While  Australian software darlings Atlassian, Culture Amp and Canva continue to capture headlines, there remains a common misconception that Australia shies away from hardware startups and advanced manufacturing. This couldn’t be further from the truth, writes Mike Zimmerman.

At present, exports from engineering enabled industries (excluding mining) total $92bn or 29% of total exports in Australia; we have five academic institutions ranked in the top 50 in the world for engineering and technology; and 2.61 million Australians work in engineering and engineering-enabled industries — around 22% of the job market. From LiDAR to robotics and satellite technology, Australia has a multitude of companies operating on a global scale and exporting our hardware innovations to the world.

The Australian advantage

As we continue to manage the challenges of the pandemic, Australia has the opportunity to leverage existing strengths to enable the growth of world-leading engineering-enabled solutions, both for domestic and international markets.

Historically, Australia has maintained a global reputation for strength in heavy industries including mining, construction, infrastructure and agriculture. Arguably, our energy and resource sectors have been major drivers of the economy for 30 years, and despite the effects of COVID-19, we have maintained our reputation as a consistent supplier of both. For instance, in the 2018-19 financial year, two-thirds of Australia’s energy production was exported.

Something perhaps less well known is the strength of Australian research institutions and universities across data-driven fields including artificial intelligence (AI), LiDAR, field robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT). These fields present a huge opportunity for us to combine strengths and create the solutions that the world needs, especially today. These solutions fall into three broad categories:

  1. Improved welfare of workers and consumers: Safer operations, improved training, tracking, and traceability.
  2. Efficiency gains: Automation, speed and scale, better forecasting and supply management, and reduced waste.
  3. Growth opportunities: Improved yields, new insights and services, trusted premium goods.

A number of companies from our Main Sequence portfolio are already working with industry and leveraging world-leading IP to drive impact here and around the world.

Not your typical LiDAR company, Baraja is building the future of autonomous vehicles by revolutionising the scanning technology that helps self-driving cars and other vehicles navigate their environment. The company has its own approach to LiDAR, Spectrum-Scan, that builds upon proven photonics and optical technologies from the telecommunications industry to completely rethink environment scanning for autonomous vehicles. Essentially, this approach sets a new benchmark in precision and reliability for autonomous mobility, creating precise images of the world through high-resolution point clouds at 200+ metres range, built to withstand real-world conditions in cars, heavy vehicles and more.

Working to disrupt the IoT space, Myriota provides low-cost, low-power satellite connectivity for IoT sensors across industries including agriculture, mining, defence, logistics and management of vehicles. The company currently has seven mini-satellites in orbit — one of which was launched by SpaceX.

Also a part of the portfolio, Advanced Navigation is building ultra-precise, AI-based navigational technologies and robotics used by multinational companies including NASA, Boeing, and Tesla. Emesent is a world leader in drone autonomy who’s flagship product, Hovermap, combines advanced collision avoidance and autonomous flight technologies to map hazardous and GPS-denied environments.

While a small group of companies are already changing the way we operate our industries, we need to ensure that we are properly leveraging Australia’s inherent strengths by creating more of these companies to ensure we stay at the forefront of global problem solving.

Building the next generation of industry pioneers

Building these companies “takes a village”. These are not mobile applications that a decent coder and a social marketing expert can develop over a weekend and turn into the next TikTok. These are solutions that have tangible value in our physical world and demand collaboration across industry sectors to build. To accelerate solutions there are four key ingredients needed, with each element chosen with precision to maximise the chance of success.

The first is the research. Every problem you want to solve has at least the seed of a solution and it is happening right now in the research labs of the world. Research capability is needed to bring advanced systems and data science platforms to life, as well as to provide access to IP and the equipment and expertise to build trusted prototypes.

The second piece of the pie is industry. Industry expertise bringing needs, trials and validation, and the business case to buy more. This is a company’s secret sauce to getting to market, fast. You need to understand customers and supply chains and be able to deliver the new solution straight to them.

Thirdly (and arguably most importantly), you have the CEO, who brings the vision, passion and resilience necessary for the startup journey to commercialise that IP and bring value to the market. When it comes to finding the best executive leader, the election criteria includes a confidence around uncertainty, some advantage in the industry that this company will rise and the ability to synthesise thousands of idea streams into a path with momentum.

And finally, you have the injection of capital. So — how do you pair all these ingredients for the perfect recipe? This is where the venture science model rears its head. Instead of hearing pitches from founders with an idea, venture science begins by identifying a challenge and global opportunity before assembling the science capability to address it, introducing a pathway to market, and injecting capital to create a brand new company. It’s this model that recently gave life to clean energy storage startup Endua and satellite space startup Quasar.

At Main Sequence, we see ourselves playing a critical role in building more of these pioneering companies, functioning as a matchmaker between problem and opportunity. With deep experience in startup creation, helping set major company milestones, applying pattern recognition to mitigate risk, and of course risk capital.

Now is the time to call the village. Together we can build more companies that harness the forces of entrepreneurship and science to deliver solutions at scale to the planet.

Mike Zimmerman is a Partner at Main Sequence.