It’s been a while since Fred Astaire played a CSIRO scientist in the 1959 movie of Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach. Still one premise of the film holds true: you can’t always predict where your research will end up or its influence on how we live.
Astaire’s character, Julian Osborn, was one of the early explorers of the atom. Despite this he couldn’t have foreseen the nuclear disaster featured in the movie, nor the multitude of medical techniques that have subsequently arisen from atomic research.
Likewise early work in electronic communication could not have foreseen a world full of digital natives who have grown up in an age of global connectedness. Without a willingness to take risks there can be no payoff.
Why Silicon Valley worked
Silicon Valley has become the model for getting a bang out of an R&D buck and there has been a frenetic explosion of hubs worldwide touting themselves as the next valley.
Silicon Valley had luck and money on its side, but it also had time. It came from a humble background of military and technology research away from the obsessive drive to create the “right” culture or environment for innovation.
It was allowed to carve its own path. No one really knew where it would end up, but there was desire at that time to invest in something different and see what outcomes could be achieved.
Getting the balance right between investigation and application is crucial; know when to leave ideas to germinate, grow, and evolve, and when to step in and harvest those ideas.
Through public investment in fundamental science governments have played a critical role as a nurturer of ideas. Venture capitalists and industry have then stepped in as mentors in harvesting the products and services of those ideas.
In Silicon Valley both government and industry accepted high levels of risk and a hands-off role, supporting but not stifling innovation. If we mollycoddle budding valleys too much we might miss out on the transformative technology changes that highly collaborative and innovative hubs are capable of delivering.
But it’s hard to find the risk takers.
The experiment elsewhere
As we mentioned in a previous article culture is critical in success, but the right mix of players is important too.
Berlin, for example, is a city known for being avant garde so a burst of start-up activity draws a little attention. Yet those at the centre of it are lamenting the lack of an integrated research leader, such as a leading engineering university.
They also pinpoint a lack of adequate venture capitalism. This was a point brought up by those that commented on our previous article.
An already small pool of risk takers is continuing to shrink in Europe as recently reported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). They suggest venture capitalists are turning to later stage investments that, while having lower potential returns on investment, have lower risk profiles.
Moving across the Atlantic, the billionaire Tony Hsieh is investing in Las Vegas to bring in business to create not just a tech hub, but also to create a community.
So investment in start-ups is there for Las Vegas but what about the creative research agenda? New York’s Silicon Alley will be welcoming a joint venture tech campus between Cornell University and the Israeli Technion in 2017.
To date the Alley has been a contributor to developing existing concepts rather than changing concepts. Will the addition of a research institute be enough to shift the balance?
Might the next Silicon Valley in fact come from a country that is willing to take more risks? China is changing its emphasis to consumer goods and high-tech innovation, and China may benefit from a government not tied to political cycles and that can take bigger gambles.
Two of the world’s top 20 innovation hotpots in information and communications technology (ICT), biotechnology and nanotechnology identified by the OECD in 2013 are in China – Beijing and Guangdong.
In Australia, Sydney has been tipped as a potential Silicon Beach. One of the main obstacles cited by entrepreneurs to achieving this goal is a lack of appetite for risk among both private and public sector investors.
Part of this risk aversion manifests itself in trying to copy a model of success too carefully. Silicon Valley was in the right place at the right time, and, as we said, carved its own path.
A successful Silicon Beach might look, feel and be in different sectors to Silicon Valley.
Should Australia take the time to discover its own particular strengths? What are we comparatively good at that the rest of the world needs?
At present around 75% of Australian start-ups are in information media and telecommunications, but are there opportunities in other industries where we play a more globally leading role?
We can take many lessons from Silicon Valley’s strengths and weaknesses, but in the end we need to be prepared to take the time to explore our own path and gamble on our strengths.
Time to heed the wise words from our scientist Julian Osborn in On The Beach: “The trouble with you is you want a simple answer. There isn’t any.”