Jan 302016
 
thomas edison

Around the world governments are trying to replicate the Silicon Valley startup model. But does that model really matter?

On the Citylab website, Richard Florida looks at which cities are the leading centres for startup investment.

Unsurprisingly eight of the top ten cities are in the United States with San Francisco and San Jose leading the pack. While London and Beijing make up the other two, the gap between the regions are striking with the Bay Area being home to over quarter of the world Venture Capital investment while the Chinese and London capitals com in at around two percent.

global-startup-cities

While these proportions are impressive, the numbers are not. The total VC investment identified by Florida in 2012 is $45 billion, according to the Boston Consulting Group there was $74 Trillion of funds under management in 2014.

That makes the tech venture capital sector .06% of the global funds management industry.

In the US alone over 2013 small businesses raised $518 billion in bank loans, more than ten times the global VC industry.

What this scale shows is how small the tech startup sector really is compared to the broader economy and, more importantly, how the Venture Capital model perfected in the suburbs of Silicon Valley is only one of many ways to fund new businesses.

Even in the current centre of the startup world, it’s estimated less than eight percent of San Francisco’s workforce are employed by the tech industry although that goes up to nearly a quarter in San Jose.

None of this is to say the startups are not a good investment – Thomas Edison’s first company raised $300,000 in 1878, $12 million in today’s dollars, from New York investors including JP Morgan. The Edison Electric Light Company, while relatively modest went on to being one of the best investments of the 19th Century.

That twelve million dollar investment looks like a bargain today and it’s highly likely we’ll see some of today’s startups having a similar impact on society to what Edison did 140 years ago.

Edison’s success created jobs and wealth for New Jersey and New York which helped make the region one of the richest parts of the planet during the Twentieth Century and that opportunity today is what focuses governments when looking at encouraging today’s startups.

So it’s understandable governments would want to encourage today’s Thomas Edisons (and Nikola Teslas) to set up in their cities. The trick is to find the funding models that work for tomorrow’s businesses, not what works for one select group today.

While the Silicon Valley venture capital model receives the publicity today, it isn’t the model for funding most businesses. Founders, investors and governments have plenty of other options to explore.

Jan 272016
 
Adrian_Turner_CEO_Australia_Data_61

Could Australia’s poor track record in commercialising research be turned into an advantage? Data 61’s CEO Adrian Turner believes so.

Australian research agency Data61 was formed last year following the science hostile Abbott government’s slashing of research budgets coupled with a merger of the National ICT Australia organisation (NICTA) with the long established CSIRO.

The intention behind Data61 was to create a world leading data research agency. At the time of the announcement then communications minister and now Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull said, “Having a single national organisation will enable Data61 to produce focussed research that will deliver strong economic returns and ensure that Australia remains at the forefront of digital innovation.”

Having been in the role for six month and now, in his words, having his feet finally under the desk, Data61’s CEO Adrian Turner met with the media last week to discuss the directions he intends to take the organisation.

Business in a data rich world

Coming from a corporate Research & Development background and having spent over a decade in Silicon Valley tech businesses, Turner is conscious how industries are being changed in a data rich world.

For corporate R&D model shifting as industries are changing he says, “their challenge is they can’t hire the digital and data talent that they really need.” Turner sees one of the opportunities for Data61 in providing access to the high level expertise large companies are struggling to find.

Giving Data61 is global focus is Turner’s main objective with an aim of capturing a tenth of one percent of the world’s private sector R&D budget, describing how he will sell the organisation’s scientific expertise to global corporations, “we can plug them into the Boeing and GMs of the world and introduce them to the people to short circuit the sales process.”

“We’re going to go around the world where corporate R&D dollars get allocated and convince these companies that Australia is a place where primary R&D can take place,” Turner continued, “we’ve got the talent and we’ve got the capabilities to do the research.”

Good at the basics

Turner highligthts an ongoing problem in Australian science and industry. The nation historically has been good at basic research but poor at getting those developments to the marketplace, something the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Global Innovation Report has regularly flagged.

While Australia ranks at 17 overall in the 2015 WIPO report, the nation’s business community flounders at 38th in the world for its collaboration with researchers and 39th for knowledge and technology output. Put bluntly, Australian businesspeople are not very sophisticated or research orientated.

