Chief Scientist of Queensland frankly describes what Brisbane must do to become startup hub


As Australia builds its startup ecosystem, most of the attention falls on Sydney and Melbourne. But every state and major city in the country is making a concerted effort, in particular Queensland and its largest city Brisbane. And nestled near the top of one of the city’s state government buildings is the Chief Scientist of Queensland, Dr. Geoff Garrett.

Garrett is tasked with massive research projects relevant to Queensland’s economy and ecology, then getting parliament to implement his recommendations immediately as policy. Meanwhile, other studies cover uranium mining, biosecurity and an epidemic among horses. Basically, he’s everywhere.

For instance, Garrett’s office just evaluated over 600 different types of coral to assess the water quality around the Great Barrier Reef in his state’s section of it, a chief concern for the country. That research pinpointed to farms’ contribution of sediment runoff into the ocean, blocking out sunlight for the coral and feeding the growth of starfish populations that eat away at the reef.

“There have been challenges with water quality. We understand around the importance of global warming and impact on coral structures. The reason water quality is important is it gives coral ability to push back, be more resilient,” Garrett told Geektime during a recent press visit down under sponsored by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. His office is recommending an investment of $90 million to fight back against this chain reaction.

That high figure shouldn’t imply Garrett himself is working with a thick wallet of government subsidies. He’s taken on the responsibility of putting his hands in all of Australia’s potential scientific and entrepreneurial baskets. That’s a much taller task than his, say, budget, necessarily implies he has.

But the Office of the Chief Scientist is the quintessential technocratic position that requires professionalism and strives to unlock new discoveries. Now, it is at the forefront of commercializing Queensland’s research and turning its talent into businessmen.

Embedding a pixel of innovation

The last report to assess the number of startups in Brisbane was in 2014, putting the tally at around 225, but that number has surely grown. The chief scientist should help foster a culture of innovation, but he has to take it as far more than mere rhetoric, so Garrett conveys to Geektime.

“One of my colleagues was at the graduation ceremony for engineers at the Stanford graduation. Some 60% of students answered they would start their own businesses within three years. Only a dozen did at a university here,” Garrett said, comparing it to a ceremony at the University of Queensland. That is a completely different goal orientation than what currently pervades Australia’s academic culture according to virtually everyone this author spoke with during a recent trip to Brisbane and Melbourne.

Garrett wants to turn that thought on its head, adding a certain spin on the theme of entrepreneurship in translating it to the Outback, saying “Instead of saying ‘what are you gonna be?,’ you should ask ‘What are you going to grow?'”

Advance Queensland — the state’s AU$405 million effort to drive international collaboration and expand the technology ecosystem — has pushed for developing all aspects of the Queensland startup ecosystem. The Young Entrepreneurs’ Competition is a pitch contest for anyone 15-24 in the state, while the Young Starters’ Fund provides up to AU$20,000 for nonprofit initiatives aimed at organizing the startup community.

A recent program called Hot DesQ invited startups from outside the state or even outside the country to spend six months in the region. Other initiatives include the Commercialization Partnership Program to pair QLD startups with Chinese incubators and the Global Partnership Awards to support promising entrepreneurs with trips abroad to Silicon Valley and China. Garrett boasted of one 100-strong delegation that visited California earlier this year.

“Tech travels on two legs. It’s a virtual world but [it’s] better when we can look at each other in the eye,” Garrett said.

One of the problems with that approach isn’t just matchmaking with the right innovators and investors abroad, but also at home in a very competitive environment. On the one hand, Australia’s states have autonomy to launch their own programs which the federal government’s initiatives help to fund and support. On the other hand, they are all trying to make themselves into the next big innovation hub and landing pad for foreigners participating in Australia’s tech economy.

“Our competition is also a competition between states,” Garrett explains. “Because it’s such a big country, we do compete. Sometimes, even though it can be healthy and keep us on our toes, it can be dysfunctional.”

