Editor’s Note: J. Matthew Pryor was cofounder of Observant, an Australian agtech pioneer acquired by Jain Irrigation in February 2017. He now serves as CEO/CTO of Jain Agriculture Services Australia. He also sits on the board of Rocket Seeder, a startup coaching business, and is passionate about promoting Australian ag and food innovation globally. Pryor recently attended the AusAg & Foodtech Summit in Adelaide, Australia, and here shares his key takeaways.
The AusAg & Foodtech Summit 2017 held in Adelaide on August 29 brought together an elite group of Australian and New Zealand researchers, commercialisation specialists, investors and startups for two days of robust discussion on how to improve the effectiveness of Australian research commercialisation in food and ag innovation.
With such a diverse set of participants, discussion was bound to be controversial at times, and the agenda ran the gamut of intense panel discussions to fast paced startup pitches.
Here are a few of my key takeaways from the event and on the topic of Australian research commercialisation.
The Freakonomics of Research
Few dispute the fact that Australia and New Zealand punch well above their weight in research output. Where we seem to fall down is in translating research results into commercial success and perhaps more fundamentally, making sure that research is commercially focused in the first place. A panel discussion with participants from many of Australia’s top Food & Ag research bodies concluded that among other things we must review incentive structures for research.
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“A peer reviewed publication should be a start, not an end,” according to Dan Johnson from The Australian Wine Research Institute. “The challenge is to create a sense of urgency without having researchers worry about their job security.”
Failure, something that is considered a badge of honor in the startup community, is not so welcome in research it seems. Incentive structures aren’t designed to support failure, fast or otherwise. Speaking of stigma, we also need to do more to enable researchers to move back and forward between research and industry. Business is not a dirty word and the skills gained in commercial settings will help build greater capability within research institutions.
Government funding models appear to be another obstacle to agile science. The timelines and bureaucratic processes are mired in old models and stifle innovation and lean discovery. Where today these processes are designed to force researchers to prove why something will work, they should be more focused on exploring how it might fail. Better to fail fast on the public purse.
There are a large number of government-sponsored programs for early-stage innovation, many of which provide significant funding for innovative research commercialisation. These too, despite appearances, can have unwanted impacts. “The valley of death exists for a reason,” observed Graham Scown, from Return On Science. “It exists to kill companies that are not ready to cross it. Don’t use government funding to pave it over”.
Let Ye Who is Without Sin
It’s not only research groups and government policy that are holding back progress; IP Australia figures were quoted that show that the number of patents jointly filed by collaborating research groups far exceed filings by collaborating companies. So, perhaps the lack of corporate collaboration is also a problem. Building and maintaining a strong national brand requires companies to work closely together and collaborate to build a bigger pie for all. Australian companies need to embrace cooperation and collaborate more to create novel processes, business models, and world-leading innovation.
Startups to the Rescue
Historically, commercialisation processes within research institutes have relied on licensing to existing companies for the majority of commercialisation success. The shortcoming of this approach is that existing, large companies often cannot see disruptive change coming. Truly disruptive innovations struggle in this situation. We are now seeing a major change in the way research outputs can be commercialised.
Australia and New Zealand are experiencing a revolution in the development of early stage startup ecosystems. Accelerators, incubators, angel investment, VCs and government policy are all combining to create the beginnings of a large and supportive ecosystem to drive innovation.
Our research community has largely been absent from this ecosystem, but that is all changing now. Initiatives like the CSIRO On program are taking new approaches and seeking to leverage early-stage models to quickly move disruptive technologies into a supportive and agile early-stage environment. In addition to On, CSIRO’s new innovation fund, Main Sequence Ventures, has been created to further support innovation and has an impressive team of experienced entrepreneurs and investors in its ranks.
We’re seeing collaborations like SproutX, bringing together corporates (Findex, Ruralco), industry peak bodies (Australian National Farmers Federation), investors (Artesian) and government (Victorian State Government) to create a dedicated accelerator for Australian AgTech.
Rocket Seeder has also been established to support food and ag innovation. As part of a unique partnership with Monash University, and co-located with other industry partners in the Monash Food Incubator, it provides startups, researchers and industry an opportunity to collaborate, develop, test and commercialize innovative food and ag ideas right across the value chain. The recent announcement by Monash University of support from global food leader Chobani is further validation of the strength of this sort of collaboration.
Execution is Everything
One point of unanimous agreement was on the importance of execution. If Australia is to lift it’s batting average in research commercialisation success, it will require focusses action to ensure these new models and adopted and fully taken advantage of. We have a long way to go in changing attitudes and culture within our research bodies, but the hugely successful AusAg & Foodtech Summit 2017 has already made a big dent in that task. AusBiotech is to be congratulated for organizing an innovative, agile and highly productive event which is just the sort of environment that will create and sustain the momentum needed to make an agile, innovative, founder-friendly research commercialisation ecosystem.