David Hine’s expertise may be building horticultural software platforms, but the developer realised that cyber security was becoming crucial as his clients increasingly generated massive amounts of soil testing and other data to track agricultural productivity.

His firm, Land and Water Management (LWM), is a small partnership that relies heavily on outside contractors, so cyber security skills were thin on the ground – which is why he jumped at the opportunity to undergo a 10-week CSIRO boot camp combining cyber security training with crucial academic and industry mentorship.

Having previously worked with CSIRO around mapping agricultural output and soil quality data to local maps, Hine signed on as a charter participant in the CSIRO’s Innovate to Grow: Cyber program – and the crash course in cyber security proved invaluable.

“It took me far outside my knowledge of the cyber zone,” Hine told Information Age, “and gave me a clearer understanding of its significance. That’s the biggest activity in the program: you getting serious about your problem.”

The problem, in LWN’s case, was helping agricultural operators securely release value from their growing accumulations of data – which is invaluable in informing discussions about sustainable farming, environmental sensitivity, impact assessments, and more.

Rather than dumping their data into cloud analytics services, Hine explained, “our market really likes to own their data and hold onto it.”

David Hine went through the program. Photo: Linkedin

The combination of educational content, help identifying funding opportunities, and regular presentations by cyber security experts from across CSIRO and its university and research institute (URI) partners helped Hine’s team think more effectively about cyber security – but it was the mentorship opportunities, he said, that really helped LWM move to the next level.

“Mentors understand your problem – and software, in our case – and say ‘I think there are several kinds of solutions you could consider’,” he explained. “The people you end up talking to really want to see their work in the real world, delivering a benefit to the community.”

“You get to a point where you’ve got a very articulate set of choices for the issues you face – and the mentors understand them better than you, so they’re able to make suggestions as you go along.”

Linking scaleups and academics

LWM’s success throughout Innovate to Grow has validated the program’s benefits to its target market – not so much entrepreneurs, as small established businesses for whom access to new domain expertise can help bring a new idea to fruition.

With many companies still far from having expertise in cyber security, SME Collaboration Nation lead Dr George Feast said, the 10-week program is being offered for free to SMEs to facilitate their engagement with the broad and deep domain expertise of CSIRO and its academic partners.

The program “is not just for cyber security companies,” Feast explained. “It could be about anything, but it’s to support the need for cyber security in companies that have a few runs on the board, and they’ve got this great new idea.”

As well as a structured online learning program, Innovate to Grow taps CSIRO divisions such as its Data61 data arm and SME Connect, whose purpose is to connect small business innovators with the funding programs and URI networks with the nous to help SMEs turn ideas into growth businesses.

A recent CSIRO survey found that fewer than 15 per cent of Australian businesses engage URIs in their innovation activities – even though, the report notes, “collaborating firms were significantly more likely to introduce new-to-industry innovations, especially in the important areas of service and product innovation.”

“They also tended to innovate more broadly than non-collaborating firms… This indicates these collaborations are important in providing a competitive edge.”

SMEs with five to 19 employees were the most enthusiastic collaborators, with mature firms less likely to collaborate as they were “more self-contained, and only sought out collaborations for very specific purposes.”

With recent CSIRO research confirming every R&D dollar generates $3.50 in benefits, changing these perceptions to encourage collaboration is a key goal of the Innovate to Grow program – which is supported by a $260,000 grant from the federal government’s Cyber Security Skills Partnership Innovation Fund (CSSPIF).

CSIRO is accepting applicants for its second cyber tranche through 14 February, with another group due mid-year.

Innovate to Grow programs have also targeted areas such as space technologies and agrifood, with future programs planned for sectors including defence, manufacturing, and health.

The overall goal, Feast said, is “to increase the engagement between SMEs and the publicly-funded research sector, because we know that there are really great outcomes associated with that.”