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It’s ON: Connecting Science and Entrepreneurship in Australia

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Last year, Australia was ranked second to last for collaboration between research and industry by the OECD, despite the high level of innovative research produced by Australian academics.

Australia’s national body for science and innovation, CSIRO, is trying to change this and help researchers commercialize their research with sci-tech innovation accelerator ON.

ON’s goal is to help teams of publically-funded researchers understand if there is a real-world problem their technologies or research can solve. It also aims to help them learn who their potential customer could be; in other words, who will pay them to solve that problem.

It focuses on food, agriculture, advanced manufacturing, medical tech, cybersecurity, mining and energy, and aims to become a driving force in building Australia’s innovation pipeline.

Life after ON

Since its creation, ON has already hosted two accelerator cohorts and a total of twenty teams. “At ON, our job is to give each team a runway and help them connect the dots between their invention and innovation,” explains Liza Noonan, head of ON and executive director of innovation at CSIRO. After ON, there is a range of possible next steps. Some teams go on to receive additional funding from their institute. For others, the next stage may be to receive grants or other forms of non-dilutive capital.

A major challenge for teams trying to commercialize is that they don’t know how to think about funding at all. “Before seeking dilutive, external funding, it is essential that startups understand all potential types of funding and how to leverage it,” Noonan explains. ON has a successful track record with its graduates so far: two teams have just listed on the ASX, and five or six other teams have secured ongoing incubation funding.

ON provides business advice and the latest in entrepreneurship methodologies to teams of researchers who largely have science and technology expertise. Noonan sites Kebari, a team that has identified a gluten-producing aspect of barley, as a success story. Since ON, Kebari has licensed its research to a German beer manufacturer looking to produce gluten-free beer.

The scientists that participate in ON are used to testing hypotheses, so ON frames the problem of building a business around a similar approach. “Putting customer and market validation in terms of hypothesis testing is really useful for our teams,” according to Noonan. This contextualized approach has been successful, though addressing the balance between science and business expertise is an ongoing challenge for ON and their teams.

Agri-Focus

Agriculture is a major force driving rural Australian economies, so it’s no surprise that about 25% of ON’s teams have focused on traditional agriculture or food–based innovation. Some of the ag-based teams include:

  • FutureFeed, a natural feed additive to reduce livestock methane
  • RapidAIM, a biosecurity service aimed at protecting against fruit flies
  • Kebari, gluten-free barley technology
  • TranspiratiONal, a sprayable biodegradable polymer to improve water use

To encourage agtech and innovation, ON also held an agri-focused event in Brisbane with eight companies previously in ON programs. The ON Prime pre-accelerator in Brisbane was themed around accelerating big ideas for agriculture and food, including ‘Farm-to-Fork” innovations from sustainable packaging to functional ingredients, predictive procurement, new food processing technologies and nutrition. Researchers from seven teams are currently participating in the Brisbane ON Prime program, from University of Southern Queensland, QUT, University of Tasmania, CSIRO and Flinders University.

Challenges

Accelerator programs, especially those aiming to marry science and entrepreneurship, always face challenges, and ON is no exception.

Each sector and team has different requirements, and it’s a challenge to ensure that resources and programming stay relevant to all researchers and teams. “The factor unifying all teams is that they’re all rich in IP, and typically have a complex path to market,” Noonan says. For example, regulatory compliance and monetization are common hurdles teams need to be able to overcome. ON therefore focuses on providing help in these areas.

Throughout ON, “we have to match science research with the right teams who can take it forward” explains Noonan. This can be a delicate balancing act, as marketing, sales, and commercial expertise may be outside the wheelhouse of the scientist inventors. Successful startups have a mix of strong technical and business expertise, so ON is always on the lookout for potential entrepreneurs in residence.

Finding and Incentivizing Great Mentors

ON also helps teams find business expertise through their network of expert mentors. Like most accelerators, ON faces the challenge of making sure there is as much value for mentors as there is for mentees. Noonan explains, “the best mentors are busy and can only invest limited time, so we have to help teams make sure that time is valued and used wisely.”

One solution that ON is exploring is an “entrepreneur in residence” program, where experts are paid by the government to join ON and get matched with a team of researchers or with an idea. Mentors get a preview into what’s coming out of research sector, a small stipend, and the potential to start their next company. ON is also looking at mentor accreditation and facilitating cross-mentoring networking events as additional ways to attract high-quality pro bono mentors.

What’s ON in the Future

In the future, ON aims to explore opportunities to collaborate in other countries with similar models to CSIRO. By developing international networks, ON can continue to embrace the best practices of accelerators, as well as connect their teams to cross-border opportunities.

ON is also working to build strong industry connections, for example with companies that can bring their challenges to CSIRO’s network of scientists and researchers. “We want to start with problems and opportunities, rather than starting with ideas or inventions that may not have a market fit,” says Noonan.

Get Involved

ON offers two accelerator programs, neither of which take equity.  The first, ON Prime, is a pre-accelerator designed for researchers and scientists who need to iron out the kinks in their technologies and identify its place in the market. The pre-accelerator runs part-time for eight weeks, including five face-to-face sessions with mentors. Each team receives a $5k operating budget to help them move to the next stage.

For teams that are closer to market-ready, the main ON accelerator focuses on commercialization. Finalist applicants start with an intensive bootcamp to put them through their paces and evaluate their ‘coachability.’ The top twenty teams are selected to participate in ON Accelerate on a full-time basis for twelve weeks. Teams receive $15k to get started and can access up to $10k in performance bonuses half way through if they are achieving the goals they set out to achieve.

To find out more, visit http://oninnovation.com.au/Programs

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