There was a time when the hallmarks of a great business were stability, a fat bank balance, and a steady growth trajectory. But today, the name of the game is innovation. And that has resulted in a cottage industry of people supporting new businesses who want to move from an idea to a saleable product or service that a business can be funded on. Annie Parker is the CEO of Lighthouse in Sydney. I spoke with her at the recent AWS Summit about Australia’s innovation culture.
Parker’s interest in innovation spans everything from working with primary aged kids on coding - she’s a director of Code Club Australia as well as the CEO of Lighthouse where she works with company founders, startups, academics and entrepreneurs.
As an ex-pat Brit, Parker says when she arrived in Australia four years ago that she thought there were a lot of people doing interesting and innovative things. But there were challenges.
“I think the barriers were, or where things broke down were around the sense of community and ecosystem that helped those individuals to build out a company or follow an idea to see whether it could become a prototype or something they can sell. In the four years I’ve been here that’s shifted,” said Parker.
Part of that ecosystem are companies that support the ecosystem - not just Lighthouse, which is a relatively recent entrant into this arena but other companies such as Fishburners, Blue Chilli and StartMate have also been engaged in supporting local innovation.
One of Parker’s observations about innovation hubs is that countries that do this well don’t just have a single location where innovation happens. Countries that are successful at fostering innovation don’t just have one hub - they have several. For example, Parker pointed out that while Silicon Valley is often held up as an example, it grew around the development of silicon chips. Los Angeles has a thriving hub centred around media, Boston and New York have thriving software hubs and Israel has a strong centre focussed on security.
In all those cases, the innovation was centred on filling a specific need. Parker noted that in Israel - necessity has been the mother of invention. And perhaps that mindset is one where Australians can channel their efforts.
“We need to get a little better at answering how can we look at the areas we are super good at already and double down on those, rather than trying to be everything to everybody,” she said.
So, what will Australia’s “thing” be - the need that drives innovation?
“I think there are two areas where we are under-represented,” said Parker. “One is agtech and the other is renewable energy”.
Many naysayers point out that we have a relatively small population that is concentrated in a small number of densely populated pockets. But we also have a continent-sized country, which can use to our advantage said Parker.
“If you can prove your agricultural technology can work on an Australian farm, you’ve proved it can work anywhere. If we can prove renewable energy in Australia, we’ve proved it for everywhere”.
Even our timezone differences can be an advantage as it helps to keep us out of the spotlight as we try new things.
I put it to Parker that One of the challenges in Australia is cultural - an ingrained conservatism that is shown as a fear of trying new things in case they fail.
“If you had told me Australians had a fear of failing before I got here - no way would I have agreed with that statement,” said Parker. “Whenever someone leaves Australia, that fear of failure no longer exists”.
Parker, quite bluntly, said “I’m calling bullshit on it”.
In her work with primary school kids, Parker says that fear is not there. She posited that it may be a generational issue that will pass eventually.
Education is important said Parker. And while were pretty good at teaching technical skills, we need to also focus on other essential skills.
“We to be teaching things like resilience, problem solving, collaboration - that is the other part of this that is missing. It’s a cultural and educational shift that teaching the technical thing is only part of what I need to learn. I need to learn how to manage the roller coaster of building a business”.
What does it take to build an innovation culture?
“For a corporate - they need to look at the systems and processes they have and ask if they are conducive to innovation. That means about thinking creatively about the problems they have in front of them. We need to give people the empowerment to try things differently”.
Parker cited the example of Microsoft’s Satya Nadella’s communication with the team behind the Tay chatbot. While the AI-driven bot went a little crazy and started sending offensive tweets, Nadella told the team to keep going and to learn from the experiment.
Parker says this is critical - when things don’t come out as planned, it is not failure unless lessons aren’t learned.
“I want to see leadership in Australia embracing that its OK to experiment and for things to not quite work. As long as they have the best of intentions, surely that’s a good thing. Those intentions will go on to the next thing and the next thing”.
Anthony Caruana attended AWS Summit in Sydney as a guest of AWS.