts in the south of the country.
But we knew this was coming – our Australian National Outlook report predicted this way back in 2015. We have prepared by using science to change the game, and as you look out over the landscape, nearby crops and pastures are thriving.
Farmers are experiencing up to 30 per cent less winter rainfall, but they have adapted with long-range weather forecasting and Artificial Intelligence to plan their seasons. They use precision farming technology to save water and choose from a variety of drought-resistant seeds to plant crops to best suit conditions.
Agricultural exports this year exceeded $120 billion, helped by innovative farmers investing in technology, new Australian manufacturing capabilities, and new markets.
A large truck passes silently by – a hybrid powered by hydrogen made in Australia.
Australia now generates more than $11 billion in GDP each year from a clean hydrogen export industry that has also provided a low emissions fuel for industry and transport – like the aeroplane that’s passing overhead.
The truck is taking Australian produce off to be exported to a wide variety of countries – produce that has met compliance requirements through automated technology thanks to our smart factories and digital supply chains.
Agriculture is thriving, but the people in this town work in a variety of other industries, too.
Heavy industries continue to operate, transformed with green metals and world-leading methane destruction technologies to target this most powerful of greenhouse gases.
Australian mines are using precision technologies to unearth critical energy metals like nickel, but we don’t just dig and ship like we used to. Some of the people in this town work in advanced processing facilities where we turn our ores into higher value exports that feed the still-growing global renewable energy market. Australia has become a critical energy minerals powerhouse.
Other people in this town don’t work with anyone here at all – their co-workers are all over the world, but they choose to live and work in Australia, liberated by fast communications systems.
They enjoy living surrounded by the beauty of our bushland, safe in the knowledge that our superior Artificial Intelligence prediction tools will protect them from bushfires. On the weekend, they make the drive to the beach in zero-emissions cars powered by hydrogen, and swim in oceans free from plastic pollution.
And when they get home, their houses are warm in winter and cool in summer, designed with Australia’s climate in mind and supported by a wholly renewable, smart, and stable electricity grid.
I could go on.
All the things I’ve spoken about in this future scenario have been invented, invested in, and grown here in Australia, and so the jobs and economic benefit have grown here too.
That’s a glimpse of the bright future that I imagine for Australia, powered by science. This is my mission.
And I know we will get there, because this year CSIRO and our partners across industry, research and government have already launched four national missions to help address challenges and capture opportunities in hydrogen, agrifood exports, drought, and future protein, with several more missions ready for lift off in 2022.
But the success of these missions ultimately depends on Australia’s maturing innovation ecosystem, which as we all know is still in its infancy, just as Silicon Valley was back in the late 80s when I was hanging out at Stanford.
Australia has a world-class research sector, and there is no doubt in my mind that we have the capability to make that vision a reality, and export it to the world.
What we lack is the ecosystem to nurture our innovators and entrepreneurs, the courage to back ourselves, and the deep connections between research and industry to take our inventions through to commercial success.
This is a problem I have been intensely focused on over my time at CSIRO. In fact, I came home from the Valley to see if I could turn a 100-year-old science agency into Australia’s innovation catalyst. More on that later.
Australia’s innovation problem
When Intel set up in Mountain View in 1968, their research into silicon chips for computers gave the area its nickname, as an ecosystem of scientists and start-ups grew.
Over the next few decades Silicon Valley evolved into a thriving innovation-led economy, and today Stanford University still leads the world in producing scale-up founders. Why? What are they doing that we’re not, and how can we create our own unique version of that in Australia?
The answer starts with Australia’s innovation dilemma.
In the 1980s Peter Farrell, one of the grandfathers of Australian innovation, tried hard to raise the money he needed here in Australia to found a company to commercialise medical devices developed at the University of Sydney. He got a little bit, but not enough, so he headed to the US and founded ResMed.
Twenty years later in 2000, Zhengrong Shi spent his first year after graduating from UNSW trying to raise money to commercialise solar technology he’d developed here. No one would fund him, so he went to China and founded SunTech.
In that 20-year period, Australia hadn’t learned much about how to back ourselves and our entrepreneurs. Interestingly though in 2012, when we created the Aussie founder’s fund Blackbird, now the most successful fund in Australian venture history, neither Peter nor Zhengrong hesitated to invest and support us. They backed us.
But when you ask Peter or Zhengrong, they say Australians just don’t believe in themselves. It’s a little bit like the musicians and the actors and actresses who have to go to Hollywood and become famous there, and then we have them back.
Whether it’s Charlie Bell heading up McDonalds or Andrew Liveris running Dow-DuPont or the thousands of successful Aussie entrepreneurs who outperform globally – the fact that so many Australians have made that journey and found great success in the US tells us we have the talent here, we just don’t have the ecosystem to nurture it.
