One of the biggest problems innovators face in this country is getting governments and the private sector to embrace their innovations. It is why so much Australian intellectual capital ends up being owned overseas.
When I co-founded Qlicksmart, a world leader in medical safety device innovation, more than 20 years ago, our biggest problem locally was getting public and private hospitals to embrace our innovations.
Qlicksmart came into being after emergency room colleague Dr Neville Henry AM and I commercialised BladeFLASK, a solution for safe blade removal (one of the major safety concerns of nurses, surgeons and healthcare facilities).
The venture has been a commercial success. It is a common feature in many operating theatres and doctors, dentists and podiatry offices, with 30 per cent of purchases in Australia and the remainder in key export markets including the US and Europe.
But in our early days, on one hand, we had a government department (AusIndustry) investing heavily in R&D but other government departments (such as the Department of Health) not willing to provide the active, structural support needed for hospitals to systematically adopt and use the products of this successful R&D.
This discrepancy made our original, successful investment in R&D feel like a waste of potential. I’m sure many Australian innovators have felt this frustration.
Who benefits from R&D support
With the Federal Budget’s $2 billion R&D tax incentive it’s important to note that R&D investment is not just good for the direct beneficiaries of support, be they manufacturers, farmers or entrepreneurs.
Investing in R&D is also good for the economy, creating jobs throughout the supply chain, and R&D outputs generate valuable tax income for the government – especially when the outputs become commercial products and are exported.
The final step to ensure the above benefits are fully realised is to encourage the sale and use of the products of the R&D.
This requires governments and the private sector to became early adopters of R&D outputs.
Taking this extra step might prevent innovative small businesses going through our initial experience.
We started our business with a much-appreciated grant from the federal government. When we first went overseas to sell our safety devices and generate export income, we would proudly show our products to distributors and their hospital customers.
Then they would ask, “How many Australian customers do you have? Are all your government hospitals using your products?”
Our answers were sheepish at best.
Since those early days we have built solid market share within Australia, however there is still limited local support for new medical devices that do not fit the standard tendering process.
Support for Australian R&D needs to be across multiple levels of government, not just the Department of Innovation and Trade.
This would make the investment in R&D pay off in terms of employment and taxable export income.
We look forward to seeing more targeted commitment by governments to buying and using the results of their own investment in R&D, by start-ups as well as big companies.
We’d also encourage Australians to buy products that have resulted from local R&D.
We are not unlocking the full value potential if we create and innovate products which are then taken to market by multinationals, who make money on the sale of goods developed from Australian R&D.
Dr Michael Sinnott, Co-founder and Managing Director, Qlicksmart