Kate Jones explains why the Tech Council of Australia was founded
Kate Jones is the former Minister for Innovation in the Queensland government, and has spent the last 20 years of her life working in politics. Currently she is an executive director with the Tech Council of Australia, as well as working for the tech entrepreneur Bevan Slattery who has built a number of businesses that handle data and telecommunications. In her conversation with Adam, Kate discusses why the Tech Council of Australia was founded, as well as her views on what role government should play within the Australian startup ecosystem.
Kate’s Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Jones
Tech Council of Australia: https://techcouncil.com.au/
Kate on Twitter: https://twitter.com/katejonesqld
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer. And welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organizations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning to tell a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. On the episode today we have…
Kate Jones: Hello, I’m Kate Jones. I’m the former minister of innovation in Queensland. I currently work for tech entrepreneur Bevan Slattery. Particularly on his HyperOne project. Bevan has invested heavily in building infrastructure in relation to building the internet. So companies like Megaport Cloudscene, and I’m also an executive director with the Australian Tech Council.
Adam Spencer: When would you say you first got involved in what we call the startup ecosystem? Or the innovation ecosystem in Australia?
Kate Jones: Well, interestingly, I worked in the BD government. We created the smart state agenda here in Queensland, over 20 years ago now. So in that regard, I kind of had my eyes open to the importance of innovation. But as you know, Adam, 20 years ago, people weren’t talking about startups and entrepreneurship. It was more about translation of research into commercializing ideas in business.
Kate Jones: From my perspective, when I first got involved in the innovation ecosystem or the startup ecosystem, as we know it today in Australia, it was in 2015 when our government, the Palaszczuk government got elected here in Queensland. And we had gone to that election with a very clear program and funding for advanced Queensland that was very much focused on trying to support Queensland entrepreneurs to create startup businesses here in our state. So they weren’t having to move overseas or interstate to get support or to grow their startup.
Adam Spencer: So what year would it be that you saw the startup ecosystem starting to kind of form and grow in Queensland? What were some of the things that were visible to you?
Kate Jones: Yeah, look, well, from my perspective, it really was from that 2015 time onwards. So six years ago now, and at the time I was actually the education minister. So what I was seeing was our investment through advance Queensland was seeing new places and spaces set up across Queensland, where we were trying to create opportunities for young Queenslanders predominantly at the time to kind of see entrepreneurship and starting their own business or their own startup as an option for them post schooling or even during schooling.
Kate Jones: So for me as a minister, what I focused on in that first term as the education minister was working with the Catholic schooling system, private schooling and state schooling to see how we could embed that into our curriculum. So this was introducing more ideas of entrepreneurship into our business curriculum, and also introducing coding and robotic in the Queensland curriculum and fast tracking that into from prep for very little children, so four to five. To start thinking with that mindset into a curriculum. And then in 2017, I became, well, I elected and I asked the premier if I could be the innovation minister, because to me, I could see that there was such a huge pipeline of job opportunities if we create the right settings to support startups, to grow and to thrive here in our state.
Adam Spencer: Aside from that is there anything else? Like why were you so interested in taking on that innovation portfolio? Where do you see the future of innovation for Australia?
Kate Jones: I think it is so critically important to productivity, but also to jobs growth. Not only have I spent the last 20 years of my life working in politics, but I am also someone that’s in a workforce where you could see the skill set that’s required to create jobs. It was changing around me. From a personal note as a mother, but also as an employee, I remember thinking, “Look, there is going to be so much rapid growth in tech companies and in Australia, that if we don’t create the skills and the pathway and the support and the programs for businesses to scale up, to choose to stay in Australia and not have to move into state or overseas for financial support, then we were going to lose jobs from our country.” So from my perspective, that was the main driver for me, is that it was, I see supporting our staff ecosystem as being absolutely critical to Australia’s economic future and security.
Kate Jones: And it’s interesting that now, four years later from that decision, I’m now on the Tech Council of Australia, because we have just released our roadmap for how we want to see the growth of 1 million in tech jobs by 2025. And I don’t think many Australians realize that right now one in every 16 Australian works for a tech company and already we’re injecting more than $167 billion into our economy. That will only grow. We expect that to almost grow by another third in the next 10 years. And when you look at the fastest growing companies in Australia right now, when you look at the size and scale of growth, many of them are tech companies and Australian startups that have started within the last five to six years.
Adam Spencer: That’s amazing. What were the steps leading up to deciding to form the Tech Council of Australia? Why is it so important that we need that body?
