WHAT makes a group of venture capital investors from California travel halfway around the globe to a mining town in their search for technology opportunities?
That’s what happened last week when Charles River Ventures director Bill Tai left Silicon Valley with a group of investors and serial entrepreneurs en route to Perth.
One reason they came was fun – Mr Tai and his co-travellers are keen kite surfers who wanted to sample Western Australia’s windy coast.
They also had their arms twisted by some persuasive Perth people, notably company director Charlie Morgan and former Silicon Valley Bank director Larry Lopez, who have become two of the most energetic advocates of the local technology sector.
Third, and most important, they were excited by the opportunities unfolding in WA.
Some of those opportunities were on show last week at two events held at Burswood.
The annual Innovator of the Year awards showcased a handful of promising products developed in Perth (see next page).
And the Univation conference, now in its second year, provided a platform for the state’s universities to showcase commercial opportunities arising from their research.
One initiative at this year’s Univation conference was the WApp awards, a competition to find the best mobile app concept.
The idea for this awards program only came together six months ago, yet it attracted 95 applicants from staff, students and alumni of the state’s public universities.
The top five presented their concepts at the conference, with the winner being Big Help Mob, an app designed to promote volunteer activity in the community.
As its charismatic chief executive Tim Kenworthy told the conference, it’s “like a flash mob, but useful”.
Mr Kenworthy said the app would help individuals find constructive volunteering opportunities, enable not for profits to connect with volunteers, and assist businesses to plan their staff volunteering activity.
Curtin University’s director of IP commercialisation, Rohan McDougall, said the judges were impressed by the quality of applicants.
“Many people at the awards also said the Big Help Mob presentation was one of the best they had ever seen,” he said.
Big Help Mob is the major initiative of YouthTree Inc, a not-for-profit volunteer organisation established in Perth with backing from businesses including web developer The Frontier Group, law firm Squire Sanders, and Lotterywest.
YouthTree’s other major initiative is the launch of TEDxPerth, a local offshoot of the global TEDx phenomenon using online videos and live presentations to spread ideas and stimulate discussion.
Mr Tai told WA Business News the number of applicants in the WApp awards and the support from sponsors were encouraging for the state’s technology sector.
Other finalists had apps to assist with shopping, medical treatment and interior design.
The award sponsors were data centre manager NEXTDC, Bankwest, patent attorneys Griffith Hack, the state government, and Intel.
They contributed prize money and resources valued at more than $200,000 to help the finalists build and launch their apps.
Mr Tai believes one of the most exciting opportunities for WA is the Square Kilometre Array, a proposed $2 billion radio telescope.
Australia and southern Africa are competing to host the SKA, which will be bankrolled by a consortium of about 20 countries.
If Australia were successful, the SKA would be built inland from Geraldton, and would require a massive upgrade of the state’s data transmission and data processing capability.
Mr Tai said this would provide an unrivalled platform for technology development.