Universities key to innovation culture

27/08/2009 - 00:00

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Greater collaboration is the key to turning WA’s bright ideas into commercial success.

Universities key to innovation culture

INNOVATION is not a new concept. In his dictionary, which was published in 1755, Samuel Johnson defined innovation as "change by the introduction of novelty".

In Western Australia we are somewhat inconsistent when it comes to innovation. On the one hand we don't like change, as evidenced by recent experience in decisions about daylight saving and shopping hours.

On the other hand we are known for our innovation and entrepreneurship in areas of science (including a couple of recent Nobel prizes), technology and business, particularly in the resources industry.

In West Perth there is a community of innovators built around their experience in the mining and oil and gas industries.

What we need to do is build a community of innovators in the science, technology and engineering spheres.

I am going to talk about innovation ... needed to build an innovation community and some of the particular challenges that face us here in the most remote capital city on the planet.

This mainly relates to the fact that we do not have a local market for many of our innovations. Only by taking these projects to the international market, therefore, can the reality of innovation, which is change, be brought about.

To this end, Curtin University established a $5 million pre-seed fund and a $5 million follow-on fund to assist in making innovations a reality. The innovation awards were established to ferret-out new projects within the university.

This is the third year that the university has held its innovation awards, and the progress has been impressive.

While the prime aims of a university have to be teaching and research, innovation and its mercenary bedfellow, commercialisation, should be part of the picture. If it isn't, there are many great innovations that will go unrealised.

You will see that the three finalists for today's awards have projects of an extraordinary standard. I have met these people and feel privileged to have done so. We are very lucky to have Robert Amin, Svetha Venkatesh and Qin Li in WA.

As an immigrant from 'over east', I was attracted to WA by the opportunities it presented. Within a year of getting here I had floated my first company on the ASX.

Even at the time I thought that this was extraordinary. The attitude of West Perth was one of "let's give this guy a go". I will always be grateful for this.

There aren't many places in the world where this is possible.

The entrepreneurship and innovation that have made this state great need to be fostered. This is not so much about throwing money at things. This is not about just science or just technology. This is about creating a community of innovation within the state.

It is something that should be a collaborative effort between the universities, the government, the business sector and the community at large.

In the past, initiatives tended to have been started in isolation - an individual university, the state government, big companies and a plethora of private initiatives.

By and large they have not been sustainable due to the lack of collaboration and, certainly in WA, the lack of critical mass. What we love about Perth is that it is a clean, bright, big country town, and that is great. There aren't many degrees of separation in Perth, but we need to sell our products to the world.

We therefore need to be part of networks that cover the world. We also need to build on our management skills to ensure that these innovations are realised.

Due to our small population and isolation there is a particular need in WA for us to band together to create an innovation community, which will lead to wealth and employment.

There has been a lot of talk in the past about what we do after mining. What do we do after the boom? Should we concentrate on biotech? Should we concentrate on ICT?

What we should be doing is building on our strengths and key areas of competitive advantage. In the main we should be looking to build on the areas where we have world-class expertise and a market. This, in particular, is in resources and the service industries that surround it.

The global financial crisis and the consequent drop in the state's income (although recent news would indicate that this has been a mere blip in the state's progress) only highlight what wasn't done during the boom and gives us an opportunity to revisit how we do things.

The effectiveness of this process will not be about dollars spent or buildings built; it will be about the productiveness of new enterprises, the jobs and wealth created.

Universities have a key role to play in helping to generate innovative ideas and technologies that will fuel success. Curtin has taken a unique role in fostering this innovation and I applaud them for their entrepreneurial vision and commitment to transferring knowledge to the real world.

We have been in discussions with the Department of Commerce and other universities about how this co-operative vision might be accomplished and the best utilisation of existing infrastructure such as the Innovation Centre at Technology Park, and we would welcome any input.

I call upon everyone here to get together to help make this a reality.

With real support, Robert Amin's gas processing technology will lead to the production of trillions of cubic feet of clean natural gas, Svetha Venkatesh's anomaly detecting technology will protect millions of citizens, and Qin Li's carbon dots will lead to cleaner, greener and cheaper delivery of electricity and light.

n This is an edited extract from Charles Morgan's speech at Curtin University's 'commercial innovation awards' announced last week. Mr Morgan is a Perth investor and entrepreneur and was chairman of the award's judging panel.

 

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