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Megan Sebben believes there is still work to be done in improving access for underrepresented groups

Dr Megan Sebben is the Program Manager at CSIRO’s Kick-Start Program, an initiative designed to help innovative Australian startups and small businesses develop their business and grow by providing funding support and access to CSIRO’s research expertise and capabilities. Megan has extensive experience in environmental research and consulting in both the public and private sectors. 

This is a special episode featuring guest host Alan Jones, an investor and veteran of Australia’s startup ecosystem who has supported Australian startups independently and through BlueChilli, Blackbird Ventures, Pollenizer Ventures and Startmate. In their conversation, Megan and Alan discuss the the types of support the Kick-Start program provides to startups, as well as Megan’s perspective that while progress has been made within Australia’s startup ecosystem to improve access for underrepresented groups such as women and first nation’s peoples, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Resources

CSIRO’s Kick-Start Program: https://www.csiro.au/en/work-with-us/funding-programs/sme/csiro-kick-start/about 

Megan on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/megansebben/ 

Transcript

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.

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Alan Jones: Hi, my name’s Alan Jones, and I’m the guest host for today’s episode of Welcome to Day One. Can you please introduce yourself, Megan?

Megan Sebben: Yes. Hello, my name’s Dr. Megan Sebben. I’m the program manager for CSIRO’s Kick-Start Program.

Alan Jones: Let’s go to where your career first began, because you’re not a software or a hardware engineer, are you? Where did your career first begin?

Megan Sebben: Yeah, so my background is in environmental sciences. I have a PhD in hydrogeology, specifically in groundwater modeling. So I was building computer models of groundwater systems to look at all sorts of environmental, in particular contaminant issues and coastal environments. So I started out my career in academic research and then moved into a consulting role from there. So very much focused on groundwater, environmental ecosystems and those sorts of challenges. So that’s where I started. I then moved into education for a little while. So I first joined CSIRO in 2017 and was one of the program officers for their STEM Professionals in schools program, which I was already a scientist volunteering, and I worked with them for about a year and a half. And that’s this incredible opportunity came up to go back more to the research route and get involved with startups through the CSIRO Kick-Start Program of which I’m now the program manager for.

Alan Jones: I just want to go back to that geo and hydrology background just for a second if we can. How much of that was very complicated mess, and how much of it was putting your muddy boots on again and going out to the field to a marsh or something?

Megan Sebben: So it started out a lot of muddy boots. Actually, I was working on the region near the border of Victoria and South Australia, the Piccaninnie Ponds, which are quite a famous cave diving site actually and there’s a lot of dairy farms in the area and reclaimed land, trying to put it back into its original swamp ecosystem. So I was doing field work out there and what I aimed to do from that was then to model the system. But it turns out that the mathematics and our understanding of building computer models in these really complex geological environments, you’ve got all these caves and car systems and fractures, I was basically trying to solve too many problems at once. So we scaled down and scaled down, and by the time I actually did my… I did my thesis by publication, that the modeling studies I were publishing were 2D models with tiny little fractures, hairline fractures in to understand the impacts of these features on how, let’s say, the contaminants, actually seawater coming in, how that’s then going to spread that through these freshwater ecosystems.

Megan Sebben: As is the case I think in a lot of situations you start out with the big picture, but actually we really needed to narrow down and get to some key understanding on some very small aspects first. But as time has passed, people have taken some of the outcomes of the work I did in that theoretical sense and have gone and actually explored this out in the real world. So maybe a five or 10 year delay on doing the things that I wanted to do in my PhD initially, but it all contributes to our understanding of the science, which is the main thing.

Alan Jones: Perhaps you were a little bit too early to market, as we say in tech startups.

Megan Sebben: Yeah, That’s it. I needed to scale it back a little bit initially.

Alan Jones: I can envision though, a cloud of semi-autonomous drones with sensors there, send them off down into the cave to go and survey the whole thing to the millimeter level. I’m sure that’s coming any day soon. Any day soon. And what led you into the education side of science, Megan?