Adrian Turner puts that down partly to the nation’s being weak at product management, “I think it’s a function of global companies seeing Australia as a sales and marketing outpost so we don’t have the product development expertise.”

Inward looking locals

The nation’s inward looking local corporations are also part of the problem, “for us to succeed as a country we have to have a global mindset. We can’t have the zero-sum mindset that I win if you lose in the domestic market,” Turner continued. “In that sense what we’re doing is creating a product marketing function.”

So to meet Data61’s objectives of meeting its own financial performance targets, developing an R&D ecosystem and having an impact on the nation economy, Turner sees the organisation having to go overseas for most of its partnering with private sector researchers.

Sparking the startups

All is not lost though for Australia with Turner believing Data61 has a role in helping the local startup community develop. “We don’t have the infrastructure in place to support the entrepreneurs to go out and build new business,” he says.

“In Silicon Valley over decades you have this infrastructure, you have this workforce, you’ve got the legal infrastructure, you’ve got capital, all of these things that have built up organically over decades and they stack the odds in favour of the entrepreneurs.”

Data61 was born out of an unfortunate period of Australian politics where for the first time the nation was lead by a government that was genuinely hostile to science. Now the political winds have changed and the organisation has a global focus, it may be possible to reverse the long-term neglect of Australian research and build a new business culture.

Jan 192016
 
censorship on the internet and social media

The Libertarian dream of a free trade zone out of reach of authorities on the Dark Web has come to an end reports Wired.

Ironically it’s not the authorities that have discredited these sites but the untrustworthiness of the various contraband services’ operators that have doomed these illicit marketplaces.

While there’s still potential for these dark web markets to evolve into something more robust their current failure shows that radically changing existing institutions and systems is rarely happens quickly and without cost, as those with stolen Bitcoins are learning.

Dec 182015
 
european money

The World Economic Forum asks can Europe build its own Silicon Valley?

It seems the answer lies in money, investors’ money to be precise, with a lack of VC funds to finance emerging businesses and a lack of acquisition hungry corporates providing high profile experts argues the WEF piece’s author, Keith Breene.

That appears to be a strong argument although there’s still some strong contenders for European tech hubs with the WEF identifying Munich, Paris and London as being major centres.

London’s claims are reinforced by the city’s strength in financial technology with KPMG nominating 18 of the world’s top 50 fintech startups being based in the British capital.

Interestingly, the Belgium town of Leuven which has styled itself as a centre for 3D printing and beer features on the WEF list of European startup hubs as well.

While it’s unlikely Europe can create a ‘Silicon Valley’ – even the post Cold War US would struggle to do so today – the presence of major centres like London and specialist hubs like Leuven indicates another important aspect of creating a global centre, that of having an existing base of businesses and skills.

That skillbase isn’t built up overnight, it’s a decades long process of commitment from industry, investors and governments and often as much the result of a series of happy accidents rather than deliberate planning.

It may well be the question of Europe creating a Silicon Valley isn’t really relevant with the bigger issue being how the continent’s cities and nations put in the conditions to develop long term industrial hubs. Trying to ape today’s successes for a project that will take decades to come to fruition could be a big mistake.

Dec 162015
 
Networks and computers connecting to the web

China held an internet conference today where, as Forbes reports, President Xi Jinping laid out the nation’s vision of an Internet that ‘complies with Chinese laws.’

That Internet is a walled garden where access to sites like Facebook are blocked and an army of censors make sure that subjects which aren’t to the Chinese Communists Party’s approval are promptly removed.

Meanwhile in the US, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump stated the Internet should closed down for America’s enemies.

That both the Chinese government and Donald Trump agree on something shouldn’t be surprising, however the urge to monitor and shut down the Internet is shared by many governments. It’s an urge that needs to be resisted.

Dec 152015
 
melbourne_south_wharf_hilton_external_view

How do you build an industrial hub like Silicon Valley? Many cities and regions have tried various tactics, from demolishing entire suburbs to attract corporate headquarters through to spending millions on enticing film productions and countless examples of setting up Digital Hubs.

An interesting experiment is happening at the moment in the Australian city of Melbourne where the Victorian state government is spending millions on subsidies to businesses, government enterprises and academic research centres to set up in the town.

One of the Victorian government’s most surprising moves was to poach Sydney’s Sydstart startup conference for a million dollars. Naturally the event will have to be renamed and there’s no word on who will pay for the branding consultant’s time.

