When 18-year Silicon Valley entrepreneur Adrian Turner returned to Australia to head up Data61, it was unclear how he might bring the Valley mindset to bear on the newly-formed research organisation.
Six months into his role leading the merged entity of NICTA and CSIRO Digital Productivity, Turner has revealed just how much he is shaking up the internal culture and thinking.
“The prior model for CSIRO Digital Productivity and NICTA was money in the top, talent in the top, projects and then spin out companies,” Turner told a briefing this week.
“That’s not really what the country needs right now.”
For Turner, his long stint in Silicon Valley has crystallised the gaps in Australia’s approach to innovation and entrepreneurship, and he hopes to plug at least some of those gaps with a skills and capability ecosystem fanning out of Data61.
That ecosystem is being called D61+ and consists of Data61, incubators with which the company has signed MOUs, academia, industry and other partners.
Together, Turner hopes that ecosystem will prove attractive to large corporates worldwide and convince them to invest a portion of their annual R&D spend on Australian shores.
Addressing market failure
Turner believes there are two primary market failures at play in Australia’s innovation environment right now.
Firstly, he believes there is a lack of infrastructure in place to support the entrepreneurs to go out and build new businesses.
“In the Valley, you’ve got this infrastructure, you’ve got a very mobile workforce, the availability of capital and legal infrastructure … that have built up organically over decades,” he said.
“What they do is stack the odds in favour of the entrepreneur.
“There’s I think a misconception that entrepreneurs are risk takers. What I’d argue is entrepreneurs are really good … calibrated risk takers.”
Turner believed effort needed to be invested in Australia to de-risk the market entry for entrepreneurs.
He believed Data61 could play a part here by offering “access to people and capability” that could help entrepreneurs get a foothold quicker.
The second market failure that Turner saw was Australia’s business mindset.
“I think one of the things that’s caught me by surprise coming back is we don’t have strong product management as a country in tech,” Turner said.
“There are exceptions but even talking with some of the big homegrown tech companies, they go offshore to get the product management.”
Turner saw it as the result of a long history of Australia being treated purely as a “sales and marketing outpost”.
The lack of primary research occurring in Australia simply meant that Australians hadn’t had an opportunity to develop product management skills, Turner said.
Turner is hoping that Data61’s ecosystem of skills and capability – internal and external – will act as a value proposition that encourages the world’s top firms to shift part of their primary R&D function to Australia.
“I think we have an obligation and an opportunity to create a factory of product managers that can help the country and can go on and do great things,” he said.
He believed large companies faced challenges hiring “the digital and data talent that they really need” to continue to innovate.
“There’s $1.6 trillion globally spent on R&D,” he said.
“Our goal there is to capture point one percent of global R&D [spend].
“And when we do we will be ten times bigger than we are today … in terms of the money flowing through the Data61 network.”