Over lunch on Friday, serial entrepreneur and Churchill Club founder Brendan Lewis treated me to a catchy line. He said:
Q: What’s the definition of a ‘commercialisation expert’?
A: A public servant with an MBA.
Brendan should know a thing or two about innovation policy.
As a tenant who shared office space on the same floor as Dr Terry Cutler’s team during the Review of the National Innovation System, he would undoubtedly have been privy to many ‘fly-on-the-wall’ revelations in the lead up to the release of Venturing Australia (none of which he’ll share with me).
And let’s not forget the five startups, three acquisitions and three trade sales sales to his name.
I described Brendan’s observation as ‘catchy’. This is because it touched a nerve.
While our conversation travelled across many topics, it left me thinking about the state of innovation in Australia and what I can only describe as its gradual ‘bureaucratisation’ (for want of a less clunky word).
From where I sit, Australia’s innovation agenda seems to have fallen into the control of academics, ‘commercialisation experts’ and other members of the public sector, suckling on the ‘teet’ of government, with little or no regard for the views of the private sector (the real intended beneficiaries of said agenda, emphasis on ‘intended’).
It was, therefore, with some surprise (did someone say ‘serendipity’?) that, on return to my desk, I was greeted by the following message from Minister Carr’s Office (via a helpful ‘private-sector’ Anthillian):
COMMONWEALTH COMMERCIALISATION INSTITUTE
Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, has today called for public comment to help inform the development and operation of the Commonwealth Commercialisation Institute.
What is the CCI?
For those unfamiliar with the proposed Commonwealth Commercalisation Institute (CCI), the initiative was announced as part of the 2009 Budget.
At the time, Nick McNaughton, writing for Anthill, made the observation that the CCI should be viewed as welcome relief, citing Powering Ideas – An Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century and Australia’s failure over the last decade to keep up an appropriate level of investment in innovation compared to our peers.
McNaughton described the Federal Government’s proposed allocation of $196m over its first four years, and $82m per annum thereafter, for the CCI as “stage one in the long path towards rectifying the country’s under-investment in innovation over the last decade”.
With a hint of his own prescience, McNaughton also noted at the time, “There is little detail currently around the CCI. It is in all of our interests to have this organisation up and running and productive as soon as possible.”
Since then, not much has been publicly said about the proposed initiative.
And we began to wonder whether it had simply been forgotten.
Why the delay?
According to Senator Eric Abetz, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, “It is now over three months since the Commonwealth Commercialisation Institute was announced, and only now is Senator Carr turning his mind to how it might actually work.”
However, we can reveal today (thanks to another helpful Anthillian) that behind the scenes a focus group, made up of around 10 individuals, has been involved in discussions to identify possible models for the CCI.
In other words, the focus group has been asked to consider whether the CCI will directly implement new initiatives to support commercialisation or simply operate as a governing body to coordinate and consolidate the vast spider-web of commercialisation programs, organisations and initiatives already in play?
What progress has been made is uncertain. And we do not know the composition of the focus group and whether it incorporates an appropriate balance of private sector individuals in addition to the usual suspects (i.e. Academics and ‘commercialisation experts’, according to Brendan’s definition).
So, it might seem like Minister Carr’s Department is on the case.
But here’s what I can’t understand.
Why the apparent secrecy?
I do not know whether participants in the focus group were instructed to keep their deliberations to themselves or whether the process and outcomes were simply considered too dull – not ‘interesting enough’ – to share.
The same question can be posed about the lack of ‘hype’ from the Minister’s Media Office that similar developments seem to warrant.
The call for comment was published on a Friday afternoon (and, as we’ve said before, the common tactic of dumping inconvenient news to the press late on Friday is often referred to as “taking out the garbage”).
Plus, the deadline attached to this call for comment is 28 August 2009.
By the time you read this, you will have less than 10 working days to respond!
Where’s this coming from?
While I’m a strong advocate for government support to propel the Australian innovation agenda forward, I nonetheless get rankled by the emergence of an industry that seems, to me, to have grown dependent on government.
I similarly get annoyed by the expectation among many start-ups and researchers that the Government’s role, as a facilitator of innovation, is simply to dish out grants.
I’ll be among the first to acknowledge that there is a need for grant funding in many circumstances (and that’s why we were highly critical of the Government’s decision last year to axe Commercial Ready).
But, at the same time, what we need desperately to avoid is a national dependence on government grants as an alternative to private-sector funding.
Unlike Senator Eric Abetz, we do not believe the creation of a Commonwealth Commercialisation Institute is a ‘farce’.
Rather, we think it holds enormous promise… if managed well.
That’s why I’ll be dedicating five posts over the next five days to this topic.
To submit a comment, you can use the Government’s Smart Form.
But, before you do that, I will also be responding to each of the Form’s five section, as a continuation of this blog post over the next five days (hopefully, with your input).
I invite you to join me and post your own responses to each section, as a way to encourage open dialogue and the sharing of opinions. This way, when you do formerly submit your thoughts, you will do so informed by the views of many.
And then, perhaps only then, may we have a chance of creating an institution that reflects the actual needs and views of those it was apparently created to assist.