Innovation has become ‘politically toxic’, says AirTree’s Craig Blair
This article first appeared in the AFR.
Mike Cannon-Brookes might be the most recognisable name in Australian tech, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be.
Boss Magazine has interviewed the three frontrunners to follow in Cannon-Brookes footsteps, the founders of Canva, SafetyCulture and Culture Amp — Melanie Perkins, Luke Anear and Didier Elzinga.
SafetyCulture and Culture Amp are each worth close to $500 million and Canva achieved the lauded unicorn status of a $US1 billion ($1.4 billion) valuation last year.
“I can’t wait for the day when we’re not the biggest tech company anymore. Bring it on,” Mr Cannon-Brookes told The Australian Financial Review.
“There’s a huge opportunity for tech in this country. We’ve got everything we need: we have the smarts, a thriving start-up community, world-class universities, VCs and a tech hub on its way — if we lean in, Australia could have dozens of Atlassians.”
Mr Cannon-Brookes and his co-founder Scott Farquhar have put Australia on the map when it comes to technology start-ups and their company Atlassian, valued at $US24.6 billion ($34.6 billion), has reached new share price highs on the Nasdaq, after breaking through the historic $US100 barrier for the first time last Friday.
But for Australia to produce the next generation of Atlassians, Mr Cannon-Brookes and some of the country’s best tech investors are highly cognisant they will likely have to lead the push without much government support, warning that innovation has fallen off the political agenda.
“I feel like the government’s not going to touch it again,” AirTree Ventures managing partner Craig Blair said.
“Innovation has sadly become code for job losses and now they just don’t want to go there. The right wing of the party has grabbed the agenda there.
“Labor could be more open to the conversation, but if they choose to feature it remains to be seen. It could be too toxic for them too, which is a huge shame.”
Going into the last federal election, the Coalition launched the National Innovation and Science Agenda, also known as the Innovation Statement, and it formed a key part of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s election campaign.
Since then, there has been a revolving door of ministers responsible for the portfolio and in the latest Cabinet reshuffle Prime Minister Scott Morrison dropped innovation and cyber security from the ministry, instead appointing Karen Andrews as the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology.
The big issue the tech sector wants to see addressed after the May federal election is immigration, with Mr Blair and Square Peg Capital and SEEK co-founder Paul Bassat saying there needs to be a major shift in the government’s attitude.
“We need policies geared to attracting people from overseas to come here and work in innovative companies and with what’s happening in the US and with the centrality of the Asia Pacific region, there’s no better time,” Mr Bassat said.
“I’d love to see the major parties put their hands up and say this is important for Australia.”
The 2018 Startup Muster report into the local ecosystem found 35.7 per cent of founders had been born outside of Australia and of people interested in starting their own business, 40 per cent of the future founders were immigrants.
“About 50 per cent of unicorns [$1 billion private tech companies] in Silicon Valley were started by immigrants,” Mr Blair said.
“Immigrants feed innovation; innovation feeds future industries and they create the great companies of tomorrow.
“My hope is that whoever gets elected is brave enough to take this on.”
Despite innovation no longer appearing to be a priority for government, Mr Bassat said it was the best environment for tech companies that he had witnessed in more than 20 years.
The renowned investor who has backed companies like Canva, Airwallex and Athena Home Loans was confident that the country would continue to increase the number of tech businesses becoming $1 billion businesses and said there was no reason we couldn’t have a group of $100 billion companies.
Mr Blair was also optimistic about the country’s ability to produce more unicorns, but he said it was unrealistic to think a tech company the size of Amazon or Facebook would be born from Australia.
“I think large platform businesses are quire difficult to build out of a country like Australia. The depth of experience you need to pull it off is huge and it’s wishful thinking,” he said. “But I can see a future where the top three to five companies on the ASX are tech businesses and not banks.”
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