Australian universities are “the golden thread” that links the success of Australian startups and innovators as they bring together the best talent, research, facilities and industry partnerships, said Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel.
Speaking at the Business Breakfast hosted by the University of Sydney to mark the launch of its new Nanoscience Hub, Finkel noted numerous successful Australian innovators and startup firms that have gone on to service clients globally.
Finkel listed a number of Australian firms that would be described in the US as ‘unicorns’ – startups that are worth $1 billion before they go public – including local companies such as Aconex, Atlassian, Tritium and Prosper.
“Every one of those examples took a different path, but there is a shared golden thread that runs through their stories, and that is the critical role of an Australian university,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s just where people meet … Sometimes it’s the place where the high quality entrepreneurs are prepared for a future of doing business, and where they meet their future employees – which is why companies like Aconex have chosen to maintain their headquarters in Australia.
“Sometimes it’s the place where early stage research can develop all the way through to translation… So ladies and gentlemen, the heavy lifting in the knowledge economy was actually done on campus.”
Finkel said that the new Nanoscience Hub was a great example of planning for success, where “you bring together the best of the best”.
“The Australian Institute for Nanoscience Technology is planned for success. They bring together the best researchers, incredible research facilities and connecting with industry partners.
“It brings them together to target the technology of the future – nanoscale science – that can be put together for a wide variety of applications, with some working already. The potential is real, but the task today is to tap into that potential.”
Currently, the success of Monash University in Melbourne (which ranks fourth globally in pharmaceutical sciences) is because of “fantastic relationships” the university has built with global pharmaceutical companies. Such industry support and collaboration will be just as crucial for the Nanoscale Science Hub, Finkel said.
The new hub is supporting flagship research in applying nanoscale technology in the communications, computing and security areas, which rely on top-down nanofabrication and advanced characterisation, as well as precision metrology. Additional Flagships also address energy and environment, health and medicine themes.
Due to the growing success of such initiatives and of Australian startups in general, Finkel said we need a national equivalent name to that of ‘unicorns’ in the US and ‘narwhals’ in Canada.
“When I started as chief scientist, and thought to myself, how lucky am I? There’s no greater time to be Australia’s chief scientist. Then I realised, it wasn’t because I was the beneficiary of luck – I was seeing a pattern of a changing Australia,” he said.
“Australia’s looking for global opportunities, building scientific solutions and making them available at scale.
“We don’t have an Australian term or equivalent to the ‘unicorn’, but I have been trying to find one … I thought it would be useful, because we need it, and it’s already in demand.”
Finkel said it was important to recognise successful innovators as he believes that “as individuals, institutions and as a society, we have more progress with innovating what works, rather than innovating what fails.
“My challenge for you is this – look at these great Australian examples, think about how researchers and businesses can make themselves into world class players, and find themselves a win-win-win scenario.
“That is, a win for universities, a win for businesses, and a win for Australia. In the meantime I’ll keep looking for a word to describe the Australian unicorn in the hope that you’ll continue to give opportunities to use it.”