Innovation and how a corporate can support this
Working at Telstra, I get to see a lot of innovation, where people have great technology and great ideas but they struggle to get these to market. So I decided to formalise a process where we could work with the best innovations we could find and help these get to market and strengthen the engagement we have with the R&D community in Australia.
In undertaking this process it made me rethink on what is innovation, and how can a corporate best do R&D engagement.
First, on what is innovation. For something to be innovative it’s got to be novel, it’s got to be difficult to reproduce and it’s got to make a real difference to peoples lives, it can’t just be some theoretical construct sitting in a lab somewhere.
R&D is a key part to creating intellectual property, and I think Australians are generally very good at that; we get very good research outcomes. Where traditionally Australians struggle is to turn research into viable commercial entities, where it can create value and provide a benefit to the community.
Secondly, how can a corporate make a difference to R&D? I’ve always had a view that to do R&D engagement well, you must do two things. You must have a fair and reasonable process to select the best people to work with. The other is that you don’t want to de-risk the researcher. So, rather than finding a few established projects to sponsor, I have created a different model.
To establish a fair and reasonable process I said let’s give everyone a chance who wants to, to pitch to us. We said give us an abstract of what you’re trying to do and why it’s relevant to our industry (and we were very non-specific there). The projects either had to be able to be enhanced by telecommunications or be able to enhance telecommunications. The relevancy was the key, as this is where we will be able to make a difference to the projects and support them.
When seeking projects, we didn’t want to constrain it to things we knew about, nor did we specifically need to know how we could make money out of it – we were primarily interested in things that would be in the national good.
We ended up with 220 abstracts from a disparate set of organisations ranging from individuals, to established companies, to start-up companies, to universities, to research groups and to multi-national companies.
We selected 20 of them to give us a 15 minute elevator pitch to a panel of key figures from across all areas of the Telstra business. This panel selected the five which we thought were the most promising and where we could add the most value.
We are now going to work with these projects – acting as a catalyst – so they can get the ideas to market. Telstra working as a catalyst is key. If the projects aren’t viable we really couldn’t help anyhow. But if they have good ideas and are viable and need help to cross the chasm into the commercial realm, this is where as a corporate we can make a difference. There are lots of ways we can help. We’ve got technical, marketing and products experts, we’ve got network platforms and infrastructure, we can open doors to our strategic partners and customers, etc.
We are not financing these projects. We’ve been very careful not to kill these projects with arguments over intellectual property. I’ve said from the outset that Telstra is not going to interfere with your IP or market plans in any way unless you ask us for help. The only thing we ask in return is that when you do go to market you give us the opportunity to be there with you.
There are two things in it for Telstra. We do hope some of these things will give us new business opportunities, but that wasn’t the key selection criteria. It’s important to remind the Australian community that it’s Telstra that puts the innovation and technological leadership into the industry and that without us life would be very different.
I’m really pleased with the five projects we have chosen. They represent the range of things you can both do with telecommunications and the things you can do to telecommunications. They also show how a corporate can work with the research community to make a real and lasting difference.