Morrison pledges $2.2 billion to research commercialisation: What’s in it for startups?

Scott Morrison research election

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, on Friday, October 9, 2020. Source: AAP/Mick Tsikas.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is set to announce a $2.2 billion investment into research commercialisation, in a move that could boost the local startup scene.

Speaking at the National Press Club today, Morrison will unveil the new Research Commercialisation Action Plan, aimed at tackling the so-called ‘valley of death’ — that is, where research is not accelerated towards commercialisation because of high risk.

Some $1.6 billion is pegged to a 10-year program called ‘Australia’s Economic Accelerator’.

Not much detail is available on this as of yet, but it is reportedly a three-step program designed to support high-potential projects at the proof-of-concept or proof-of-scale levels, helping bridge the gap to profitability.

“The fund will allow Australian innovators to access funding opportunities for each stage of their project, provided they can continue to prove project viability and commercial potential,” Morrison is expected to say.

“Industry involvement and engagement is required at every stage.”

At stages one and two, projects will compete for funding. The third stage will operate through CSIRO’s venture capital and commercialisation fund Main Sequence, via a new fund “to catalyse venture capital investment in R&D for high-value opportunities to be taken to market”.

Priority investment areas

The new funding also pledges $150 million to expand Main Sequence.

A further $296 million over 10 years is expected to fund 1800 industry-focused PhDs and 800 fellowships. The package also includes $247 million already announced for the Trailblazer Universities program, which partners institutions with industry to work on meeting national priorities in manufacturing.

Morrison is expected to stress that the funding is “not an election promise”, rather that these programs were provided for in December’s mid-year budget.

Some $16 billion was allocated at the time to ‘Decisions Taken but Not Yet Allocated’.

That said, the announcement will come at a time the Prime Minister is desperately in need of some good press.

Polls this week found Morrison’s approval rating was at its lowest level in almost two years. For the first time, the Labor party was ranked as the preferred party to lead the pandemic recovery.

Morrison is expected to say the Research Commercialisation Action Plan will take the government’s existing manufacturing strategy one step further, “by fusing it with greater investment in our world-class university research capabilities”.

The funding will be focused on government priority areas including: resources and critical minerals; food and beverages; medical products; recycling and clean energy; defence; and space.

Main Sequence’s ‘problem first’ model

Without much detail to go on as of yet, it looks like the most beneficial element of the plan for the startup community is the investment in Main Sequence.

Main Sequence was not available for comment, but research commercialisation is firmly in the organisation’s wheelhouse. Part of its purpose is to break down barriers between the science and research happening in Australia’s labs and universities, and commercial success.

Since 2019, the fund has been taking a ‘problem-first’ approach to actively form and fund companies.

For example, it co-founded plant-based protein startup v2food, in partnership with CSIRO and chief executive Nick Hazell, and with backing from Hungry Jack’s boss Jack Cowin.

In April last year, Main Sequence closed its second fund. At the time, partner Mike Zimmerman told SmartCompany that these collaborations would become a priority.

V2food came about through a collaboration between the research industry, the investment fund, the right founder and a strong industry partner, Zimmerman explained. To date, it’s been wildly successful.

Since then, the same model has been used to establish Quasar Satellite Technology, environmental tech startup Samsara, and many more.

“We start with the problem,” Zimmerman said.

“Then Main Sequence will pull together the opportunity, and start the company from scratch with all those elements.”

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