New innovation minister Greg Hunt has wasted little time reframing the national conversation on innovation and laying out his plans for the next two stages of the government’s $1.1 billion agenda.
Against a backdrop of rising negative commentary on the failure of the government to sell its “ideas boom”, Hunt laid out his strategy to rescue and reboot the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA).
Central to that strategy – at least in the short-term – is stepping away from its strong association with fostering start-ups.
“Let me start with a simple proposition – innovation is about both old and new businesses,” Hunt told a national innovation summit.
“Innovation is not just about tech start-ups or IT; it’s also about established businesses doing things better to stay competitive in a changing environment.
“Innovation is happening on the factory floor, on our farms, at the supermarket checkout and in the office, in addition to the leading-edge research occurring in our science laboratories.”
Hunt said the early days in his new portfolio were spent visiting innovative companies; some of them large with household names and sizable budget allocations to science and R&D.
He saw innovation as a path to job creation.
“Industry is about the jobs of today, innovation is about the jobs of tomorrow and science is about the jobs of the future,” Hunt said.
Hunt spent considerable time outlining the government’s plans “not just to complete the first wave of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, but also to pursue a second wave based on investment attraction and a third wave built around business simplification and [a] 2030 science and innovation plan.”
“The second wave will focus on encouraging private sector investment in innovation and new infrastructure for science,” he said.
“As companies grow from $20 million to $200 million in value, there is often real difficulty in finding investment capital.
“In this context I will be exploring with the sector the value of a broader National Innovation Fund based on matching debt or equity, rather than grants, for this mid stage commercialisation.”
The second wave would also see the government concentrate on making sure that “leading-edge research infrastructure” is put in placer to enable Australia to gain an edge in “big science” pursuits.
Third-wave activity for the NISA would occur “over the next three years”, Hunt said.
This would firstly try to “make it easier for business to interact with government and improve the business environment by tackling the burden of unnecessary regulation, particularly where there might be duplication across federal, state and local government levels.”
“I have already written to each of the states and territories offering to create single business entry points for government applications,” Hunt said.
“I have also offered to strike MoUs on genuine priority areas for deep deregulation with each state and territory.
“If doing business can be simpler, more people will do business.”
Hunt also said the third wave would be about “helping sectors move into the future”.
The government’s push on innovation and the “ideas boom” has been under sustained pressure since the election, which forced a shake-up of the portfolio’s ministerial representatives.
“Innovation politics had paid out some harsh lessons for the Coalition,” Australian Centre for Innovation executive director Ron Johnston said late last month on The Conversation.
“The issue was not only the loss of Wyatt Roy, the assistant minister for innovation, but the electorate appearing unreceptive to the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s “ideas boom” mantra.
“It seems the message of an exciting future through innovation and high-tech start-ups has palpably failed to engage the Australian community.”
Johnson – like others – suggested that the innovation debate needed to be broadened.
“All the positive arguments about the need to transition from a resources-based to a knowledge economy (not that the two are mutually exclusive) will require a much broader framing than facilitating start-ups and venture capital investment,” Johnson said.
“A much larger narrative is waiting to be written.”
Hunt and the government will be hoping that their steps to reboot NISA this week have put them firmly on that path.