We don’t invest in our own innovations. That’s partly because of a risk adverse culture, partly because we need stronger links between research and industry, and partly because we still don’t have a national approach to commercialisation that embraces a diversity of paths to innovation.
I am living proof of this challenge.
I left Australia in ’88 to finish up my PhD in physics hanging out at Stanford, like so many of you on slightly different paths. After that I could have returned to Australia and taken the university track, but I’d already been exposed to the innovation going on in the Valley.
I’d discovered that scientists are actually allowed to be entrepreneurs. Who knew?
I’d also found a network of founders and an ecosystem that didn’t exist in Australia, as well as a pay it forward culture of nurturing and growing new talent. That led me to spend 25 years there as a VC and founder, something I couldn’t have done in Australia – until more recently.
So many of our bright and talented expats have left Australia because they didn’t have the support and networks here that they could access in the Valley, but we are finally, finally starting to see that change.
No, I have never had a desire to work in government, and I’m hardly from central casting to run a 100-year-old quasi government agency, but I made it my mission to turn CSIRO into Australia’s innovation catalyst.
I knew Australia had the brains and the science. We just needed to think differently, and we needed to back ourselves.
Since then, CSIRO has helped to create more than 100 new companies from great Australian science, which combined employ thousands of people.
We’ve also worked hard to create innovation ecosystems in new areas of opportunity like quantum, hydrogen, and Artificial Intelligence, creating links between research and industry and investing in skills.
We are starting to see the change I mentioned earlier.
Venture funding in Australia reached a record US$2.5 billion this year, driven by new disrupters in life sciences, fintech, digital and creative industries. In line with this, start-up ecosystems have begun to form, and Sydney and Melbourne are now ranked in the top 25 global start-up ecosystems for connectedness and talent.
CSIRO’s Innovation Fund, managed by Main Sequence, has leveraged an initial commitment of $100 million from CSIRO and the Australian government to raise over $400 million from the private sector to create funds of over half a billion dollars that invest in deep-tech spinouts, start-ups, and company creations with connections to the Australian research sector.
To date, the Fund has invested in more than 40 deep tech start-ups linked to CSIRO and Australian universities, and those companies have created more than 875 deep tech jobs since 2017.
We’re also seeing multinationals like Microsoft, Boeing, and Google establish a local presence here, with Google recently announcing a $1 billion investment in Australia including its first Australian research hub.
These kinds of companies have formed the cornerstones of innovation ecosystems around the world, and start-ups have sprung up around them like acorns falling from big oak trees. A challenge we have had in Australia is a lack of big oaks, but that is starting to change, too.
In a sort of dark silver lining, COVID has also played a role.
While it has spelled devastation in so many other ways, the pandemic has delivered a rapid acceleration in digital technology and the digitisation of industries. At the outset of the pandemic, we saw five years of progress in digital adoption in just eight weeks.
This has brought us closer to a future where our kids can grow their careers and businesses connected to the world from anywhere in Australia – from Bondi to Broome. And as COVID has brought our expats home in ‘the great brain gain’, they are finding a much more digitally connected and networked ecosystem than when they left.
COVID also demonstrated the impact that science and technology can have on the nation, and the power of mission-based ecosystems to solve immense challenges.
It has put science and technology at the centre of guiding our future, and just as the 1969 Moon mission inspired a generation of scientists and engineers, it has ignited a renewed enthusiasm for science that will carry through from our students to entrepreneurs and enterprises.
All these elements are helping to build a local innovation ecosystem that is not a replica of Silicon Valley, but a uniquely Australian version based on our strengths and local talent that we are getting better at growing and retaining.
But as I said, it is still very early days, and Australia’s innovation system is only just beginning to form.
The challenges we face now and the decisions we make will shape the kind of innovation system we build. Our ecosystem is still embryonic enough that we can define its DNA, both by learning from what to do – and what not to do – from other systems, and by identifying opportunities for Australia to lead.
I started with my vision for a science-enabled future for Australia. We’re now coming to the part of the conversation about a future that we all want to help create.
Everyone here tonight has a shared experience – we left Australia to pursue study and business abroad, but we came home to keep building here.
It’s important to me to be here and make Australia what I believe it can be. You have travelled the word, but you have chosen to be here too, because you are part of growing that bright future as well.
Personally, I’m optimistic. I am seeing change and I am excited to be part of that.
I’m keen to hear from you about what you’re seeing, what you imagine for Australia’s future, and what we need from each other to help make that a reality.
We owe it to ourselves – we owe it to our children – we owe it to their future.