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Clever country ‘lacks money-making smarts’

Not quite there: John Conomos says Australia needs to do more to ensure our clever ideas become a commercial reality.

John Conomos: Australia is a powerhouse of innovation but lacks entrepreneurs

3 Jun 2013

AUSTRALIA may be a powerhouse of automotive design and development, but lacks the ability to commercialise its ideas, says industry leader John Conomos.

Speaking after his return from the US, where he led a trade mission to Detroit in his role as a federal government-appointed automotive ambassador, Mr Conomos said Australia should try to emulate more successful overseas business models, such as in Israel.

“As a basis for an industry, we are a powerhouse, but the entrepreneur level is missing between the research institutions and the potential customers,” he told an annual networking dinner hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers – Australasia last week.

“We are good innovators, good inventors, but our skill lacks in taking it from the institutions or knowledge makers into the entrepreneurial sphere of commercialisation.”

Both the components industry and innovators were partly to blame for the inability to make money off innovation.

“The educational institutions, universities, CSIRO: these very fine establishments will brilliant professors and engineers have all the requisite knowledge and capability but are unable to translate it into reality to the extent they should.

“I’m not blaming the professors at all, because they are brilliant. I’m just suggesting that there has got to be a link between the invention and commercialisation.”

Mr Conomos conceded that the Co-operative Research Centre for Advanced Automotive Technology (AutoCRC) had chalked up some commercialisation wins, but pointed out that it was limited by funds and a fixed term of operation.

“What we need is an ongoing free enterprise structure that does the same thing. It goes and penetrates the universities and the capable component suppliers and helps them commercialise.

“We need to be another Israel. Those guys have got the spirit of entrepreneurship down pat. My understanding is that the majority of new listings on the New York Stock Exchange are Israel-based.

“I have spoken to probably 100 companies with good ideas but they are unable to bring them to fruition. So where is the missing link? “It’s the entrepreneurs. We have to bring the labour and the capital together, that’s the job of an entrepreneur. That’s lacking.

“The world is looking for innovation. We’ve got it. It’s there, but we don’t know how to extract it, or mine it, or harvest it to the extent we should. That’s the missing link.”

Mr Conomos said the trade mission he led to Detroit had gone “very well”, apart from the fact that Ford announced it would cease manufacturing in 2016 the day before the mission was to meet with the car-maker’s US-based executives.

“That was not something we relished, but it had to happen, and we were able to have a very fruitful conversation with the Ford guys.

“They understood, and were very compassionate, and they were very regretful about the decision they had made, but pledged to work hard with the federal and state governments in order to smooth the process over the next three years,” Mr Conomos said.

Mr Conomos said there was a lot of interest in a new collision avoidance system based on vehicle communications. He said the system promised to be one-third the cost of current systems.

In addition, the CSIRO has come up with a new approach to aluminium casting which promised to cut the weight of engine blocks and other lightweight components.

“It’s not theory  it’s prototype-proven,” he said.

He also said a company in Adelaide was promoting its expertise in magnesium casting, based on work done by the CSIRO.

“It offers low cost and reduced levels of environmental impact if it is used to transfer aluminium production into magnesium production,” Mr Conomos said.

“Magnesium offers significant weight reduction: wheels, unsprung weight, suspension beams, any component. It’s being tried in many parts of the world.

“There is a company in Adelaide, which has been helped to commercialisation by CSIRO. It’s very advanced.”

Mr Conomos said he was about to lead another trade mission, leaving on June 11.

This will be an “Asian super mission” organised by the Victorian government. More than 300 people will travel to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

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