02/02/2015 - 10:21

Isolation equals innovation

02/02/2015 - 10:21

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Western Australia’s isolation has always made the state’s business sector innovative.

While we may not have a Silicon Valley due to our distance from major markets and our relatively small scale in terms of population and investment dollars, innovation is far more at the forefront of business thinking than many give us credit for.

And, of course, many of our most successful inventions and innovations leave their birthplace and are no longer recognised as being from WA.

This issue celebrates that innovative culture more than most. The main feature on energy innovators touches a number of very basic industries: none of which have a particularly WA feel to them. From automotive engineering and modular apartment construction through to far more basic building blocks of energy usage such as voltage metering and battery storage management, local companies have developed interesting alternatives to what the market calls standard today.

This innovation culture is borne of necessity and lifestyle that allows experimentation but it doesn’t mean that it is easy to commercialise.

Distance from market for start-ups is a critical problem, especially when the procurement policies of major government and corporate don’t offer any local advantage to WA companies. This paper doesn’t advocate such special support which can become a form of picking winners, but we do acknowledge that there may be a form of reverse discrimination where some WA companies have to win business elsewhere to be accepted in their home state.

The people behind another innovation story in this paper, Nauti-Craft, highlight the highs and lows of breeding technology innovation in such isolation.

Nauti-Craft’s chief Ken Johnsen heralds from two major listed technology companies Advanced Braking Technology and Orbital. That is a great pedigree for getting investment capital but both companies have mixed long-term track records.

Another key player is Chris Heyring who has got a successful background in commercialisation, starting automotive suspension systems company Kinetic in 1989 and selling it for more than $50 million 10 years later.

Not bad for a company based in Dunsborough, even more isolated from the world than Perth – especially the automotive sector!

However, even Mr Heyring has seen failure. He was an early investor in a new musical instrument called the Thummer which appears to have gone nowhere since it was announced to the world in the pages of this newspaper. Ironically, the instrument’s inventor Jim Plamondon blames his decision to launch the business from Busselton as the key reason for the demise of his business Thumtronics and the invention it owned.

“I started Thumtronics in a tiny hick town (Busselton, Western Australia),” he stated in a 2009 blog piece.

“Great place to semi-retire, but a lousy place to start a high-tech company.

“I believed that the world had become flat.

“However, if you're trying to get a start-up off the ground, geography still matters.

“Your first step must be to relocate to an appropriate start-up hub.”

Mr Plamondon’s blog gave his location as Austin, in the US state of Texas.

That is disheartening to hear –even when the inventor acknowledges he made plenty of other errors – because it suggests that we are fighting with our hands tied behind our backs.

Of course, that is only part of the story.

WA’s innovation is not just about isolated people coming up with their own answers because they can’t access more global solutions. Our state provides the wealth, infrastructure and lifestyle required to generate ideas in the first place. Mr Plamondon was only here because it was great place to be semi-retired. Quite possibly he may not have had his eureka moment in an alternative location?

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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