From R&D to P&L

Last week, the leader of the Federal Opposition announced a $15bn reconstruction fund aimed at job creation if Labor wins government, saying Australia must be a country “that makes things”. With a specific focus on cars, trains and ships, this policy pledge sounded like a clarion call to the metal-bashing industries of old (and recalls either an 80s movie or a 60s pop song…). This followed the launch by the Victorian government of the $2bn “Breakthrough Fund”, aimed at enhancing the State’s R&D capabilities.

While this type of government largesse and targeted economic stimulus sounds welcome, I can’t help feeling the money could be better spent on covering some basic building blocks in the search for innovation and economic development – upgrading the primary, secondary and tertiary education for the 21st century (e.g, an integrated STEAM curriculum); funding budding entrepreneurs (e.g., job maker for the newly self-employed, especially those under 25); enhancing the SME loan market (e.g., making it easier to access working capital without first having to own real estate); and overhauling the procurement and “panel” regimes in the public and private sectors (e.g., giving more equitable access to start-ups and scale-ups).

The “reconstruction fund” talks about making equity stakes, and co-investing with the private sector and superannuation funds. This sounds great, but is it the role of government to pick winners? Surely it should be in the business of enabling innovation and facilitating the growth of SMEs (which is where much new employment is created, rather than in legacy industries and/or declining sectors). Also, because of the way their mandates are written (as well as their ROC models and fiduciary duties), traditionally, superannuation funds and other institutional investors find it very difficult to write cheques for less than, say, $200m. Such a figure is generally far beyond what most start-ups or scale-ups are seeking – so these institutional funds are often placed with external managers who can slice them up into smaller allocations, which adds to the overall investment costs.

The role model for the $15bn fund is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which returned a cumulative 4.75% as at June 30, 2020. Certainly a higher return than the cash rate, but hardly competitive with other asset classes or investment returns, if that is a key measure of success. The CEFC performance is currently running below its own benchmark, and while the efforts of the CEFC have no doubt led to more jobs in the renewables and sustainability sectors, hard data is not easy to come by. In its favour, the CEFC has made a large number of small scale investments, which may well provide a template for Labor’s manufacturing fund (although it’s not evident what form those investments have taken).

In speaking to a range of people over the past few weeks (civil servants, start-up founders, VCs, CEOs of listed companies, etc.), the following mixed messages emerged:

  1. Well-meaning government officials tell you that they are “here to help” founders, start-ups, entrepreneurs, SMEs etc. Problem is, these bureaucrats can’t effect necessary systemic change in the way innovation is funded – they can only operate at a transactional level. Also, many entrepreneurs would politely suggest that the government could do more by getting out of the way…
  2. One VC took issue with my suggestion that Australia needs a better manufacturing supply chain that produces more local components that are interoperable/interchangeable, and which also encourages more user-serviceable (and therefore more sustainable) devices and appliances – he was advocating in favour of sealed units and thus a continued dependance on the manufacturer/distributor service model; whereas I think self-sufficiency in manufacturing also means more consumer choice in post-sales support.
  3. An innovative Australian fintech chose to list overseas because the local capital markets did not “get” its business model, while another locally-listed fintech faced similar obstacles with its own listing.
  4. A start-up founder looking for a modest amount of money for an R&D project (in the sustainability sector) had already secured an equal amount of funding “in kind” from a government agency – but was finding it somewhat difficult to match it with the equivalent private capital.
  5. Neighbours building a passive house have had to import energy-efficient triple-glazed window units – because they are not easily available locally, and the only supplier they could find would have cost at least 50% more.

Finally, the new Labor policy (especially if it aims to support the EV sector) will need to demonstrate it has learned the lessons of Australia’s subsidised car industry, and that the proposed fund is part and parcel of an integrated approach to public transport infrastructure, encompassing high-speed inter-city trains, smart cities with self-drive vehicles, better orbital routes connecting suburbs, and regional hubs that aren’t reliant on cars.

Next week: Synchronicity

Business as Unusual

At the time of writing, the Victorian Government has decided to defer the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, in the wake of a sudden spike in community transmissions. There was always a risk that opening up too much, too soon, would result in a second wave of coronavirus infections, as people returned to work, as shops, restaurants and bars started to re-open, and as people began socializing on a larger scale. There is even talk of more drastic local restrictions in so-called hot-spot areas.

Meanwhile, the deferment (and the extended State of Emergency) is creating further uncertainty for businesses in an already fragile economy. In recent weeks, I have been attending a number of on-line seminars on the broad theme of business in the post-pandemic era. Variously described as the “new normal”, the “new new normal”, and even the “next normal”, things are unlikely ever to be the same, and not many punters are willing to bet on the resumption of business as usual.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead:

Future of Work

As employees head back to the workplace, employers will need to balance the need for productivity and business continuity with the obligation to provide a safe working environment. Some staff can’t wait to get back to the office, some will prefer to continue working from home (if they can), while a large number would probably welcome a mix between the two. This has prompted debate on introducing a 4-day working week, the introduction of team rostering (e.g., alternating one week in, one week out), and possibly the end of hot-desking.

