CSIRO builds bridge between Australia and the US, innovation and business

Thursday 20 April 2017

Article by Larry Marshall


This is an edited transcript of a speech given by Dr Larry Marshall, Chief Executive, CSIRO, at UCLA to mark 2017 G’Day USA celebrations on 28 January.

Like many of you, I lived in the United States for a very long time, 26 years since 1988. People at Stanford University fundamentally changed my perspective of both science and business – essentially changed the course of my life. It gave me a very simple single purpose: to build a bridge. And I thought it was a bridge between Australia and the US, but it’s a more profound bridge than that. It’s a bridge fundamentally between science, deep tech science innovation, and business. Or how the science touches people’s lives through impact. It also taught me how to navigate across the valley of death, which sits like a yawning chasm under every start‑up. And how to successfully deliver that impact from science to industry, society and the environment.

If you’ve read the hundred-year-old legislation that first led to the creation of CSIRO, it’s little wonder that I was so drawn to lead this great organisation, for that is exactly its purpose. To use science to solve problems to benefit society, industry and the environment.

So six start‑ups, 20 boards and 26 years later, like every good expat I thought it was time to try and take some of what I’d learnt in the US back to Australia and I became the Chief Executive two years ago of the nation’s national science agency.

Today, CSIRO is taking a big step that many Aussie entrepreneurs have taken in the past.  We’re taking our big ideas to our biggest partner, the United States, looking for new partners, new challenges and new growth opportunities.

Science-driven innovation is fundamentally different to other forms of innovation because its entrepreneurial alchemy literally creates value from nothing. It creates a market where a market never could exist for the fundamental breakthrough that enabled it. The internet is a classic example. That capability is what built Silicon Valley through companies like Intel and the semi‑conductor market, which couldn’t have existed without fundamental breakthroughs in quantum physics, solid state materials and electronics. It’s what reinvents the US after every recession. I ran venture backed companies through three recessions and 9/11. The tougher the recession, the stronger the US comes back and it’s always led by a fundamental breakthrough in science that created a whole new market that we couldn’t have imagined without that fundamental breakthrough.

That phenomena of science-driven innovation has built an amazing ecosystem in Silicon Valley, in Los Angeles, in New York, in Boston, in Chicago, across the US that drives this reinvention that’s so critical to our future. That ecosystem surrounds the great universities like this one, like Stanford, like Harvard, like MIT. The existence of that ecosystem means that those universities can focus all of their energy on what they do best, breakthrough science and education, and the wider ecosystem can take the risk to take those wonderful inventions off the lab bench and into the market where they can really have impact.

Now I’m sad to say Australia does not have that ecosystem. We just don’t. But very few countries do. So most of our great inventions deliver value outside of Australia. And we’re happy to share that with the world, but we need the value creation in Australia. If we’re going to grow our share of the funding pie, we need to realise more of that value back home. We don’t have an Intel in Australia. But from my perspective, CSIRO is the closest thing – or could be – to the cornerstone of that ecosystem. So the reason I lead CSIRO is to try to make CSIRO that cornerstone, and working in deep partnership with Australia’s 41 great universities, in order to create value in Australia.

CSIRO invented Aerogard which, if you’re an Aussie, you’re personally very fond of. We also invented soft wear contact lenses, which is why you can keep your contacts in for many days now. We invented woollen suits. We invented the pleats in the woollen trousers. Twenty percent of the cotton, the high end cotton, the top right hand corner of the cotton grown in the United States is Australian cotton bred by CSIRO. We produce new strains every year, which is why cotton still has the top right hand corner despite synthetics. Again, technology, deep technology, science driven innovation, can make markets last for a very, very long time. But despite that history, we can’t rest on our laurels. There’s so much more to do.

A year ago, Australia’s new Prime Minister, Prime Minister Turnbull, published his first major policy, the NISA, or National Innovation and Science Agenda. One of the things he did in that policy was fundamentally expanded the role of CSIRO to become the active agent of translation of Australian innovation to impact. Delivering the value from deep science to innovation that made life better for every Australian and for the world.

So from NISA we created ON, and nearly all Australian universities are part of this program. Part DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], part SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] program, and part I‑Corps [Innovation Corps] if you’re familiar with those programs in the US. ON teaches our scientists how to engage with customers. Teaches them how to build a bridge from their science to the person that can most benefit from that science through a solution. And when you put scientists together with real world customers, amazing things happen. For example, gluten‑free barley for people with Coeliac disease. Believe it or not, we just signed a deal with a major German brewing company to make gluten‑free beer for Germans. Now Australians are proud when they can sell beer to the Germans.

Despite the emphasis on impact, commercialisation and business, we’re also taking serious action on environment. We’ve delivered solar powered air conditioning to the outback. We’ve delivered smart building management systems that are operating in the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and 200 other buildings here in the United States as well as more globally. We’ve integrated solar storage systems to buildings in Australia and in Europe and we’ve delivered solar thermal fuel technology to China. And that’s before I get into all the other work we’ve done around the coal, carbon sequestration and capture. We’re investing in environmental remediation, we’re investing in dealing with the impact of climate change. We’re taking action, we’re taking science from the lab bench to deliver it to outcomes. We’re relevant, we’re here, and we’re here to stay.


CSIRO is a Premium Member of AmCham. Dr Larry Marshall will speak to an AmCham audience in Sydney on Friday 28 April, 12pm – 2pm. There are just a few places still remaining – please click here to register now.


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