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Address to the i20 conference

Town Hall Brisbane

14 November 2014

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Thank you for inviting me to be here today, to open this vitally important event on behalf of the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott. You would be aware that our Parliament  has been recalled today for the visiting address by the Rt Hon David Cameron PM of the United Kingdom.

The G20 events give Australia and the other G20 members an opportunity to speak on the world stage about the issues that we believe to be important. Innovation, especially in life sciences, is certainly one of these areas.

Whether it be in medicine, in food production, in manufacturing or in mining, developments in life sciences have the potential to drive the innovations that will improve both our economic outcomes and our quality of life.

Innovation is a term that is often bandied around, with little understanding of why it is important and what it can contribute.

I am pleased that today’s forum considers the practical application of innovation, by focusing on how it can contribute to the G20 nations achieving collective GDP growth of 1.8 per cent by 2018.

Although economic growth is only one of the measures of innovation success, with environmental, social and other indicators being highly relevant, the 1.8 percent goal gives a focus to the day’s proceedings.

It also reflects the one of major reasons that countries need to focus on innovation – it potential to contribute to competitiveness and economic growth.

In reviewing the themes set out for today’s plenaries it was encouraging to see that they cover not only the development of innovative ideas, devices and processes, but the application of these developments.  With, for example, studies indicating that it can take up to 15 years for medical research to translate from the laboratory to clinical practice, implementation is obviously a serious sticking point.

Innovation in Australia

As a country with a relatively short history of European settlement and a relatively small population, Australia is proud of its track record in innovation.

Over past decades, Australian research has led to the generation of many new and ground-breaking technologies, including:

  • the Google Maps platform;
  • the cochlear implant; and
  • Gardasil and Cervarix cancer vaccines.

Today, I'd like to focus on one success story where Australian discoveries have underpinned an omnipresent technology that we all rely upon today - Fast Wi-Fi connections. In the early '90s, a number of research groups and companies around the globe were in a race to develop fast wireless technology.

One technical solution in particular came through and has been adopted and implemented by the market - that was the invention by the CSIRO team of fast WiFi, which was then demonstrated as a product prototype by a startup company formed by a group of Australians called Radiata.

The fast wireless technology that is in all of the computers and now phones and mobile devices that everyone in this room use daily, was an Australian invention.

Back in the 1990s Australian radio-astronomer John O'Sullivan developed a key piece of technology - a mathematical algorithm that can be used for complex mathematical transformations - and he developed this for use in astronomy research.  Several years later, O'Sullivan was part of a team of engineers and scientists, working at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), that set themselves the challenge of developing wireless technology with the aim of this being as fast as communication through wires.

They came up with an invention that did this - and this solution was made possible through the algorithm that had been developed several years before in the astronomy research.

I'm told there is a lot more to the invention than the algorithm, but for me, this story incorporates the multiple elements that result in the synergy of successful innovation:

  • Firstly, the importance of scientific research, without which we do not have the basic knowledge that can lead to useful inventions;
  • Secondly (and conversely), the impressive ability of highly educated and observant scientists and engineers to turn a piece of basic knowledge into a major technological breakthrough.  As Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction writer and bio-chemist said "The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka' (I found it) but "That's funny"; and
  • Thirdly, the benefits of government support for scientific research done by bodies such as the CSIRO and universities.

I know that there is an ongoing debate on how much support the government should provide to research bodies, but we should be proud of what is being achieved.

This invention has been incorporated into more than five billion devices around the globe - the fantastic connectivity of our modern mobile world is dependent upon it.

But the implementation of this invention also shows the importance of global cooperation and private sector involvement.

The choice of this invention for inclusion into the international standards for WiFi was made by engineers and scientists from many companies and research institutions. The global industry has since adopted this invention and included it into the many products. And on that, this story also highlights the potential financial returns that can flow from ground breaking research.

Through the patent assertion and licence activities, CSIRO has earned over A$470 million from their patent, for use of the invention up until the time when the patent expired in late 2013. And finally, the development of Wi-FI is a text book example of what can result from breakthrough research, from international cooperation and contribution, as displayed in today's forum.

Without the combination of all of these factors, the fast Wi-Fi as we know it today would not exist.

Government initiatives

I’d like to focus now on the Australian Government’s role in bringing together our research and private sectors to invest in new ideas and build the capacity to be able to execute those ideas.

Our institutions, infrastructure, and research and education system are amongst some of the best in the world.

But we cannot afford to be complacent, which is why we have introduced a range of new programmes, as well as continuing programmes with a track record of success.

This Government recently announced the Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda, a key element of the Government’s Economic Action Strategy.

Business and research institutions are being strongly encouraged to ‘look outwards’ for opportunities to collaborate with each other, to increase competitiveness and productivity.

At a national level, the government is consulting widely on the development of the Boosting Commercial Returns from Research strategy.  The strategy aims to improve Australia’s economic performance through better translation of research into commercial outcome.

The policy will help drive innovation in Australia, grow successful Australian businesses and research capacity, and boost productivity and exports.  At an industry sector level, we are developing the Industry Growth Centres Initiative, as the centrepiece of the Government’s new industry policy direction.

Growth Centres will bring business and research together in key sectors where Australia has a competitive advantage, including Food and Agribusiness; Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals, and Advanced Manufacturing.

The industry-led Growth Centres are intended to improve these sectors’ chances of success by putting science at the centre of Australia’s industry policy, and help Australian companies to take up new technologies and processes.

At the enterprise level, the Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Programme is the Australian Government’s flagship initiative for linking individual businesses and research.  The programme’s primary objective is to improve the capabilities of small to medium businesses to become more self-reliant, competitive and growth focused, through the application of research and development.

It aims to facilitate links between business and research organisations to develop new ideas with commercial potential, and provide businesses that have smart ideas with the support to commercialise. These three initiatives at the national, industry sector and individual enterprise levels, will add to the government’s prominent role in supporting investment in science, research and innovation in Australia.

They add additional focus to the scope of the Government’s research support initiatives including:

  • the R&D Tax Incentive; that helps business offset some of the costs of doing R&D;
  • grants provided through the National Health and Medical Research Council and Australian Research Council;
  • funding Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation;
  • supporting collaborative structures such as the Cooperative Research Centres and Rural Research Development Corporations; and
  • providing universities with competitive grants and other funding programmes.

Our goal is to see Australia compete on ideas, and take the risk of investing in those ideas to develop new products, new services and new markets through innovation.

Australia’s international role (working with G20)

As a member of the G20 group of nations Australia recognises that international cooperation is a vital component in innovation.

The development of Wi-Fi is the prime example of this, as Australian discoveries were integrated into an international technology that is at the heart of modern communication. Innovation is an essential component of economic, social and public growth and Australia’s health sciences sector is a strong and innovative sector.

The Australian Government is committed to supporting life sciences by enabling the growth of globally competitive industries by encouraging investment and supporting science and innovation.

In this endeavour we are supported by groups like Life Sciences Queensland. By hosting this event they have brought together international innovation leaders in the lead up to the G20 Summit.

It is our shared commitment to deliver all that life sciences has to offer that brings us here to this Innovation Forum to meet like-minded people, share innovative ideas and develop collaborative relationships that focus on developing global economic and social outcomes.

I wish you luck in your work to identify and illustrate future opportunities for growth and cooperation amongst nations in the field of innovation that focus on developing global economic and social outcomes.

Media contact: Mr Baldwin's office 02 6277 4200