Chris Gilbey OAM, chair of the Australian Graphene Industry Association and CEO of Imagine Intelligent Materials, shares his experiences from participating in a series of global start-up incubator programs this year.
Your work has taken you all over the world to startup events and incubator projects. How will Australia successfully tap into the development of materials and services for the global market?
Well, perhaps the question is, at this time, is more about how individual companies will succeed in accessing and impacting global markets. In my view Australia nationally lost its way around the time we got out of the auto industry.
We are inheriting the legacy of successive governments in Canberra of both persuasions who are so distracted by listening to their own voices in the echo chamber of the media that they have forgotten that manufacturing is the fundamental driver for economic growth.
For Australia as a nation to move forward, there needs to be more than lip service paid to science and engineering.
Australia is one of the true global leaders in materials science research. Our universities turn out brilliant graduates and our research institutes have peerless reputations. But we lack an ability to convert research excellence into revenues. That is just an historical fact. It’s changing, but far too slowly.
Part of the reason that it’s going too slowly is that there is just not the understanding in either academia or government that the speed of innovation is accelerating around the world. For Australians to succeed in the world, we have to do what we needed to do back in the 70s when I was in the music business. We need to get into the target export markets, meet the people and understand the needs of the target market – rather than the assumptions that we have on the ground in Australia.
For me, Europe right now is the most vibrant export market for companies like mine. So I travel there a lot. The thing that I find remarkable when I return is that I feel more and more that people here are out of the loop as to what is really happening in the world – they are largely watching what’s happening in Trump’s America rather than what the economic drivers are that we need to be conscious of.
Technology development in Europe is going at an extraordinary rate. It’s driven by the smart everything: buildings, cars, and infrastructure; the electrification of everything, and the automation of everything.
I was at an event in Berlin two weeks ago at the VW head office when they announced that they intend to have a massive number of autonomous, driverless and fully electric cars on the streets of Berlin before the end of next year. Sufficient of a number as to be able to really shift opinion and attention. This is the kind of impact that leading industrial companies are making at the moment.
For Australia to actually make an impact as a nation, we need companies and government to partner in the creation of world-first impactful events. These are, of course, inherently risky. They are moon shots. They need co-ordination, logistics, innovation and most of all, vision. We don’t need ‘me too’ projects. We need real groundbreaking stuff. And we have the means to achieve that because of graphene.
We have a lot of really serious innovation going on in universities and early stage businesses in Australia – using graphene to deliver new applications that are world-changing. What we don’t have is a co-ordinated effort to make Australia into a powerhouse for commercial graphene innovation.
If we put that in place, we will change the Australian economic landscape, and the world.
How can the Australian education system play in creating capability for emerging global demand in the advanced manufacturing space?
I think that the education system in Australia is doing just fine. The universities are turning out brilliant materials scientists. However, it’s hard for those scientists and engineers to really optimise their contribution to the economy and to society if they are not exposed to the best of the best. And because the manufacturing base of the Australian economy is being eroded so rapidly, I think there is a lack of access to the bleeding edge of the marketplace.
People in universities understand this and they build reciprocal programs with international universities and institutions to try to create the cross-pollination of ideas and experience, but at the end of the day there is a tyranny of distance issue that will never be solved by virtual meeting technology. I have always believed that you only start to resonate with your customer when you breathe their air, and look at the problems from their perspective.
The Australian government has been criticised for its reluctance to foster manufacturing. You believe manufacturing is alive and well, but it’s in advanced materials. How can the startup industry attract support from Government?
I believe that the Australian government would probably argue that they go to great lengths to foster manufacturing. They would probably note that Australia was #21 in the 2017-2018 WEF Global Competitiveness Report. But when you look deeper into the numbers the report states, “the country posts a noticeable drop in the infrastructure pillar, more specifically its communications infrastructure”, while several other pillars increase only marginally. Australia’s overall performance is not remarkable: in most pillars it does not rank among the top 25 countries.
Startups are the real area of opportunity to change that picture. However, it’s hard to imagine that taking place unless and until there is a real incentive for people to take the risk. Not just the risk of starting a business, but the risk of investing too.
There have been some good initiatives taken by government with regard to remuneration via options etc, but it’s still far too little. There needs to be the same approach taken to innovators and risk takers in business that Australia historically has applied to the Olympics. It is tremendous for a country like Australia to be able to congratulate itself for “punching above its weight” in the Olympic gold medal tally, but how much money does a gold medal add to the GDP. Imagine if we supported entrepreneurs with the same commitment! We need to apply the concepts of the Australian Institute of Sport to scientists and engineers.
Imagine Intelligent Materials is developing prototypes for a range of global companies. Can you give us some insight into the work you’re doing?
Imagine is arguably at the forefront globally of developing industrial applications using the extraordinary attributes of graphene. One of the challenges of developing a new material is that as it’s entirely new, it carries with it inherent risks, particularly to manufacture at scale.
We seem to have attracted the attentions of some of the largest companies in the world, and when you deal with big companies you have to figure out how you can get to a commercial deal without getting bogged down in negotiations and legalities that slow down the process.
Our approach has been to start with developing Proof of Concept (PoC) demonstrators that are at reasonable scale and which enable our customers to experience firsthand what we can deliver. It also helps us keep the intellectual property discussions relatively straightforward.
The first significant PoC that we developed was a “smart seat” control system for Daimler, which we did through our participation in Startup Autobahn. That event is part of Plug and Play’s accelerator/incubator program. Because of our participating in Plug and Play in Silicon Valley as well, we have been able to fast track business development at an amazing pace.
Our PoCs are the pathway for us to demonstrate to our future customers/licensees/investors that we have the ability to revolutionise surface sensing. Sensing and reporting is at the heart of the Internet of Things revolution. Our focus areas are Smart Buildings, Smart Infrastructure and Smart Mobility. It’s one thing to claim that we can deliver a step change – in functionality, scale and economics. It’s much more believable when it is made tangible through a proof of concept device.