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The rise and rise of ‘innovation hubs’

Crikey logo Crikey 14/08/2019 Jennine Khalik
tech startup innovation hub © Provided by Private Media Operations Pty Ltd. tech startup innovation hub Every so often a local, state or federal politician makes a push into the 21st century by announcing an “innovation hub” or fund with the end goal of creating jobs and boosting the economy.

While buzzwords like “innovation” suggest something transformative that adds value — connecting local businesses to something bigger, driving collaborations — the impact that these centres have had (when they manage to take off in the first place) has not been quantifiable at all.

Following news that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has struck a deal with global arms manufacturer BAE Systems to create a research and innovation hub in western Sydney, Crikey takes a look at the initiatives cropping up around Australia — and a few that were quietly swept under the rug.

NSW

Berejiklian signed a memorandum in London this week to strike a deal with BAE Systems to develop a new space and research centre in western Sydney. The idea is to have global firms invest in the area surrounding the new Western Sydney Airport — dubbed the “Western Sydney Aerotropolis”. Details surrounding the deal are scarce. 

The NSW government funds the Sydney Startup Hub, describing it as an “innovation centre that cements the city’s role as Australia’s startup capital” which houses about 2500 workers. It opened in February 2018, with the government subsidising rent to the tune of $35 million over five years. Berejiklian at the time said she envisioned it as “Australia’s version of Silicon Valley”. 

The state government’s focus on western Sydney is strong: it has recently put its weight behind a $280 million Engineering Innovation Hub in Parramatta for students from the University of NSW and Western Sydney University. 

South Australia

Throwing around the word “polis” has been a favourite for politicians proposing centres of innovation. In the 1980s, the Hawke government proposed the creation of The Multifunction Polis in Adelaide — aiming to be a centre of research and manufacturing as well as one of leisure and lifestyle. Funding for the controversial plan was later scrapped by the Keating government in 1996. 

Scott Morrison wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Private Media Operations Pty Ltd. Years later, the state government has used higher education environments as anchors of research and innovation. The Innovation and Collaboration Centre was opened at the University of South Australia in 2015, and in February this year the government funded a second centre at the university’s Whyalla campus, which officially launches later this month. Its website states that it offers space for small to medium-sized enterprises, students and entrepreneurs.

Queensland

Not all hubs are contained in the one physical place — rather, the “hub” is conceptual. Queensland’s Advance Queensland strategy has been pushing along, offering $755 million in grants to startups and businesses this year. Advance Queensland is an update of the state’s “Smart State” strategy over the years. The strategy originally focused more on investing in infrastructure, whereas the shift is now an investment in technology.

The Queensland government announced the Engineering, Construction and Resource Innovation Hub initiative in 2016, but quietly let it go this year. Information about the cancelled program is scant, and it has been removed from government sites. 

Brisbane City Council is leaning into the innovative space as well, having established a $5 million innovation hub called The Capital to connect startups to each other.

Northern Territory

The top end is now home to an innovation hub too. Located in Darwin’s CBD, the Darwin Innovation Hub links Charles Darwin University, AusIndustry and investment group Paspalis. The $23 million funding for the centre came from the Incubator Support initiative under former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Western Australia

Multiple innovation centres have cropped up in Western Australia, created by the state government’s New Industries Fund, which highlights the importance of a “designated hub” to provide focus. The government has committed $6.7 million over four years and since last year has launched four hubs.

Victoria

Three years ago, the Victorian state government created LaunchVic to steer the startup economy. It recently launched the Victorian Innovation Hub in Melbourne to “curate” a “startup ecosystem“.

National

Former PM Julia Gillard announced $22 million in funding for a research and development centre for global computer software giant IBM, partnering with the University of Melbourne. Almost a decade later, IBM is set to invest in a $10 million artificial intelligence lab focusing on health technology.

Gillard’s focus was less on digital tech and more on blue-collar workers, as highlighted by her government’s $1 billion manufacturing taskforce, establishing “precincts” to develop products. Not everybody was happy about it. Universities Australia said they were disappointed that there was little emphasis on research, which would drive innovation. A spokeswoman said the research community represented “little more than as a service provider to the manufacturing industry” in the plan.

Later, Malcolm Turnbull tried to follow suit by announcing an “ideas boom” during his tenure — which did not take off as anticipated. A report by the auditor-general looking into the $1.1 billion innovation plan stated that it lacked evidence to support claims it would grow the economy and was badly designed. The squashing of research and development tax incentives hit startups hard.

Under Scott Morrison there is concern that the government has “abandoned” start-ups, and the $100 million his government has allocated to small-to-medium enterprises has not highlighted start-ups. But there is some hope that it is “start-up policy by stealth“.

Other federally driven innovation strategies include Defence Innovation Hub contracts, which has this year given over $15 million in funding to nine organisations for research and development.

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