CSIRO wants staff to think like start-ups

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CSIRO wants staff to think like start-ups
Liza Noonan

Start-up investor appointed to oversee innovation venture.

Australia's peak science and research body has hired a prominent member of the Australian start-up community to help spur internal innovation and implement a start-up mentality under a new initiative.

The CSIRO's ON program is headed up by Liza Noonan, who was previously the general manager of an accelerator program for female entrepreneurs called Springboard Enterprises Australia.

The initiative sees the CSIRO joins enterprises such as Seven West and Telstra in adopting the start-up accelerator model as the cornerstone of a corporate innovation strategy.

Noonan told iTnews spinning out a start-up based on CSIRO technology would help the organisation’s inventions make an impact in the marketplace.

However, it is not intended to supersede other methods for commercialising the research agency’s research or intellectual property.

“It won’t be the only option. CSIRO will continue to licence its IP and work with commercial partners where it’s appropriate,” Noonan said.

The accelerator program runs for 12 weeks, during which time teams locate within a co-working space and receive mentoring on their business strategy.

Co-locating in a shared space dedicated to new ideas helps teams engage with other staff as well as potential investors, Noonan said.

“We’ve partnered with River City Labs in Brisbane, ATP Innovations in Sydney, CBR Innovation Network in Canberra and The Hub in Melbourne,” Noonan said.

“It’s an opportunity to have the time and expertise to take a hypothesis about a problem that’s being addressed, talk to potential customers, get feedback, and then test to see if the commercial opportunity is a problem that someone is willing to pay for to fix.

“There’s a lot of focus [in the program] on the importance of building a team that can execute on a vision, a lot on the building the capabilities you need to spin out from the CSIRO, and a lot of focus on the art of pitching to investors.”

The first set of teams were chosen in June, following the release of the CSIRO’s 2020 Strategy. It saw nine teams selected to participate out of around 240 ideas submitted by employees.

“At this stage, it is only open to employees of CSIRO, but we’re looking at options to open the program up to university teams. The other thing we’re looking at is getting more involvement from customers,” Noonan said.

Even if participation doesn’t lead to a commercial venture, Noonan argued there were valuable benefits to participating.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how entrepreneurial some scientists are, and how naturally switched on they are to hypothesis testing, and they can see first-hand the value of customer contact,” Noonan said.

“Regardless of if they continue down the path of commercialisation, the learnings they take back will be invaluable.”

Noonan’s appointment has followed a string of other high-profile CSIRO appointments from the start-up community in recent times.

In January, the CSIRO appointed Larry Marshall, the former managing director of venture capital firm Southern Cross Ventures Partners, as its new chief executive.

In August, NICTA announced it would be merged into CSIRO's digital productivity group, which will be known as Data61 and led by Australian technology entrepreneur Adrian Turner.

“I think there’s an intent to build the entrepreneurial capabilities of the organisation. For some, that means spinning out technology and delivering technology,” Noonan said.

“But it also means developing the skills to seek problems that are real, that potential customers see a value in, and be comfortable with taking risks."

The program comes at a pivotal time for the national scientific research body. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly stressed his view that entrepreneurial innovation is the cornerstone of a high-growth, high net-wealth economy.

However, the CSIRO has also had its funding slashed by $115 million over four years, while the federal government has decided to stop funding NICTA altogether after June next year, forcing the Data61 merger.

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