The ACT is on a mission to diversify its economy beyond politics and the public sector with sustainability and innovation a major focus.
This year Canberra was ranked third in Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 cities worldwide, branded home to the highest quality of living globally in 2016, and voted the most liveable city in the world by the OECD in 2014. It welcomed almost five million visitors in 2017, who contributed more than $2.26 billion to the local economy. With so much global attention, it’s clear the humble bush capital is well and truly on the map.
In recent years, the ACT government has focused its efforts on boosting innovation, which has seen an influx of accelerator programs and co-working spaces for startups and budding entrepreneurs. The Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN), the city’s biggest startup co-working space, Entry 29, Canberra Business Chamber of Innovation Taskforce and the CSIRO Innovation Fund all play a major role in encouraging innovation and growth across the ACT business ecosystem.
Founded four years ago, CBRIN was created to accelerate innovation and diversify the economy in the region. An initiative of the ACT government and six foundation members — Australian National University, CSIRO, Canberra Institute of Technology, Data 61, University of Canberra. University of New South Wales — CBRIN offers events, workshops, programs and incubators to the startup community. To date, it has had more than 24,000 visitors and helped more than 800 entrepreneurs and SMEs.
The ACT government and the network’s foundation members have committed to the CBRIN for five years, each member contributing $50,000 a year with government financial and other support totalling more than $1 million annually.
ACT Division Council President, Anne-Marie Perret GAICD — chair of Capital Angels, director of Canberra Glassworks, ACT/NSW Rugby and DataPOS Technologies — is an angel investor in startup companies and a mentor in Canberra’s Griffin Accelerator program, which helps empower entrepreneurs to make an impact. As a member of the Canberra Business Chamber Innovation Taskforce, she says innovation in the city’s business community is going from strength to strength.
“The innovation scene in Canberra used to be very siloed,” says Perret. “But the landscape has shifted and that should be no surprise when you consider Canberra has all the ingredients for a strong innovation community, particularly with the CBRIN, accelerator programs, investment from local government and collaboration with academic institutions. Innovation doesn’t happen in isolation, it requires a strategic, cross-sectoral approach.”
While the main nature of AICD’s engagement and skill offering in the Canberra business community is across the government, not-for-profit and public sectors, Perret says the shifting environment opens up new opportunities for the division and its members in the future. She adds that another reason the ACT has been successful in supporting high-growth early stage companies is the closeness of the community. “Mentors, investors and entrepreneurs are extremely generous of their time, expertise and experience and keen to foster the growth of the next generation. They also provide guidance on governance, whether a company should have a board (or advisory board) and necessary skills.”
The ACT is home to a number of global success stories, including computer vision technology company Seeing Machines. Founded in 2000 and listed on the London Stock Exchange in December 2005, Seeing Machines has become a leader in computer vision technologies. Its technology has most recently been used in the driverless Cadillac CT6. Based in the ACT, the company also operates across Europe, North America, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific, and has more than 200 employees. Its clients include Caterpillar, Emirates, General Motors, Bosch, Progress Rail, Coach USA and Transport for London. The firm has seen immense growth over recent years with total revenue from operations reaching in excess of $14m at the half-year ended 31 December 2017 — an increase of 267 per cent for the same period in 2016.
Seeing Machines isn’t the only global success story to come out of the territory, Perret notes, citing global healthcare service provider Aspen Medical, co-founded by Canberra Business Chamber chair Glenn Keys AO MAICD and Dr Andrew Walker; and ASX-listed technology and software company Citadel Group.
“In the past, people made their money in Canberra through property, government, academia and consulting, but now we’re moving to a place where not everybody in the ACT is employed in the public sector,” Perret says.
Creativity at work
In 2016, Zoe Piper GAICD was appointed to the CBRIN board as the foundational member representative for Data61, where she is tasked with driving collaboration across industry, research and government and leads the development of Expert Connect, an open innovation platform.
Piper is also co-owner and director of Ecolour, a manufacturer of environmentally sustainable, non-toxic paint, and founder/director of Ethitrade International, where she’s developed a farm-to-plate, blockchain-based food provenance platform.
She also serves as a mentor for CSIRO’s ON Prime pre-accelerator program and, in 2017, worked with the Office of Innovation and Science Australia to develop the 2030 Strategic Plan to help guide investment in Australia’s innovation, science and research systems. In a 20-year career in the territory, she’s witnessed an evolution in the business community, particularly over the past five years.
“There was traditionally a focus on government, but you now see an interesting mix of innovative companies, world-class research, foreign diplomats and policymakers, helping to uniquely position Canberra at the intersection of policy, practice and research,” she says.
“There is also a rapidly growing startup scene. It’s not uncommon for people to work across multiple different roles, so knowledge flows between the sectors a little more freely here.”
Piper says solving problems and finding better ways to do things have been consistent themes across her career. “If we aren’t evolving and embracing new opportunities for improvement as they emerge, then someone else will. If we create a culture where innovation and sustainability are embraced at all levels, there will be greater opportunity to achieve better social, environmental and economic outcomes. Innovative and sustainable practice are core to ensuring a viable future, at a personal, organisational and global level.”
An active participant in Canberra’s innovation scene and a strong advocate for business sustainability, Ilea Buffier GAICD is deputy chair and non-executive director of Northside Community Service, owner/MD of Ninetwofive Interiors, and a member of the AICD Division Council. Excited about the evolution of the city, she notes a steady increase in the entrepreneurial and innovation space.
The 2004 Telstra ACT Young Business Woman of the Year is also a mentor for social enterprise accelerator The Mill House, whose flagship accelerator program is designed to accelerate the business growth and impact of NFP and for-profit social ventures within the territory.
She carries her passion for innovation and sustainability through to her board role for the NFP Northside Community Service. With 200 staff, Northside delivers a range of community outreach and support services including disability care.
Buffier says the board is currently undergoing a 12-month strategy review with sustainability a key priority. “We are purpose-driven. Our business imperative is to create a fair, vibrant and inclusive community where no-one slips through the cracks. We are aligning our next strategic plan with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — focusing on community, home and quality education — which best align with our values and correlate to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.”
She adds that the emergence of SDGs, among other sustainable models such as Shared Value, B Corp, the UN Global Compact and integrated reporting frameworks, are good for both business and governance.
“Companies that have a strong purpose and values and adopt some of these approaches are more resilient and outperform their competitors. Directors need to be aware that millennials and future generations expect more of business and if they don’t keep up, they will be left behind.”
In 2016 Canberra was named the most sustainable city in Australia by the Sustainable Cities Index. In the same year, the ACT government announced its target of 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020, and established the <2 Degrees Renewable Innovation Hub. Buffier is pleased with the commitment to sustainability.
“There is certainly more interest in sustainable business models across Canberra than ever before,” she says. “I see Canberra as very socially minded with a strong capacity to contribute to innovation, exporting skills and knowledge, and being connected worldwide. This is a positive target for the ACT and its business community.”
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