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Open the gates to R&D innovation

WAY back in 1980 Bill Gates had a meeting which was to set him on the road to many billions of dollars and attracting an unhealthy interest from the US Department of Justice.

He found himself sitting across the table from a rather desperate looking group from IBM’s Project Chess.

The men from big blue had a conglomerate-sized problem. They were leading the push to take the giant corporation into the PC market.

They had the hardware side worked out but no operating system. Something like finding the rented tux for your wedding came with everything but the pants.

Bill, 25, and a university drop-out, stared down the suits from IBM and struck a deal to provide them with an OS. It was a subject he knew something about but the fledgling Microsoft didn’t have an operating system of its own, he just knew where he could probably get one.

The rest of the story is history.

As the glow of the federal government’s innovation statement and the opposition’s talk of a knowledge nation become big issues, it is worth wondering how many Australians presented with the same opportunity, would have done as Bill did.

My guess is you would be hard pressed to find more than a handful on these fair shores who would have the combination of technology knowledge and chutzpah to carry it off.

We are supply-side innovators, bloody good ones at that, but it is a piece of our cultural make-up that leaves us perennially in the same position as Tim Paterson, the poor guy who actually developed the first version of DOS and sold it to Bill for $50,000.

“Nice little earner but how different life could have been if I’d know what Bill knew,” Tim has probably thought to himself a million times or two since that fateful day.

And the government’s recently announced strategy, just like so many which have preceded it, plays right to our supply side strengths and does nothing to rectify the weaknesses.

We love to develop stuff and make stuff. Anyone who does the deal is seen as a spiv, a “suit” or worst of all, a lawyer.

Now I am not here to propose the establishment of the Bill Gates Appreciation Society - I have spent far too many hours wrestling with the frustrations of his programs (and arguing with inane animated paper clips) - but he has something to teach us.

Rather than just listening to the research lobby we need to get out of our comfort zones and find ways to bring on a whole swag of people who understand the demand, as well as the supply, side of technology markets. Research and development = innovation.

In Australia we are blessed with thousands of talented people who are amongst the best in the world at cooking up new and improved widgets. But without an understanding of the markets we will keep on just picking up $50,000 here and there while others collect the big money.

For international companies aware of just how talented Australians are as creative thinkers, they must have thought they had died and gone to heaven when they read the details of the innovation statement. A bag of money being put into Australian research which will have nowhere to go and ripe to be picked off in a few years.

n Peter Morris is Principal of Telesis Communic-ations, a technology strategy consultancy firm. Contact him at morris@telesis.com.au

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