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Data61 CEO wants to create global R&D hub

Data61 CEO wants to create global R&D hub

Organisation wants to help humble companies tap into the minds of top notch scientists and technologists

Data61 wants to actively pursue opportunities overseas and become a global research and development hub for corporates, CEO Adrian Turner said today.

Speaking at the organisation's head office in Australian Technology Park in Sydney, Turner said for the sustainability of Data61 and for the Australian economy, the science and technology organisation needs to tap into the big budgets of overseas companies, particularly those in the United States.

“There’s $1.6 trillion globally spent on R&D,” he said.

Data61 was created last August following the merger of the CSIRO's Digital Productivity Group and NICTA.

“We’ve got to not have this zero sum game mentality of 'I win and you lose.' We are competing for a finite opportunity domestically; what we need to do is lock arms and align the ecosystem to go after global opportunity,” he said.

The CSIRO lost $100 million in government funding in the last two federal budgets. The government also announced in the 2014-15 Budget that NICTA would no longer by funded from June 2016.

The government’s ‘Innovation plan’ released last month, however, shows $15 million being returned to CSIRO for commercialisation of research, along with $75 million to Data61.

“The challenge is that they [many SMEs] can’t hire the digital and data talent that they really need. The good talent wants to go to work for Tesla, Google or SpaceX.

“The structures of these companies [SMEs] and their frame of reference from where they’ve come from make it very difficult to compete with the Googles, Teslas and Space Xs of the world.”

Turner said there’s a trend of corporate venturing as a means of building innovation, but it doesn’t stop companies and entire industries from being disrupted.

“Only last week you saw GM [General Motors] investing $500 million in Lyft [a US-based transport network firm]. If you think about it, what that gives GM is maybe some commercial preference over Lyft as a network using GM cars, but it doesn’t actually stop GM from being disrupted. They can’t stop these new transportation networks emerging. They get visibility rights, they don’t get to own the underlying asset.”

Merges and acquisitions are also another common way for companies to gain innovation, but usually end up failing due to issues around cultural differences and integration challenges, he said.

The aim for Data61 is to allow more humble companies to tap into the minds, ideas and skills of top notch scientists and technologists without having to be the likes of Google, Turner said. Put simply, in the war for talent, it’s not realistic for some companies to compete with Google in attracting and retaining world-class talent, he said.

Turner said Data61 has one of the top 5 machine learning teams in the world so it can provide the talent that many companies desire, and has set a goal own 0.1 per cent of global R&D spend.

“We have approximately 1,100 people, including students. We’ve got relationships across 22 universities, 31 government partners, and 91 corporate partners.”

Data61’s main R&D focus areas are in Internet of Things, smart cities, robotics, autonomous systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence, software and computation systems, cyber security, and human behaviour sciences.

Product management is key to making Data61 a global R&D hub, Turner said, as it focuses on putting a developed technology into a global context and understanding different markets.

Australia is weak on this front and it's something that Turner - who worked in Silicon Valley for 18 years - wants to change.

“One of the things that caught me by surprise coming back [to Australia] is we don’t have strong product management as a country in tech. There are exceptions, but we just generally don’t. And even when talking to some of the big, successful home grown tech companies, they go offshore to get product management.”

Turner also sees opportunity for cross pollination of ideas and technology between different industry sectors, as making significant improvements in a business sometimes cannot be achieved by one industry player alone. He gave the example of banks having to work with others outside their industry when it comes to advanced fraud detection or credit risk ratings.

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