WA business is well positioned to bring forward a new era of research and development in technology, but hurdles remain.
It may have been a throwaway remark by one of the delegates, but many who attended the recent Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (WA) Accenture Technology Series would have left the event convinced that 'tech is sexy again in WA'.
Simply put, that phrase encapsulates all that needs to be said about the opportunity that confronts the market here.
Western Australia has a tremendous opportunity to champion technology innovation; this is a moment in time that must be captured and leveraged for the wellbeing of our future industry development and national economic growth.
Several factors serve to enhance opportunities for WA businesses, including that the state has: five universities within 30 kilometres; major companies working with big data, medical and genetics research; lifestyle and cultural benefits; and proximity to Asian markets within the same time zone.
To take advantage of these opportunities, however, Perth requires the 'physical space' to institutionalise its technology innovation, with WA currently lacking a state science centre with its own unique precinct.
The AICC (WA) Accenture Technology Series aims to promote and accelerate critical thinking and practical applications of high-tech innovations, to enhance and create WA's productive, sustainable and smart futures.
Among those to address the event was Larry Lopez, partner of Australian Venture Consultants and vice-resident of the AICC (WA). Mr Lopez contrasted the evolution of the economic environment and business culture within both Israel and Australia over the past two decades.
While sharing a comparable base, the attitudinal and regulatory changes to the Israeli marketplace have allowed a startup ecosystem to flourish. During the same period, Australia has not been able to gain the requisite traction to transform its production economy into a knowledge economy. Mr Lopez says Australia still has an opportunity to emulate Israel's accomplishment, but progressing the market requires deregulation, some economic 'heroes', and a bold new approach towards commercialisation from the academic sector.
Ms Smith-Gander, who is chairman of Transfield Services and a non-executive director of Wesfarmers, contextualised the Australian experience of approaching technological innovation as a business process improvement. She suggested there was a tendency for Australian companies to have their full potential constrained by compliance and risk mitigation factors.
"The approach to our discussions often starts with the identification of technology, and from there we build the business case. To be effective we need to reverse this mentality and start with the identification of the business need; technology becomes the enabler," Ms Smith-Gander said.
Citing examples where the government, community and industry come together to deliver technology innovation, Ms Smith-Gander drew on the Sense-T initiative of Tasmania. Using sensor technology and data analysis, researchers from the University of Tasmania and CSIRO joined industry partners in agriculture and aquaculture to help producers find new ways to solve problems and make better decisions that could boost their productivity, efficiency and sustainability.
A second example was from within the Transfield Group, where GPS and data processing improvements to fleet were able to reduce risk, improve safety, save costs and enhance productivity.
Ms Smith-Gander said most technological innovation came from startups that recognised new opportunities, and also noted the positive measures to support further business investment contained in the recent federal budget.
These federal incentives were timely, the event heard during a panel discussion later in the event, due to a tendency in Australia to sell-off intellectual property early and monetise early in the development phase, particularly to offshore investors, without seeking local opportunities to commercialise.
Erica Smyth, who is a non-executive director of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and chairman of Diabetes Research WA, challenged the internal business structures within Australian organisations that stall the approval and implementation processes associated with good technological ideas.
The soft skills and engagement factors that assist overcome human resistance to change are of critical importance to the success of technology adoption, she said.
Dr Smyth cited four examples of successful adoption of technology: the scale and impact of Rio Tinto automation; the Woodside Innovation Technology Hub project; Mercer Technologies (a South African-based simulator for technical training); and the Deep Exploration Technologies CRC, which aims to secure the future of the nation's minerals exploration and extraction sector via the adoption of transformational technologies.
She noted that the ownership of intellectual property was inconsequential under the CRC collaborative technology development project, as companies tendered for its use. The model enabled the rapid development and deployment of solutions.
Dr Smyth highlighted change management and overcoming resistance to technological innovation as key challenges, and said that a practical approach towards improving research outputs included the adoption of practical ways to address the aspiration gap between what is possible and what is available.
To achieve the 'possible' requires financial and intellectual investment, the event heard, and the biggest issue associated with a vibrant technology development sector for Australia sits within the education system, associated with culture, funding and tutoring.
Students need to see and hear that success is possible, and aspire towards start-up business opportunities, delegates heard.
Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (WA)