As innovation program Advance Queensland celebrates its fifth birthday in July 2020, the future for the state’s innovators and entrepreneurs is looking bright. That’s in spite of – and sometimes because of – the COVID-19 pandemic.
We spoke with Dr Sarah Pearson, Deputy Director-General Innovation in the Queensland Government, who heads up the $755 million Advance Queensland initiative that has supported over 5700 innovation projects across the state in its five years.
Despite the impacts of COVID-19, Dr Pearson is optimistic about the future and says the pandemic is driving some opportunities.
“There are huge opportunities in Queensland, and now is the time to make the most of them; now is the time to accelerate the growth of high value industry to grow jobs and our economy as we unite and recover from the pandemic,” Dr Pearson says.
“We have all the ingredients here. We need to connect them better, highlight them more, and be proud of Queensland’s achievements. We also need to accelerate some of our actions, for current industries and new industries, as well as for social impact.”
In her eclectic career in the UK and Australia, Dr Pearson has specialised in innovation and entrepreneurship, scientific research, strategy, and managing change. She joined the Queensland Government in January 2020, her first time living and working in the state.
She has published research in particle physics, medical physics, artificial intelligence, innovation, science communication and science policy. Dr Pearson is an author on eight international patents, for cancer diagnosis and novel confectionary.
An advocate for collaborative innovation, women in science and entrepreneurship in Australia and the Indo-Pacific region, Dr Pearson has a particular interest in emerging tech-based industries, and in encouraging young people to study science.
When you came on board with Advance Queensland in late January 2020, were you surprised by any aspects of the Queensland Government’s program to support innovation and entrepreneurship?
I’d already heard a lot about the Advance Queensland program, because the rest of Australia looks with envy at what Queensland is doing – the state has had a good reputation in terms of government support for innovation. What surprised me was the breadth of the Advance Queensland program - from research and development at universities, through to startups, Indigenous endeavours, female innovators, entrepreneur founders and innovators, hubs, precincts, and social entrepreneurship.
Advance Queensland is not just about economic impact. It offers a complete suite of support, and has been based on a holistic vision.
What has surprised you about Queensland’s innovation community?
Several things have surprised me here. I had been involved in building ecosystems across the world, particularly in Australia and the Indo-Pacific region. What I like about Queensland’s innovation ecosystem is you can still get your hands around it, whereas in Sydney and Melbourne it’s difficult to span the ecosystem.
Queensland’s innovation community is collaborative. It’s also open and real, with no pretensions - real people and real businesses, trying to make a difference. That’s something I really love about Queensland, and that stands it in good stead to make real economic and social progress.
The other thing that surprised me was the number of innovative businesses, especially the amount of deep tech manufacturing, and the concentration of the majority of Australia’s AI (artificial intelligence) startups in Queensland. Why do we not know about this? Why are we not singing from the rooftops about these amazing companies here in Queensland? Australia as a whole needs to be better at promoting its achievements, and we’d love to get Queensland’s innovative industry leadership well known.
Where do you think Queensland innovation is heading, and which sector do you see Queensland leading in the future - medical, AI, agtech, robotics, or another area?
Queensland has a range of leadership possibilities. There’s going to be a big push for vaccine manufacture globally. We need to think about how we accelerate our biomedical innovation. The University of Queensland COVID-19 vaccine development gives us a great position in medical innovation. Traditionally, Sydney and Melbourne have been seen as the hubs in that field. The UQ vaccine work places Queensland on the map – as does Brisbane-based biotech company Vaxxas which recently attracted major investment for manufacturing vaccines.
The world is going to struggle with food production. I am a huge fan of biofutures, such as future food - using sugar and yeast as manufacturing plants for fats, flavours and proteins. Queensland has vast access to sugar. We are a natural home to be a biomanufacturing centre - not just for food, but chemicals as well.
Queensland is doing well in space, aerospace and spatial enterprises. There’s lots of opportunity for Queensland in the space field. We are in such a good geography, close to the equator, and next to the ocean. We cover a massive state spatially, with significant economic hubs dispersed broadly – spatial technologies will be key.
In the spatial field, there’s a huge amount of opportunity in IoT (internet of things), in agtech, as well as other platform technologies. Efficiency in agriculture will be important, as well as building an export industry around Agtech products and services. It was great to visit Toowoomba recently and hear about some of the agtech sensor research looking to make pig feeding more efficient, for instance, saving farmers money and building a technology-based solution that can be exported.
Provenance is also important; more and more, people want to understand where food comes from, so improving the food supply chain is vital.
Advanced manufacturing is about to take off in Queensland – through COVID-19, Australia has recognised the need for sovereign capability in our supply chains. This brings huge opportunities for Queensland manufacturing, taking on AI and robotics to help us ensure global competitiveness. We have exciting platform technology in AI and robotics that can fit across so many sectors, fostered at our AI Hub, and that can unlock potential in manufacturing.
And of course there are opportunities in our resource sector, building on decades of global leadership, potential for Queensland to lead on hydrogen supply and innovation in the mining sector.
Is there a person or company you’d like to cite as having future promise?
I’ve mentioned some of the global opportunities such as hydrogen fuel; areas in Australia are fighting to be the centre for hydrogen. Queensland has a great hydrogen industry opportunity in Gladstone, with its LNG pipelines, port, and water.
