Life During Lock-down

As I write, Victoria is witnessing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the so-called second wave of the pandemic. Even as the State Government maintains the Stage 3 lock-down in Greater Melbourne (and most recently mandated the wearing of masks), some members of the public are trying to challenge these restrictions, while others have to keep being reminded to comply with the pandemic measures. Frankly, the way I have been feeling about the latest events, I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry.

The Village of Eyam – Image sourced from National Geographic

Laugh, because I can’t believe how crass or stupid some of these refuseniks are. Scream, because I am so angry at the State Government’s failure to properly manage the hotel quarantine programme (which has led to the widespread community transmission), and the delayed decision to require masks in public. Cry, because the whole situation is incredibly sad, given all the people who have lost loved ones to the virus, and the many more who are experiencing financial hardship.

The Premier keeps saying that now is not the time to debate the whys and wherefores of who is responsible for the failure in hotel security arrangements, what caused the community transmission, or why so many people continued with their normal routines despite being symptomatic or while waiting for coronavirus test results. OK, fair enough – the Government’s main focus is on protecting public health (and shoring up the local economy), but hopefully there will be plenty of time for analysis and debate once the virus is under control (and hopefully well before the next State election, due in 2022…).

Meanwhile, I don’t know why politicians and health administrators are so surprised when members of the public fail to “exercise common sense”. Maybe the public kept hearing the Government was doing a such a great job (hey, remember Lock-down Pt. I?). Perhaps they over-compensated after a few weeks’ social distancing, became complacent and let down their guard. Or maybe they took their lead from public messages about “returning to normal” – and going to the footy and getting on the beers again….. Perhaps there is a sizeable portion of the community who can’t be trusted “to do the right thing” (or maybe they just don’t trust politicians, public servants, health experts or mainstream media).

As for why those people carried on as usual (despite being symptomatic or awaiting test results): there may be economic factors at play (to be discussed another day, but if that doesn’t include a debate on a Universal Basic Income, it will be a lost opportunity). It could be a lack of information and awareness. It could simply be human nature. But for a culture that celebrates “chucking a sickie” (indeed, one former Prime Minister even suggested it would be a point of national pride to do so following Australia’s success in the Americas Cup), something has gone wrong somewhere if people don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards the health of their fellow citizens.

In my more existentialist moments (and I seem to have so much more time for that these days…), I can’t help thinking the pandemic is a three-fold challenge to the future of the human race: 1) the virus is nature’s way of inoculating itself against homo sapiens; 2) it will prove Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) by exploiting our weakness as social creatures – it’s figured out how to get us to spread the virus on its behalf; 3) the reduced levels of human activity and pollution will give the earth some time to heal (at least for a while).

At other times, I think about Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime”* – especially the line “I got some groceries, some peanut butter to last a couple of days”. With the need to limit shopping trips, the various shortages, and the focus on being prepared for a total lock-down, is it any wonder we may feel some anxiety? Of course, we could be in a far worse situation than what we are currently experiencing in Melbourne, both in terms of the number of cases and the breakdown in social order we see elsewhere. Yet that just underscores how inconsiderate and selfish those people are who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or observe Stage 3 restrictions. Yes, the restrictions are inconvenient, and at times tedious, but they are hardly onerous compared to a full scale health crisis. And if anyone wants to discuss public sacrifice in the face of a virulent disease, I suggest they do some research on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

For myself, I know I have been very fortunate so far (probably thanks to some “compound privilege”). I have been able to work from home since March (although as an independent contractor, my monthly income has been reduced), but I have not seen any friends or family face-to-face either, and I won’t be traveling overseas next month for a family wedding, or to visit elderly parents. I am able to walk each day in the nearby park, but apart from food shops and the post office, I’ve not been inside any other retail premises. I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I try to support the local hospitality sector by ordering prepare-at-home meals about once a week. I can’t get to see live music, but this has forced me to revisit my own music-making. And I don’t have to do any home-schooling, but I have friends and relatives who work in the health and education sectors.

