Kylie Frazer, Co-Founder and Partner, Eleanor Venture
Many countries like to see themselves as “innovation nations”. For Australia, this is fantasy, plain and simple. A recent study by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Centre for International Development found that Australia ranked 93rd in a global index of economic complexity, just below Senegal. Economic complexity essentially measures the diversity and sophistication of national exports. Australia still relies heavily on the export of minerals and other primary products.
Australia needs to take stock of its innovation capabilities if it is to turn the tide. The role of smart cities in building innovation capability is often overlooked in favour of more obvious metrics like STEM education and R&D spending. This is a missed opportunity. The “Code for Smart Communities” published by the Australia New Zealand Smart Cities Council in October 2018 recognises as a core principle that “smart urban development builds a culture of creativity, equity and agility to help advance opportunities for innovation”.
You can’t make an innovation nation from a collective of dumb cities. Luckily for Australia, while changing its export profile is a political hot potato and reliance on primary industries is unlikely to change quickly, all levels of government can get behind the smart cities narrative. The federal ‘Smart Cities and Suburbs’ grant funding changed the market by encouraging otherwise risk-adverse councils to take much bolder steps with procurement, innovation policy, and partnering with businesses.
Startups need to be able to demonstrate clear community benefits that their product will save the council money, and that risk of failure is minimal
Local governments are now some of the most important early customers for Australian tech companies, but getting one on board can still be an epic campaign. Startups need to be able to demonstrate clear community benefits that their product will save the council money and that risk of failure is minimal (particularly tricky with an early-stage company who has yet to reach profitability and is reliant on venture capital).
GoTerra, a Canberra-based venture-funded company, has created robotic, modular waste management units, where black soldier flies are used to break down food waste. Maggot robots, in other words, a tough sell for traditionally conservative local councils. However, founder Olympia Yarger has convinced local councils that Goterra’s technology uniquely addresses the greatest challenges of organics waste management - transport, logistics and space. GoTerra’s system has the capacity to accept a broader range of organic material like citrus and coffee grounds, and it is faster, uses less water and land resources than traditional composting. The process is also 47 times more efficient at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than composting.
Having top tier, committed investors (including Grok Ventures, the investment company of Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes) derisked the chance of economic failure.
Yarger says “Goterra’s system delivers commercial capability in a small space, improving transport logistics, reducing transport miles and reducing the reliance on large decentralised waste management facilities that are increasingly challenging to establish in fast-growing cities. Singapore, for example, is ideally suited to our system as we would not require large land requirements to deliver a waste management solution.”
Three of the top-ranking countries in the economic complexity rankings were in Asia (Japan, Korea and Singapore - with Switzerland and Germany rounding out the top 5). There are many lessons Australia has to learn from its neighbours. But for now, at least, it is the world leader in maggot robots.