Kate Jones: Yeah, it’s a really good point. I think now is the right time too, because as you know is the spinoff of startup Australia. So Alex, who was the CEO there, has really envisaged that now was the time for us as an industry to be taken seriously for the economic contribution we’re making to Australia, now 12% of GDP. To be at the main table with the prime minister, a federal cabinet and the opposition. So it’s a very, apolitical body, but it’s the body where we have some of the largest startup companies that are huge success stories now in Australia, including Atlassian Afterpay, Canva, Culture Amp, Different, and of course the chair is Robyn Denholm, who is the chair of Tesla globally and is based in Sydney.
Kate Jones: So we are talking about major employers, not only in our country, but globally, that were Australian startups that have been able to scale up and are now global leaders in their tech. So the genesis of the Tech Council of Australia was really about acknowledging that this ecosystem had matured enough in our country, that we actually needed a body that was advocating at the highest levels for the right regulatory framework, the right policy settings, to create more opportunities for more startups and that pipeline of growth over the next 10 years to keep those jobs here in Australia and to create opportunities for the next generation.
Adam Spencer: You can speak to this either from a Queensland point of view or a national view with your involvement in the Tech Council, but what are some of the immediate challenges that you perceive?
Kate Jones: Well, I think the one that’s a very familiar theme that we hear from not only members of the Tech Council of Australia, but also across the ecosystem is skills. Ensuring that, as I said earlier, that our education system here domestically provides our young people with the right skills. But also I think we need to break down barriers for a lot of people that don’t come from a tech background, but could be working at a startup that is scaling up.
Kate Jones: So I talk about, for example what we’re seeing right now is from our perspective, there’s more than 60,000 jobs in tech companies that actually need skills. So that could be people that come from a different background. So HR, law, media and comms, finance, those kind of traditional skill sets, but working for a startup that’s scaling up, or a tech business that has taken it to that next level of growth.
Kate Jones: So I think one of the things I hear regularly, and I see it experiencing it here, working at capital B, which represents a number of startups that started here in Australia, that having the right people with the right skills or people that have not worked traditionally in this environment to come in and give this sector a go.
Adam Spencer: Jumping back to the Tech Council for a second and talking about the roadmap, can you go in to a bit more detail? Is there any more that you didn’t cover in terms of what you are hoping and what you guys are hoping the Tech Council will achieve in the next five, 10 years?
Kate Jones: Yeah, look, we really do, as I said,, our immediate goal is to get to 1 million jobs by 2025. But the roadmap we have for that, it sort of covers four themes. What we are really looking at from our members is one, continuing that pipeline of startups in Australia. So making sure we have the regulatory framework and funding and support from all levels of government to continue that pipeline of startup growth.
Kate Jones: Secondly, as I said, the skills piece, making sure that we governments understand the criticality of that skills shortage and look at ways that we can do that. And traditional methods of importing skills and talent, aren’t going to meet the gap that we foresee will happen in the next sort of five to 10 years. Finally, supporting businesses to scale up at the right time. You would’ve seen this in a number of discussions, I’m sure you would’ve had as part of this podcast, is that I think there are still more work we can do to put that support around the different stages of growth of a startup as they go on that trajectory.
Kate Jones: And fourthly, how do we support businesses to kind of stay here in Australia and support them to grow their base and their jobs on our shores? So Australia is more self-sufficient in the tech that we’re enabling across our economy. And finally, I should also say, how do we get non-traditional tech sectors like agriculture, like mining? Which are already going down the pathway of embracing some of the technology that’s coming out of Australian startups. How do we translate those businesses into those more traditional sectors more quickly? Because we think there’s thousands, tens of thousands of jobs that we can immediately create by getting traditional industries to embrace some of the amazing developments we’re seeing in Australian startups.
Adam Spencer: Drawing on your experience as minister for innovation and now your time at Capital B and Tech Council of Australia, what have you seen that maybe separates the Australian startup? Even if not separates, just what do we do really well?
Kate Jones: I think what we do do well, and certainly I was involved, I was very fortunate in my time as innovation minister here in Queensland. Queensland was sort of chosen as one of a handful of locations globally to work with MIT, which is sort of seen as one of the leaders in supporting a startup ecosystem. And I think what we do do well compared to other countries even, is really embracing, trying to support startups in regional parts of our country. Because that’s going to be so critical for us moving forward. And some of the most innovative ideas I ever saw were from farmers that were just out of absolute necessity to support their business would come up with new innovations.
Kate Jones: So I think supporting innovation within regional centers, as opposed to seeing that brain drain to capital cities is something that Australia does look to. Of course, we can do better, but it is just part of who we are.