My biggest concern, apart from the pandemic itself, is that we miss the opportunity to re-think the large areas of the economy that need restructuring. Politicians keep talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, as if the archaic labour structures inherent in the traditional master and servant relationship is the be-all and end-all of social economics. But where are these jobs coming from? COVID19 shows we can consume less, make do with less stuff, and so it can’t just be a demand-led stimulus. Nor should it just be a construction-led recovery (more “Big Build”), unless it is combined with innovation, sustainability, hi-tech, smart cities, etc. There is definitely a need to think about national self-sufficiency, and figure out what to do about supply chains, manufacturing and renewable energy.

Somehow, we have to turn this uncertainty and these challenges into positive outcomes.

Next week: The Limits of Technology

* The whole album, “Fear of Music” is the perfect soundtrack for the nervous paranoia and unease of the pandemic…..

Startup Victoria: supporting successful founders

I’ve been attending Startup Victoria’s meetups for more than 5 years, and have been a paid-up member for most of that time. The event formats and the key personalities have changed over the years, but the mission has always been to help create more founders and better founders, and to support the broader startup ecosystem. At last month’s AGM and panel discussion, the Board announced that the focus has now shifted to “helping founders to succeed”. A subtle change, but an indication that the local startup scene is finally maturing.

As part of this renewed focus, Startup Vic wants more corporates to engage with local startups – as suppliers, strategic partners and potential target acquisitions. Given the challenges startups face in meeting enterprise procurement processes (especially in the public sector…), this will not be easy. The path to engagement with startups has to be considerably de-risked before purchasing managers will get the sign-off to onboard new vendors.

That challenge aside, another observation from the panel discussion of founders and advisors was that Startup Vic needs to connect newer founders with more experienced founders, those who have already taken a startup to scale up to exit. Plus, as a leadership organisation, Startup Vic recognises that more needs to be done to highlight local success stories. That doesn’t just mean the startup community celebrating itself – it means spreading the word publicly and getting more media airtime for businesses that are building sustainable growth in the new economy.

One of the panelists asserted that “some of our politicians would rather have their photo taken with the winner of the Melbourne Cup, than be seen with the founders of Atlassian”. A bit harsh, perhaps – but I know that they mean. Aligning themselves with sporting heroes probably does more for their public profile, compared to hanging out with our key tech entrepreneurs in order to learn what government could do to foster more startup success.

To be fair to the Victorian Government, it has been trying to implement an innovation strategy that brings participants together – founders, investors, incubators, accelerators, etc. This has resulted in: the Victorian Innovation Hub (plus a number of sector-specific tech centres); LaunchVic (to provide grants to projects designed to foster the startup community); and engagement with overseas VC funds and offshore tech companies (to position Victoria as an investment destination, and as a national, regional or even global HQ).

Meanwhile, the panel also debated whether too many local founders are more interested in building a “lifestyle business” for themselves, rather than creating say, a $250m company. This apparent lack of ambition was seen as something of a local phenomena, partly linked to Melbourne’s status as one of the world’s most livable cities, partly linked to a generally benign Australian economy (but with a growing number of stress points), and the usual cultural factors such as the tall poppy syndrome. There are also some structural challenges in the economy (restrictive trade practices, a lack of competition in highly concentrated markets, continued economic uncertainty post-mining boom, delays in rolling out the NBN, a potential credit squeeze…), plus a growing distrust of public institutions and major corporations. This disenchantment and disengagement is not helped by a lack of strong leadership in government and in business – so why would anyone with any sense want to get involved, and hence the desire to take care of one’s own needs first.

Finally, emphasizing the need to re-think the founder mindset and to provide a better foundation for building the businesses of the future, Startup Vic is also committed to both the professional and personal development of founders.

Next week: Blipverts vs the Attention Economy

 

 

Talking Innovation with Dr Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic

As a nice segue to last week’s blog on Techstars, I was fortunate to hear Dr Kate Cornick speak, just before the latest LaunchVic grants were announced. Organised by Innovation Bay, hosted by Deloitte, and facilitated by Ian Gardiner, the fireside chat plus Q&A was a useful insight on a key part of the Victorian Government’s innovation strategy.

launchviclogo innovationbay-feat-800x500At the outset, Dr Cornick stressed that LaunchVic is not an investment vehicle, and it doesn’t fund individual startups. Rather it seeks to support initiatives that help grow the local startup eco-system. (See also my blog on the consultation process that informed LaunchVic’s formation.)

