Asher Moses has written a wonderfully inspirational piece in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the rise and rise of Australian entrepreneurial talent. In it he explores how well some of the Internet-focused startups born in Australia are doing in sourcing Silicon Valley venture capital.
It is a great story and touches on much of my experience over the past 15 years. Australia and, closer to home – Sydney, has an incredible wealth of entrepreneurs. But in Asher’s story there is also a hint at the dark side. Let me paint the picture in three ways:
1. Financial arrogance
While I was living in Silicon Valley I assisted a startup to raise its first round of funding from a tier one VC firm, in two weeks and right in the middle of the GFC. Fast forward to today and as Asher has eruditely pointed out, tier one VC’s from Sandhill Road are currently falling over themselves to get the attention of Australia web startups.
Against this backdrop, picture me meeting with a senior executive at one of Australia’s most successful investment banks in the past fortnight. In that meeting I was told how incredibly hard it is to find funding for technology businesses, how no-one is investing in this space in Australia and blah blah. Can you see the disconnect here?
I personally believe Australian ‘investors’ have a heightened level of financial arrogance driven by an absolute ignorance of technology and also tainted in their financial risk profiling by resource-based investing (mining etc).
As long as this position remains I can fully understand why Australian entrepreneurs are US-centric. For Australia though this amounts to a major loss as we are not only losing talent in droves, but also access to ROI as our entrepreneurs grow great businesses with other people’s money!
2. Technological bias
For as long as I can remember Australian government granting schemes and venture firms have had a bias against Internet-related companies. They have preferred to back biotech businesses and other science-heavy companies that are notoriously hard to scale globally and which usually have a hard time getting international attention due to the tyranny of distance.
It is heartening to see this position starting to shift and that web-focused ventures are in fact now getting more access to schemes like Commercialisation Australia.
While I am ecstatic about Australia’s well deserved recognition (finally) for great entrepreneurial talent, I am somewhat concerned that we get seen as only producing web-centric talent and intellectual property.
The Australian Federal government pours some $9.8 billion into public research and there is incredible technology floating around within the countries 43 universities and even more public research institutes (by contrast the US only has 41 universities). However, most of this never sees the light of day. It gets locked up in over-protective tech transfer quagmires and/or stuck in the valley of death between research proof of principle and commercial proof of concept due to a massive lack of funding for this gap.
In contrast, in the UK companies like Imperial Innovations and the IP Group, and Allied Minds in the US, are absolutely going gangbusters building businesses around research intensive technologies and assisting IP through the valley of death.
Australia desperately needs a similar business and it is on my to do list for 2012 to see that one forms. We need to not only continue to support our web-centric entrepreneurs, but also inspire generations of Australians to become tech entrepreneurs in areas that can have major global impact such as energy and health!