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Corporate Australia explores new ways to nurture data-based innovation

Australian enterprises are investing in creating the right environment for innovation around data

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW ANZ: CW ANZ: May 2016

The Australian government’s recent commitment to boost innovation is fostering new enthusiasm around data entrepreneurship as demand runs hot for what will be the country’s largest co-working space – nearly a month before it opens.

Built in the resurgent inner-Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, The Commons will offer small-business support services including projectors, conference rooms, 96 shared desks, high-definition projectors, green-screen and recording studios, networking events and mentoring – for flat rates starting at AUD 35 (£17) per month.

Plywood walls, a central garden and expansive use of glass walls are designed to create a 1,600 square metre space where innovation and networking go hand in hand.

This one of many initiatives being launched to breathe new life into Australia’s entrepreneurial community, which was boosted by the federal government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda – a far-reaching strategy putting a AUD 1.1bn investment behind a high-level policy commitment to support innovation.

Helping small companies innovate is already recognised as crucial if small firms are going to be able to keep up with larger rivals and their well-funded R&D budgets. And corporate Australia is keen to help – sponsoring innovation and co-working spaces that combine The Commons-like fit-outs with better visibility to cashed-up investors waiting to spot the next big thing.

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia launched a 690 square metre Innovation Lab in Sydney in 2014 and is extending the idea into a Global Innovation Network with similar sites in Hong Kong and, soon, London.

Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, group executive for institutional banking and markets, said at the launch: “The Lab will allow us to work collaboratively, to quickly incubate ideas and deliver capabilities that will ensure our customers can adapt their business models, seize opportunities and respond to the challenges of a changing landscape.”

That bid paid off, with the Commonwealth Bank reporting that more than 40,000 people have passed through the Sydney Lab. Similar success is expected at the Hong Kong Lab, which, Bayer Rosmarin said, “will allow us to partner with the brightest minds across the city’s accelerator, government, university, startup and fintech communities to further develop creative and innovative solutions for our clients”.

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Other Australian banks have also embraced the innovation community, with the National Australia Bank offering organically themed, collaborative space and an amphitheatre and presentation area that has attracted events such as October’s Melbourne Datathon.

That event saw 150 analytics experts and hobbyists form 21 teams competing to extract the most insight out of a 1GB dataset provided by online betting company BetFair.

“The guys who provided the data were blown away by what could be achieved in a week,” said organiser Phil Brierley, who has seen membership in his Melbourne-based data science meet-up group surge from 250 to more than 2,700 over the past year.

Strong corporate sponsorship reflected not only the recognition that data-science innovators offer new insights into corporate datasets, but also provided a conduit for recruiters keen to identify up-and-coming innovators in the data-science field.

“People are now coming to us because all the sponsors are in it for recruitment purposes,” said Brierley. “They want to get their names out there to say they support analytics, and they recognise that groups like this need to exist as training grounds. So it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Data-science revolution

As elsewhere, businesses in Australia are working to build up the expertise to make the most of the data-science revolution, which requires new thinking around the role of data scientists and is driving firms like Accenture to recruit emerging experts in data processing.

The financial backers of The Commons are among those who recognise the boom market in providing physical spaces to encourage innovation – as well as funding the innovators that use them. Last year, the National Australia Bank set up a AUD 50m innovation fund called NAB Ventures as well as partnering with Sydney-based Fishburners, the country’s most-tenanted co-working space, which is also supported by the likes of Google, PwC, Amazon and News Corporation.

Jonathan Davey, NAB Labs’ executive general partner, said: “We see the digital environment changing significantly, and much of this change is being driven by smaller companies and startups. It is important for NAB to partner with companies that we can learn from, to help us meet evolving business needs and trends. Ultimately, this will help us to deliver better customer experiences.”

Knowledge Hubs initiative

Australian governments are getting in on the act, too. For example, the New South Wales government last year launched its Knowledge Hubs initiative to foster industry-relevant collaboration in sectors such as financial services, medical technology, energy and resources, transport and logistics, and digital design.

A recent review of the Knowledge Hubs’ fourth-quarter activities found a range of activities combining corporate support with industry-focused innovators finding new channels – and new support – for their ideas.

Even the brightest spark can quickly burn out unless it is well nurtured, said Brierley, pointing out that real support can make all the difference as such activities progress to actual going concerns. “It really depends on passionate individuals to run them,” he said. “Otherwise they’re going to just fizzle away.

“You’ve got to have the right reasons for wanting to do it, and you have to be genuinely passionate about the subject. It’s only through talking to other people that you realise what other stuff goes on: you know what you do in your job, but you don’t know what else is possible unless someone shows you.”

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