Kate Jones: And also from talking to entrepreneurs that have worked both here and globally, I think sharing ideas and knowledge is something that we tend to do as Australians because we don’t sort of have that… I would categorize it as dog eat dog world, but I think there is that view that we are in this together. And that collaboration is something that I think we can be proud of. And certainly where we can collaborate across partnerships with startups, big companies, government, and even academia. We know that when you bring those four parties together, then that’s how you create a really good and thriving innovation ecosystem. So where we can use levers to encourage that collaboration, I think is where we can also do better into the future as well.
Adam Spencer: Do you have any unpopular opinions about the startup ecosystem? Just something that you firmly believe.
Kate Jones: Look, I think it’s hard for me because in some ways, I’ve definitely heard many times the trials and tribulations when you talk to a startup business about when they got knocked back a thousand times in the shoe leather they’ve had and the tenaciousness needed to have, and that self belief to survive. When you look at some of the data around the number of startups that actually make it to the next level of funding and support, is tough. So I think where Australia has, I think, lacked in the past is impact investment compared to other countries. But I think we’re rapidly changing that environment.
Kate Jones: So look, I know, as a minister here in Queensland, we sort of recognize a gap that there should be more women in this sector. And we had programs around supporting entrepreneurship for women and also looking at the ecosystem and how we can actually create a safer and more inviting environment for young girls and women to think that they can be an entrepreneur and that they can start up as their own startup is also something I think we are going to have to continue to be activist about and not just think that it will happen naturally. I think sometimes you do actually have to take a quite an interventionist kind of role, if you can, to support that.
Adam Spencer: I want to ask you the advice question, which I ask everybody this. What one piece of advice would you give a new founder?
Kate Jones: Yeah. I know it sounds so almost like cliche, but it’s just believe. Believe. And so when you get knocked back, go back, think about why you got knocked back. Think about what you can do differently. Believe in the core of what your dream is and reshape it. I mean, when I talk to people that have actually made, and I’ve spoken to lots of entrepreneurs in the last six years of my life, they always have that story about when they thought it was all going to come to nothing. When their heart is in their throat and they think all… and the ones that push through, whether it’s Go1, which is a great business, it’s now global, that’s a training online platform.
Kate Jones: When you talk to founders like that, or Bevan Slattery who I work for. They have these stories of when that moment happened at them and they went, “But I know, I believe in my idea, I’m going to take stock. I’m going to reexamine it.” It doesn’t mean blindly continue down the pathway you were. But it does mean believe in that fundamental idea that you have, that you think is globally significant and backing yourself. And I think the other thing I would, I’m only allowed one, but the other thing we really focused on here in Queensland was think global. Like if your business is not globally applicable, then maybe rethink it. I think that’s the other thing. We’ve got to really look at where we can add to the global market. Because that’s how you get the scale.
Adam Spencer: This last question. And now it isn’t really a question it’s just, I want to give you a few minutes, keeping in mind that what we’re trying to do here with this series, is tell the truest, most holistic story of the Australian startup ecosystem. We want academics, founders, investors, policy makers, people from all corners of the community to hear this story. What would you want to tell them?
Kate Jones: I think I would be best to talk to other policy people in that context, as opposed to telling a person that’ starting a startup what to do. My advice would be where I’d want to make a contribution is to other policy makers. That government is important. Like totally understand that there is a school of thought about government needs to get out of the way, reduce regulation, reduce red tape, blue tape, green tape, to enable a business to thrive. And that is important.
Kate Jones: But I do think when you’re trying to create an ecosystem, and this is certainly experienced in Queensland, is that when you have investment in people, in skills, in places, where it can fast track innovation, then that actually does matter. And it does make a difference. And when we started our policy setting, advanced Queensland in 2015, startup [Masterhead] Queensland as a [Lagard] state. Injecting a billion dollars, clear pathways of support and dialogue with the sector from government also matters. That’s how you can reduce those barriers. That’s how you can ensure that any funding that the government commits actually goes to programs and support at the time that a startup needs it, not when government thinks that the startup needs it.
Kate Jones: So my advice would be that if we want to continue to see this jobs growth, and I think the potential is huge. If we want to see Australian businesses make it in global marketplaces, then government has a role. I don’t think it should be hands off. I think it should be hands on. But it has to be hands on in the right way. So I don’t think it’s a space where at this stage government should exit the field left. I think that government should absolutely be collaborating with the sector, listening to startups’ journeys, sitting to their advice and experience and using that to support more startups, to thrive here in our country.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.