We have so many inspirational, innovative companies and entrepreneurs.
Go1, based at Logan and providing work-skills courses online, has just signed a big deal with Microsoft, and is about to help regional Queensland access its vast library of tools. It’s the future of education.
Gilmour Space Technologies in south-east Queensland is not thinking small or local – they are so ambitious – their aim is to get to Mars, and they want to work with NASA.
Both Go1 and Gilmour Space have drawn Advance Queensland funding support.
Cherbourg Recycling facility is using AI – it’s great to see remote communities using innovation to support a circular economy. The facility received a Deadliest Startup Change Agent award in 2019 from Queensland’s Chief Entrepreneur, Leanne Kemp.
One of Queensland’s outstanding female innovators is Lisa Siganto of ImpaQt Qld investing. There are big economic and social challenges we need to address. COVID will impact on society for some time; it’s the new normal. What will society and social structures look like, and how will we deliver social outcomes? Social entrepreneurship and social impact investing such as ImpaQt have a big part to play in that.
Describe the Queensland you’d like to see in five to 10 years.
Firstly I would love to see Queensland known as THE place for female founders and innovators in Australia, where they are welcomed and can thrive; where we are super-connected globally with other female founders and innovators so we can learn, support and grow internationally.
Secondly I’d love to see the opportunities we’ve spoken about become a reality – with Queensland well known for its deep tech-based high-growth companies. The state where ecosystems of support are excelling, across the state, and new emerging industries thriving.
And finally, where no one is left behind. Many people are afraid of the future, of new jobs and what they mean. I dream they will see the value of innovation, and that it will be a future they can engage in and their kids can be part of.
Do Queenslanders not see themselves as entrepreneurs or innovators? Is there a perception that other states still see us as lagging behind?
That hasn’t been my experience. Obviously I mix with innovators and entrepreneurs and I’ve been meeting a lot of forward-looking, ambitious, visionary people. There’s a lot of people quietly building really impressive companies. I’d like Queensland to be proud of itself.
How do we use innovation to shape future Queensland? Where can we do better in the future?
We need to rally the troops. Advance Queensland is a great program but it’s not about Advance Queensland and it’s not just about government – it’s about all of us – universities, corporates, SMEs, business support programs, schools, government – all of us coming together around this goal and driving it together. I’m keen to help stimulate hyper-connectivity as much as possible so we can accelerate our growth.
How do you think COVID-19 will affect our innovation future – and what are the positive impacts? What are the opportunities?
COVID-19 has forced us to innovate. So many people are saying they had a plan to take their products and services online over five years; now they’ve done it in five weeks. It’s shown people they can innovate and they can do it fast. Companies, governments, education and services have been forced to innovate. The pandemic has helped people to accept technology as we’ve been forced into working from home. We are all desperate for a vaccine which has made people interested in science.
The pandemic will also force governments to act differently – we won’t have the money we used to have. We need to look at the big missions and challenges to solve, and how we do that collectively.
Lastly, the pandemic has made people more aware of the environment – they’ve realised we only have one planet, we can’t get off it even during a disease, and we had better start looking after it.
With funding pressure on universities and other institutions, how will research and development be impacted over the next few years?
COVID-19 is having a big impact on universities. They’ve had to innovate – they were already wanting to speed up going online with education, and some institutions had only a few weeks to do it.
I’d like to see more collaboration between industry and research. Companies are going to have to innovate because we want sovereign security in supply chains. We will have to transform manufacturing rapidly, and that will take innovation. Consumer spending will change, our needs will change. Marketing will change, as it won’t be easy to travel. Universities and R&D can help with all the changes going on in industry.
Economic growth delivering jobs needs to accelerate, and universities will have a big part to play in building skills and in R&D.
What encouragement would you give a STEM student?
I’ve been committed to science communication for 30 years. Science is the last frontier. If I’d been born 100 years ago, I’d have been an adventurer out to discover Antarctica. The brilliant thing about science is the frontiers you are pushing on - walking into the unknown and discovering things.
I studied physics because it prepared me for so many different jobs, and my very varied career demonstrates that. Science opens so many doors.
Seventy-five percent of high-growth, high-pay jobs need STEM. We need those jobs in Australia, and STEM will drive those. Most of these jobs don’t exist yet so it’s hard to explain to a young person what their future will look like. What we do know is they will be able to build and shape the world and society using STEM. Research is not limited to sitting behind a bench.
There are so many global challenges, such as feeding more and more people with the one planet, providing support for a rapidly ageing population, responding to the growth of cyber attacks, and addressing inequality. Science has a big part to play in solving these. Science can have so much impact. It can change the world. At DFAT for instance we were funding research to eliminate dengue fever. That work has a massive impact on millions and millions of people. Also we worked on data on births and deaths. A billion people around the world don’t have access to a birth certificate. Using that data better will affect health policy. By studying science you have the chance to make a global difference.
What advice would you offer a startup entrepreneur?
Find a need – don’t start with the tech. Work out what people really need help with, and would be prepared to pay for. Use technology. Think global. Remember the triple bottom line – it’s not just about making money. And finally, collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!