CSIRO – what price #innovation?

Last week Startup Victoria invited scientists and researchers from CSIRO to come and talk about some of the projects they are currently working on. Around 400 people turned up to listen to fascinating presentations on flexible solar panels, 3-D titanium printing, flexible OLED lighting, robotics, wearable kinetic dynamos powering textile-based battery storage systems, high-speed instrumentation using FPGA, and micro-manufacturing processes.

logoFrom the outset, the emphasis of each presentation was on the practical application of these inventions. The goal of the evening was to encourage entrepreneurs and founders from the startup community to connect and engage with CSIRO’s project teams. There was an open invitation to co-operate with CSIRO, via R&D, prototyping, IP licensing and commercialisation initiatives.

The evening was generously sponsored by Cogent, PwC, Elance-oDesk and BlueChilli, hosted by inspire9, and ably compered by Leni Mayo; and in place of the usual Startup Alley was a team of experts offering free advice to startups, organised by Two Square Pegs.

As well as showcasing its latest developments in nano-technology, materials, fabrication, energy generation and workplace automation, CSIRO wanted to remind the audience that they have development and test facilities, which are available for commercial use at very economic rates to the right sort of project. It’s all part of a broader charm offensive, in part designed to raise awareness of the great innovation that has come out of CSIRO (e.g., WiFi…), in part to counter the challenges of reduced government funding ($111m in cuts over 4 years).

To me, CSIRO would appear to be pretty good value for money based on the $700m+ government contribution (which probably accounts for about 70% of current budget). CSIRO generates income from industry for research and other services, and earns royalties from patents and other IP it licenses. But its challenge is to demonstrate its true economic value, either as a contribution to GDP, or as a return on investment to the government (and to the wider community).

On the one hand, CSIRO is not an investment vehicle – yet on one level it operates as an early-stage VC fund, identifying which projects to “invest” in, and securing commercial returns via patents and other licensing streams. Nor is CSIRO a listed company, but without the benefit of its research and inventions, many companies traded on the ASX might not be as financially successful.

Ironically, CSIRO has been involved in research on the future of Australia’s $1.4tn superannuation assets – part of the effort to work out how to put these assets to better use, both to generate more sustainable income for Australian retirees, and to ensure the nation is investing in the right sort of infrastructure, innovation and international growth opportunities.

Traditionally, superannuation funds and other institutional investors have shied away from early-stage projects, especially home-grown startups, either because they are deemed too risky, or because the technology is not well understood. Yet some investors are willing to allocate part of their funds to Silicon Valley VC’s, only to see some of that money flow back into innovative Australian startups (a phenomenon I have previously described as an “expensive boomerang”.)

I’m no economist, but if there was some analysis done on the value of the “CSIRO Dividend”, it would both be able to secure current government funding, and attract long-term funding via the Future Fund or similar investment vehicle.

Post Script: Soon after this post was published, the Federal Government announced its Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda, which among other things is seeking to generate a better return on investment on for innovation.

Next week: The Three Pillars Driving the Online Economy


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