Opening the chequebook

Having an open chequebook is fine, but in the absence of a broader strategy that ties in educational, financial and other vital factors for building an industrial hub it’s hard to see how spending taxpayers’ funds on adhoc projects is going to create a sustainable local tech sector.

The National Broadband Network security office subsidy is particularly galling given it’s a payment to a Federal government owned corporation and it’s highly likely the facility would have been based in Melbourne anyway given the organisation’s Network Operating Centre is already in the city.

Added to the embarrassment of the NBN announcement are the overwrought claims of job creation. While it’s possible a total of 300 building staff might be involved in the construction, the idea the centre will employ 400 IT and telco security staff is surely stretching credibility.

The failed games industry

Sadly for Victorian taxpayers this isn’t the first time their government has tried to use their chequebook to attract high tech business. In the late 1990s a similar effort was launched to attract video game developers.

For a while this worked but ultimately the Victorian games sector declined in the face of a high Australian dollar, a shift in the economics of studio produced games and successful competition from Queensland who built their own subsidised centre on the Gold Coast by offering better incentives that those on offer in Melbourne.

Both the Queensland and Victorian efforts ultimately failed and today both states have little to show for those subsidies.

At least though the Victorian government is trying, unlike its property development and coal mining obsessed neighbours in Sydney who are in the process of selling off their Australian Technology Park hub and replacing it with a poorly articulated thought bubble of a technology precinct based out of a disused power station in a transport blackspot.

Sydney’s failure

In the process of coming up with these ideas, the New South Wales government managed to alienate the most successful of Sydney’s tech startups, Atlassian who last week floated on the NASDAQ stock market for over four billion US dollars.

One of the notable things of Atlassian’s story, and that of most other successful Australian tech startups, is how little direct government support features in their development.

That direct government support like subsidies feature so little in these company’s successes really tells us what really works for governments wanting to develop an ecosystem – providing the environment for skills, capital and distribution networks to develop.

Without a long term plan it’s hard to see how Victoria’s ‘splashing the cash’ will end up any better than previous efforts with other industries. As Silicon Valley, Israel and the UK have shown, it’s consistent long term investment in the industries and the infrastructure that allows businesses to developed that creates successful industry hubs.

Dec 092015
 
Digital bus stop

“Smart cities need smart visions,” states Terry Bennett who is Autodesk’s lead strategist for the infrastructure industry.

Bennett was speaking to Decoding The New Economy about how cities will evolve with smart technologies however he believes that data is not the answer.

“Smart doesn’t mean putting sensors on everything and collecting terabytes of data,” he says. “Just putting sensors in the road doesn’t make it a smart city. To have a smart city you need smart people with a smart vision.”

S.M.A.R.T

“We see smart as more as an acronym. The ‘S’ is for setting science based targets for the data being collected,” he explains. Those targets could be financial, environmental or quality of life, “you have to set targets to see that your plan is being carried out.

The M is for measuring against those targets while the A is for absorbing or analysing that information and using it effectively.

R is for retrofitting, with Bennett seeing that valuable existing assets that still have long lives ahead of them being best refitted with smart technologies to get better information out of them.

Shifting demographics and tastes

One of the challenges ahead for planners and designers are the changing demographics and usage patterns of cities as the next generation of workers promise to be far more mobile and not as fixed to central business districts.

An advantage for smarter cities is they have much more data available to make informed decisions and as patterns change, those municipalities can see the differences occurring sooner.

Coupled with newer construction methods that allow infrastructure to be built faster, cities are going to be able to quickly respond to changing usage and demands on services.

Contracting out innovation

Those fast construction methods create another need for change in contracting methods. “We have to start thinking more as manufacturing rather than construction,” he says. “We get bogged down a lot in the ‘contract’ part of contracting. We have contracts written in the 1950s that are today’s standard contracts.”

“You can’t build fast enough given the changes in demographics and technology using those older contracts. You basically contracting out innovation.”

For government this can be an opportunity, Bennett believes. If clients allow builders freedom in techniques and methods then costs can be reduced with more resilient results.

Ultimately it’s that resilience that matters with infrastructure being designed for decades, “if you’re designing for traffic patterns for today then you’re wrong.”

Paul travelled to Autodesk University in Los Vegas as a guest of Autodesk