Expanded role for Innovation Australia, venture capital doyen at the helm

By Stephen Easton

November 19, 2015

The appointment of Bill Ferris as chair of Innovation Australia begins a new era for the organisation, with an expanded role in the national innovation and science agenda the federal government will release next month.

Making the announcement, Minister for Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne said Innovation Australia would have a “revamped” and “beefed-up” role to play covering advice and evaluation, as well as periodically reviewing the four-pronged national strategy.

Pyne explained the agenda’s four pillars are “improving talents and skills, commercialising research, raising capital, and government as an exemplar” and said it was just “starting to be fleshed out”.

Innovation Australia’s standard duties revolve around administration and oversight of venture capital and innovation-supporting programs run by AusIndustry, including co-operative research centres, along with additional roles the small body received in June this year.

“We also want people to recognise that we are appointing a businessman, a philanthropist, somebody who will continue to bring the higher education sector and the business sector together, to bring researchers and business together, to match up funds with great, ground-breaking research, to commercialise research,” said Pyne.

Ferris commented that he felt “a real momentum from the top down” under the leadership of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which gave him enthusiasm that positive change would result from the nascent national agenda and assured him he wasn’t wasting his time.

The private equity sector doyen said that in his extensive experience in the “business school of hard knocks” it was failure rather than success that taught him the most. “And after a while you begin to identify luck as a pretty good part of the [success] anyway,” Ferris added.

The cultural change to encourage more young people to try their hand at being start-up entrepreneurs had begun to happen already, he said.

“I think it actually will be more of a bottom-up thing. As much as it is great to have senior ministers and a Prime Minister talking about this and believing it and pushing it, I’ve actually got more confidence in the bottom-up resurgence of doing it for yourself, getting out there and giving it a go.”

Pyne suggested Israel’s innovation culture was more mature because the government funds start-ups, some of which fail without widespread condemnation of public money being wasted: “And of course in our media culture, there would be an instant story on the front page … saying you know, ‘Which minister allowed this to happen? That person should be sacked or resign or run out of town on a rail.'”

He argued that such a government fund was a public good, in the same way that subsidising university courses is, even though some students never repay the loans or use their degree in a significant way.

Pyne said the national agenda would encourage more commercialisation of research and enable entrepreneurs and investors to take more risks: “We are a risk-averse nation economically; we want to give people a great boost to believe that they should take risks, and that if sometimes they don’t succeed they should try, try again.”

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