Wyatt Roy made two important phone calls on the day he found out he was to be the youngest federal frontbencher ever.
The first was to Labor MPs Ed Husic and Terri Butler, in an effort to clearly signal an immediate intent to collaborate with all sides of politics and achieve the bipartisanship the startup community is pining for.
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“We’re keen to work with the other side,” Roy tells StartupSmart.
The other phone call the Liberal MP made on that Sunday afternoon was to BlueChilli CEO Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin to discuss the current state of Australia’s startup ecosystem and how to better engage the community.
Eckersley-Maslin seems buoyed by the conversation and the new direction of the government.
“Combined with Labor’s budget response and key members like Ed Husic, we finally have bipartisan support for an innovation-driven Australia,” he says.
“The line to Canberra is open”
From Malcolm Turnbull’s very first speech as Australia’s new Prime Minister, the intent was clear to place innovation and startups at the forefront of discussions and politics.
The reshuffle that appointed Roy as the new assistant minister for innovation was dubbed a “cabinet for the future”, and Turnbull’s rhetoric has centred on startup buzzwords like “agility”, “disruption” and new technologies.
The startup community has reacted overwhelmingly positively to this new direction. Some have lauded Turnbull’s ascension to the top job as the “best day Australian startups have seen in years”, while SquarePeg Capital co-founder Paul Basset says we now have a “once in a generation opportunity” to further innovation.
Praise has also been heaped on Roy himself, with prominent investor and entrepreneur Steve Baxter saying he is already acting as an “important bridge” between the startup community and the federal government.
“He’s one of the few federal politicians who has spent real time amongst the startup community,” Baxter says.
But Roy, who has fast become the political figurehead for the startup community across Australia, isn’t feeling the pressure of these heightened expectations.
“MPs always expect that pressure,” he says.
“What is very important is that we use this exciting opportunity to clearly get the message out there about how Australia can be a hub of global entrepreneurialism.”
Speaking to StartupSmart following his first day in parliament as a frontbencher, Roy says the rejigged government is off to a “flying start” and he can already see a “clear change”.
While the startup community as a whole has embraced the government’s newfound focus, actually living up to these lofty expectations and delivering on the potential in terms of policies and actions is another matter.
The best way to ensure the government lives up to its rhetoric is to facilitate direct and regular collaboration with those in the industry, Roy says.
“It’s not going to be the government dictating policy. It’s not heavy-handed government that makes Australia more entrepreneurial,” he says.
“We are going to set up a policy framework so that our startup community can thrive, prosper and grow. It’s important we bring the startup community into the policy-making space, and that’s a very clear intention for myself in this role, and the government.
“The line to Canberra is very open.”
Changing the entrepreneurial culture
Echoing Turnbull’s comments in his acceptance speech, Roy says the first step in developing the startup ecosystem needs to be changing the culture surrounding it.
“One of the first things the PM spoke about was a need to change Australian culture – in government, in business and in the media,” he says.
“There’s a need to be embracing that entrepreneurial spirit and rejecting that tall poppy syndrome. Instead of going to the mines to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, people need to think they can start their own business.”
The government’s clear focus on innovation and entrepreneurialism has already seen a slight cultural shift, with numerous founders and investors gaining a mainstream stage to present the struggles that they face.
“One of the things I’ve really been excited about is that a lot of great entrepreneurs have had a very big platform in the mainstream media,” Roy says.
“There are now going to be dinner table conversations about how Australia can be more innovative and support entrepreneurs. That’s a conversation we need to be having.”
In terms of actual, clear policies, it is still “very early days”.
“There is a whole range of settings and incentives we can put into place to grow the ecosystem,” Roy says.
“We need greater co-operation between government, higher education and the private sector around commercialisation.”
Bringing the expats home
Roy has already signalled one of his most important personal projects: bringing back the “Australian mafia”, the successful entrepreneurs that have relocated overseas.
“The first thing is to pick up the phone,” Roy says.
“It’s very important that expat Aussie entrepreneurs know that in Australia we are very determined to make this a hub of global entrepreneurialism and innovation.
“The government is very determined to ensure we have the best ecosystem in the world.”
Roy, who has previously travelled to Silicon Valley, Israel and the UK, says there are a lot of things that need to change to ensure Australia competes in a tough international environment.
“It’s a global race to be at the head of the innovation wave,” he says.
“We are competing against every other country, and we will do whatever we can to put ourselves at the front of the pack.
“Everyone wants to live in Australia. We need to nail getting the ecosystem right.”
A cross-portfolio challenge
Under the federal governments, startup policy has often been in limbo. No single minister had responsibility, with startups falling under the small business, industry and communication portfolios. Roy is making it clear that things are going to change.
“Startups and small businesses are different things,” he says.
“The PM has been saying in his last few days about supporting startups, and that’s a very clear use of language.”
Startups, by their very nature, fall under the auspices of different ministries.
Roy says he’s already spoken to Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Robb and new Minister for Small Business Kelly O’Dwyer, not to mention his new boss, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne.
“I’ve spoken to Christopher more times than I’ve spoken to my girlfriend,” Roy says of the past week.
“There’s the ability to work across portfolios to drive the innovation agenda. Nobody is leading this as hard as the PM. He’s completely and utterly committed.”
Roy has already found himself having to explain what ‘innovation’ actually is and how it can be nurtured, pointing to a piece of advice he received from a successful entrepreneur in Boston.
“He said if you have money, ideas and talent and put them together, an entrepreneurial spirit will take hold,” Roy says.
“And he’s right.”
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