Overall, new work practices will necessitate a re-think on office space, workplace location and employee facilities. Some commentators have predicted that companies will need to extend their current premises (to allow for adequate space per employee); while others suggest CBD workplaces may need to decentralize towards more suburban or regional hubs (to reduce commuting times, to relieve congestion on public transport and to allow people to work closer to home). The latter may also stimulate local economies as people reallocate their commuting costs and daily expenses into local shops, cafes and services.

Innovation

Change and uncertainty should drive companies to innovate – in fact, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently spoke about innovation in light of the pandemic. His view is that current technological trends will only accelerate, and industries facing disruption will be displaced even faster. So no time for complacency, and no point waiting for normal service to resume.

Necessity has driven many retail and restaurant businesses towards more online engagement with their customers, and those that have been shown to be creative, resilient and agile appear to have found a way through the lock-down. Equally, many businesses used to delivering their services in person have had to find ways to embrace digital solutions – no doubt enhancing their digital transformation in the process.

Self-sufficiency

We’ve heard about the need for food and fuel security – especially when supply chains are disrupted, and when countries pursue “domestic first” policies in relation to essential goods and commodities.

While Australia is a net food exporter, we still have to import many daily staples. Primary producers have come to rely on lucrative export markets, so in the light of trade wars and import bans, local farmers and consumers alike will need to adjust their expectations – on choice, price, seasonal availability and market volumes.

Australia is also in the enviable position of being potentially self-sufficient in energy – but although we are rich in renewables, we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and recent events revealed our vulnerability to volatility in the oil markets. It suggests the current environmental and economic debates around weaning ourselves off coal, oil and gas are only going to become more critical.

There has also been a call for a larger domestic manufacturing base – not only to enhance workforce skills and productivity, but also to ward off supply chain disruption. Some have called for a return to domestic car production. Even if that were desirable, let alone a realistic option, I don’t imagine that anyone would welcome the bad old days of churning out Australian-made gas guzzlers that nobody wants to buy. We would need to advocate for smarter cars, energy efficient and non-fossil fuel vehicles, environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing process, and possibly different car ownership models (in line with the trend for ride share businesses and smart city solutions) and more creative financial incentives to the industry than wholesale subsidies.

Other manufacturing sectors that are getting attention include medicines and medical supplies (surely there must be a market for domestically-produced PPE made from bio-degradable materials?), clothing (again, an opportunity for environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing processes), processed goods (after all, we already have much of the raw material), domestic appliances and technology.

One area where Australia has also proven vulnerable is in recycling. China and the Indian Sub-continent are pushing back at taking and processing our exported waste. So we have to get smarter at recycling household waste (paper, plastic, glass and metal) especially if in a post-pandemic world we see a return to single-use items and additional sterile and protective packaging for foodstuffs and personal products. We also need to look at e-waste, and find ways to extract more recycling value from obsolete devices.

The lock-down during the pandemic has also highlighted an opportunity to re-connect with the “make do and mend” mentality of our parents and grandparents. Again, if supply chains are disrupted, buying a replacement item might not be an option. But often, nor is it possible to buy replacement parts – either they rely on the same supply chains, or there are no user-serviceable parts available. What if manufacturers and distributors had more of an obligation to take back and recycle their products, or to include more interchangeable parts in their designs, and enable consumers to become more self-sufficient in repairing and maintaining their electronic and electrical goods?

Federal, state and local governments have a huge role to play here – from mandating the use of more recycled and recyclable materials, to incentivizing recycling schemes, from supporting local repair workshops and “maker” projects, to creating more common and open standards around components and replaceable parts.

Finance and Digital Money

At a time when many people are on reduced income and/or or relying on government welfare, the pandemic has also demonstrated a need to rethink our relationship with money in general, and cash in particular.

The latest round of QE by governments and central banks to offset the financial impact of the pandemic has highlighted once again the fragility of current monetary policies, including fractional reserves and treasury buy-backs. The decision to print money on demand will only increase public appetite for crypto currencies as a legitimate store of value – including stable coins and (ironically) central bank digital currencies – and paradoxically, accelerate the removal of physical cash from the economy.

In times of crisis, digital currencies can also transfer money to remote recipients faster and cheaper than traditional means (i.e., incumbent remittance businesses, bank transfers, payment gateways), and actually increase transparency and traceability.

The lock-down also revealed that many people did not have a sufficient financial buffer to withstand job losses, especially in the casual workforce and the so-called gig economy. This suggests a new approach is required for how people are remunerated for their labour and services, taxed on their income, and incentivized to save for the future. Current systems cannot address these issues because they are over complex, far too rigid, and totally dis-empowering of the people they are designed to serve and support.

Digital currencies (along with the benefits of Blockchain technology, and the new economic models represented by digital assets and tokenization) will enhance trends such as decentralization, peer-to-peer networks, trust-less systems, fractional ownership and more sophisticated barter structures.

Bitcoin was created in response to the GFC, it has now come of age in the post-COVID-19 era.

Next week: Antler Demo Day – Rewired