Prying open the public research treasure chest

This year will be remembered for many reasons, but for the CSIRO, it may be remembered as the year it was forced to get entrepreneurial.

Beginning the year with a new CEO in physicist and successful venture capitalist Larry Marshall, CSIRO's new strategy (released in July) made it clear there'd be an emphasis on making an economic impact as well as a scientific one.

With the new focus, it decided entrepreneurship best begins at home. In July, it launched its CSIRO ON programme, including its first accelerator.

“CSIRO is a research agency, but it’s an industrial research agency, and it’s always had so much industry focus,” Liza Noonan, who was appointed Executive Manager Innovation to lead ON, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“And I think what problems like this will do is re-energise that focus and provide us with greater opportunity to connect with industry but also, as you say, this thing called the emerging entrepreneurial start-up ecosystem.”

Soon after the launch, 240 ideas were submitted to the organisation’s Open Ideas Marketplace, with these narrowed down to 20, and then a final nine were selected from the shortlist via a two-day bootcamp/pitching competition.

The nine teams were then put through an intense 12-week programme to beat their inventions into a business case using lean start-up principles.

“They were tasked with completing 100 interviews within that marketplace, so those executives were from prospective customers, partners or other members of the value chain of which they’d be entering,” said Noonan, who had formerly headed Springboard Enterprises and Alcatel Lucent’s connect programme in Australia.

The AcceleratiON projects ranged from an environmentally friendly graphene production method to renewable natural polymers for FMCG to gluten-free barley. Last Thursday the teams made their final pitches.

“So what the whole thing threw up for us is that there are so many great inventions in CSIRO and we know across the Australian research sector and the broader innovation system,” explained Noonan.

“Programmes like this can really help those that have got these great ideas to really develop something which is marketable and has value for industry.”

There is no shortage of ideas within the CSIRO, which is home to a “treasure chest” of nearly 4,000 patents.

There have been numerous worthwhile and very familiar inventions to come out of the venerable nine-decade-old institution. However, there have only been about 150 spinout businesses in the last 30 years.

CSIRO’s new direction aims to remedy the situation, and this received a boost this week with extra Commonwealth funding of $75 million for Data61 (formerly NICTA), $70 million for an innovation fund to commercialise new ideas, and $20 million to extend the accelerator program to universities and other research institutes.

With a roster of researchers spanning many disciplines, links with 41 universities and industry dealings with around 3,000 companies, the CSIRO is ideally placed to coordinate the team effort required to turn inventions into innovations.

For many, the recent frequent use of the words “innovation”, “agility” and “disruption” has become tiresome, even amusing.

For CSIRO and others in the innovation system, the recent focus on the importance of nurturing and commercialising ideas with impact potential has been welcome. The discussion about why we need to do better has been long overdue, and the push to collaborate needs to be supported by both businesses and public researchers, believes Noonan.

“One of my bugbears has always been the missed opportunities we have due to the poor rate of collaboration between business and research in Australia,” said Noonan of her professional experience in innovation programme roles for corporates.

“So we’ve got a really good opportunity to improve on that, but also to understand why that’s the case and to take some practical action on some of those issues.

“I would put a big call out to industry [if they] have problems or challenges or see opportunities and are looking for technology partners to reach in to us – we’ll certainly be reaching out – but to reach into us and to have that conversation.”


Finalists from accelerator one (source: AcceleratiON)

Anonalytix: A cost effective cloud based technology providing a new approach to data anonymization.

Biora: A renewable chemical company making the world BPA free.

Cardihab: The world’s only scientifically validated, home-based, smartphone-enabled CR model of care that can be delivered by existing healthcare providers.

Graph Air: An environmentally friendly graphene production process that is cheaper and faster using a renewable biomass.

Sensei: A robust sensor technology; capable of measuring chemical process parameters in very harsh environments.

TranspiratiONal: A sprayable biodegradable polymer membrane that radically improves agricultural water use.

Horven Gluten-Free Barley: Out with the gluten and in with the nutrition and taste.

Vaximiser: A disruptive technology that radically increases vaccine production in a cost-effective manner.

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