Commenting on why Victoria (and Australia) has the potential to become a world-class centre for innovation, Dr Cornick pointed to a number of factors:

  • A collaborative culture
  • Positive economic conditions (comparatively speaking)
  • Governments (mostly) open to innovation
  • Strong research base

However, a few of the obstacles in our way include:

  • The notorious tall poppy syndrome, whereby Australians are suspicious, sceptical and even scathing of local success – except when it comes to sport and entertainment!
  • An inability to scale or capitalise on academic research
  • Insufficient entrepreneurial skills and experience to “get scrappy”
  • Lack of exposure for highly successful startups (c.$20m market cap) that can help attract more investment

From a startup perspective, Australia also has the wrong type of risk capital: institutional investors are more attuned to placing large bets on speculative mining assets, typically funded through public listings, and with very different financial profiles. (Or they prefer to invest in things they can see and touch – property, utilities, infrastructure, banks.)

So there is still a huge gap in investor education on startups and their requirements for early-stage funding. Part of LaunchVic’s remit is to market the local startup community, promote the success stories, and foster the right conditions to connect capital with ideas and innovation. After all, Australia does have one of the largest pool of pension fund assets in the world, and that money has to be put to work in creating economic growth opportunities.

As I have blogged before, we still see the “expensive boomerang”: Australian asset managers investing in Silicon Valley VCs, who then invest in Australian startups. Although when I raised a question about the investment preferences of our fund managers, Ian Gardiner did point out that a few enlightened institutions have invested in Australian VC funds such as SquarePeg Capital, H2 Ventures and Reinventure.

Dr Cornick also provided a reality check on startups, and added a note of caution to would-be founders:

First, it tends to be an over-glamourised sector. For one thing, founders under-estimate the relentless grind in making their business a success. And while eating pizza and pot noodles might sound like a lifestyle choice, it’s more of an economic necessity. Thus, it’s not for everyone (and not everyone should or needs to build a startup…), so aspiring entrepreneurs would be well-advised to do their homework.

Second, the success of any startup community will be reflected by industry demand. “Build it and they will come” is not a viable strategy. And I know from talking to those within the Victorian Government that unlike their inter-state counterparts, they are not willing (or able) to fund or invest in specific startups, nor in specific ventures such as a FinTech hub. Their position is that industry needs to put its money where its mouth is, and as and when that happens, the Government will look to see what support it can provide to foster and nurture such initiatives – particularly when it comes to facilitating between parties or filling in any gaps.

Third, don’t expect too many more unicorns, and don’t bank on coming up with simple but unique ideas that will conquer the world – meaning, new businesses like Facebook, Uber and Pinterest will be few and far between. Instead, drawing on her earlier comments about research, Dr Cornick predicts that it will be “back to the 90’s”, where innovation will come from “research-based, deep-tech solutions”.

If that’s the case, then the LaunchVic agenda (for the remaining 3 years of its current 4 year lifespan) will include:

  • Getting Victoria on the map, and positioning it as a global innovation hub
  • Raising the bar by educating startups and investors
  • Bringing more diversity to the startup sector, by providing greater access, striking better gender balance, and building a stronger entrepreneurial culture
  • Introducing a more transparent and interactive consultation process
  • Continuing to support the best accelerator programs that focus on startups
  • Making more frequent and smaller funding rounds, each with a specific focus

Asked what areas of innovation Victoria will be famous for, Dr Cornick’s number one pick was Healthcare, pointing to the strong research base coming out of both the Monash and Melbourne University medical precincts. Also in the running were Agriculture, and possibly Cyber-security. (Separately, there is a list of priority industries where the Government sees growth, employment and investment opportunities.)

If one of the biggest hurdles is commercializing research, Dr Cornick suggested that Universities have to re-think current IP practices, including ownership and licensing models, developing better career options in research, and doing more to re-calibrate the effort/reward equation in building research assets compared to building companies and commercial assets.

Finally, Dr Cornick offered an interesting metaphor to describe the current state of Victoria’s innovation potential:

“We have everything we need for baking a cake, but the missing ingredient is the baking powder to make it rise.”

Next week: Gigster is coming to town….