UNSW in Silicon Valley

By Chris Styles  Thursday, 7 July 2016  Features

Last week the first UNSW Entrepreneurs and Innovation Summit took place in San Francisco. It not only highlighted the success of UNSW alumni but demonstrated the power of the UNSW ecosystem.

CEO insights

Westfield co-CEO (BCom) Peter Lowy kicked off the event with insights into how Westfield is reinventing itself and retailing globally. Former CEO and current start-up advisor Bob Mansfield (BCom) interviewed Resmed's founder Peter Farrell (DSc; Business School Advisory Board member), and CEO Mick Farrell (BE). Mitch Davis (BCom) told the 100+ audience about his experience as Founder and CEO of Massive Incorporated, which revolutionised the video game industry and was eventually acquired by Microsoft. Tesla Director Robyn Denholm (MCom) interviewed Scott Farquhar (BSc), co-Founder and co-CEO of Atlassian. And former Microsoft executive, founder of Air Tree Ventures and Business School Advisory Board member, Daniel Petre (BSc), gave a frank assessment of the state of Australia's start-up and innovation landscape.

Australia's got talent

Amongst the key themes were: Australia's got talent; there is no point in trying to re-create Silicon Valley in Australia (and we don't need to); and UNSW's entrepreneurial DNA has created huge value.

The talent was not only on show but shared valuable insights into what it takes to succeed in the global entrepreneurial world. They reinforced the essence of entrepreneurship – the ability to see opportunities others don't, create opportunities that would not exist but for the entrepreneur's creativity and foresight, and the perseverance and tenacity to make things happen.

While huge amounts of value has been created in Silicon Valley over the years, the fixation to replicate the Valley in Sydney Harbour is flawed. In strategy we know that by its very nature, true competitive advantage can't be copied. Unique combinations of assets and capabilities, and "path dependency" – a unique history – create unique advantage. Nonetheless, there is much to be learned about the key ingredients: strong universities pursuing basic research, an ecosystem in which business, universities and government work closely together, and an entrepreneurial, can-do mind set. Australia, and Sydney, has the essence of all three, but there was a view that there is still a way to go.

Investing in future economic prosperity

We have great Universities but the funding environment in which allocating resources to research is too often seen as a burden on budgets rather than an investment in future economic prosperity, is constraining progress. The recent funding of quantum computing, presented at the Summit by UNSW researcher Michelle Simmons, is a welcome exception. Elements of the ecosystem exist and connections are made, but the level of interaction between business and universities is nowhere near the extent it is in the US, Europe and Asia. And while Australian culture is pragmatic and action oriented, fear of "failure", rather than emphasising learning from experience, frames risk tasking. The feeling from Summit participants was that huge progress has been made over the past 10 years, but there is still substantial opportunity to be realised.

And let's not forget the opportunity to leverage our proximity and connections to Asia, which was also highlighted during the event.

Finally, it was clear that great Universities, like UNSW, with entrepreneurship and innovation in their DNA, can make a huge difference to individuals' lives, as well as economic and social prosperity more generally. At the Business School we say that, "good minds ask why, but great minds ask why not?" There were over 100 people in San Francisco who had built careers by asking "why not?", and are still doing so. The Business School has 14,500 students who are also asking the question. Whether it's in Silicon Valley or Quantum Harbour, they will have huge impact.


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