Translating Brisbane tech into business

Translational Research Institute in Wooloongabba (CC BY SA 4.0 Jimmanybobmcfly via Wikimedia Commons)
Translational Research Institute in Wooloongabba (CC BY SA 4.0 Jimmanybobmcfly via Wikimedia Commons)

During a sit-down with several reporters from around the world, he touted Advance Queensland’s Innovation & Investment Summit back in April that brought in entrepreneurs and investors from all over the country and attracted a lot of attention abroad. Just a month before that, they hosted the World Science Festival in Brisbane, which brought in 120,000 people and will return in 2017. The city is branding itself as “Australia’s New World City” as part of a new campaign this year.

Brisbane’s Lord Mayor’s Budding Entrepreneurs Program has seen applications jump from 38 to 168 between 2015 and 2016. Not all recipients are in tech, but 2016 grantees included Anthony Brewer’s agAlytics, which develops sensors to test soil, and Crystal Hunter’s 3D-printing company Social Pops. By the way, applications for Round 7 can be submitted through October 31.

Garrett tells Geektime over 100 grants have also been given out to entrepreneurship programs in high schools, replicating a program in startup-budding Singapore. One program at Brisbane’s St. Paul’s School works with River City Labs, Brisbane’s most prominent incubator.

But these achievements are seed-planting when the ecosystem needs to compete on a global scale. For local, state and federal enthusiasm, Garrett says a government-led push for innovation has its limits.

“Unfortunately, as we persuade people in the treasury to provide money, they make promises they can’t deliver in the short term. Particularly in the biotech area, technologies take 15+ years to germinate.”

Garrett said it was an accomplishment that the Australian government had managed to invest $4.9 billion over that period, a substantial and sustained investment for such a long timeframe considering how elections and changing governments tend to throw funding priorities into the whirlwind.

Old guard resistance

Skyline of Brisbane at Kangaroo Point Cliffs (CC BY SA 3.0 Lachlan Fearnley via Wikimedia Commons)
Skyline of Brisbane at Kangaroo Point Cliffs (CC BY SA 3.0 Lachlan Fearnley via Wikimedia Commons)

“To have a 12-year program of sustained investment is an achievement,” Garrett says, lauding the current government’s emphasis on innovation as well as its financial contributions with an emphasis on two components of a tech economy: “talent, with a strong emphasis on health and biomedical research; and translation, which a lot of countries don’t do well.”

When Garrett says translation, he isn’t referring to languages. He is talking about commercialization, taking scientific research and turning it into something that can be sold. Australia — Queensland in particular — has seemed to have gotten that message. Brisbane is home to the Translational Research Institute run by world-renown researcher Ian Frazer and settled next to Princess Alexandra Hospital in the south of the city.

While universities are talking translation more these days, Garrett says it’s common to speak of research that doesn’t reach the markets as viable products as “lost in translation,” which is partially due to a massive waste of invested funds.

“Part of it is the challenge of getting the research community to talk to the business community. Most days I go out and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we were doing that stuff!’

The Chief Scientist’s office has begun to push for a new barometer for evaluating the quality of research institutes. Instead of only counting the number of papers published and citations earned, Garrett wants to measure the successful application of patents and amount of money raised from private industry.

“There’s an old saying that ‘what gets measured gets done.’ Excellence in Research for Australia evaluates academic performance of institutions based on publications, etc. The challenge we’ve had in metric of performance is around publications and citations.”

“Things I have heard in discussions I have had that have driven me nuts are ‘We haven’t got the time. We have to write papers.’ Innovation is ideas successfully applied.”

Garrett’s office has pushed against what he calls a resistant old guard, something that seemed evident in this author’s discussions with researchers and academics across Australia. His office now only doles out funding for projects where researchers spend 50% of their residency time embedded in the industry, in private companies. The idea here is to go out and build networks, spend time around businessmen, and get a feel for real-life problems consumers face who might benefit from a researcher’s work.

That, says Garrett, should produce “a whole cadre of industry-savvy researchers.”

“When we changed the rules that we needed 50% residency embedded in the industry, some of the traditional academics said no one would apply for this. We got a 35% increase in applications. I think the resistance is from the old guard.”


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