Megan Sebben: After working, being consulting, consulting probably didn’t really fit for me as a career choice. I was not quite satisfied with the work I was doing. It was quite opportunistic. I was enjoying being part of the program as a volunteer, but then when they were looking for someone to actually help run the program, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore something new and have a go at something else. And the role was across Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. So I was really looking forward to getting to learn more about the education sector, how science is a part of that, how people like myself maybe can help contribute to the type of science education that happens in schools and supporting teachers who are already having to do a monumentous amount of work. I put my hand up for the role and was lucky to get it, and it was a chance to work more in building relationships and it certainly ties into the work I’m doing now, but from a different perspective.

Megan Sebben: So I was helping to build relationships between teachers and schools and scientists, engineers, anyone with a STEM related career. So not necessarily working as a scientist, but certainly lots of careers require knowledge of science, tech engineering, math. So we wanted to connect people working out in industry with teachers to be able to bring some of those contextual aspects into the classroom and quite early on. And so me, in my case, I like to bring that entrepreneurial side of science into the classrooms as well and get this kind of a little pitch event and things like this happening in the classrooms because there’s this other aspect to science and where that leads that’s not necessarily understood or considered in a classroom environment. So that was a really good opportunity to take up and I learned a lot about the relationship building experience from that.

Alan Jones: I was listening to an earlier episode of Welcome to Day One this morning on my run, and the person being interviewed was Matt Barrie, the founder and CEO of freelancer.com. And he was talking about when he went through at school. He literally didn’t know what an engineer was until the final career day before he graduated from high school. And there just happened to be a guy who worked as an engineer coming to the school. And he phrased that the engineer said, what engineers do is they solve problems through applying science. Solving the world’s problems with science. And that set the young Matt Barrie’s brain of fire and he decided that was the career path for him. So I have huge respect for the people who do that as volunteers or professionals. Makes a huge difference.

Megan Sebben: I like that way of thinking because we sometimes see science as being a career or you do science. Actually science is the tool that you use to do things. And usually you start with the… Think about founders. Quite often they’ve had an experience, something happened to someone in their family, they’ve been personally affected by something and then they’re motivated to go and solve this problem. And the tool that allows them to do that is often these science, engineering, mathematics, they feed into that. It’s a toolkit that we have to go and explore things that we care about or that we’re passionate about. You don’t have to be a scientist, you’re going to go and use science.

Alan Jones: Yeah, look, there are other tools. There’s positive visualization, there’s belief in a higher power. But at the end of the day, if you want to make a difference in the 10 year timeframe and not rolling dice science is a good toolkit, isn’t it? Megan, let’s talk about the Kick-Start Program. You’ve been there a little one now. Tell our listeners what is Kick-Start and why is CSIRO doing this in Australia?

Megan Sebben: So the CSIRO Kick-Start Program is a program for innovative Australian startups and small businesses to help them undertake research and development projects that are going to allow them to grow and boost their business. So the idea being you could be a… We’re industry agnostic, so you can be a startup in any sector, any industry, and if you’ve got a particular scientific or technical challenge that’s maybe slowing down your path to market, maybe you don’t have the technical expertise in-house to solve that problem, or it just requires some specialist knowledge, then you could apply to us to undertake a project with CSIRO researchers and then myself or someone in my team would assess the company’s eligibility for the program and then we would try and match them with a research capability in the organization that could deliver that part of the project for them.

Megan Sebben: So if we’ve got somebody that can help them and that they decide to proceed on a project together, then Kick-Start will also co-fund that project. So we provide vouchers up to $50,000 or 50% of the project cost to subsidize the work that CSIRO is delivering for the company. So we help them access CSIRO’s expertise and facilities, but also we’ll provide some funding support to make that more accessible for in particular early stage startups and small businesses. So if we classify that as a company that’s less than three years old, or if they’re more than three years old, their turnover and operating expenses would be less than 1.5 million. So as long as they’re an Australian company and fit into either one of those categories, then they would be eligible. We would just need to try and find a research team that could assist them with this particular challenge that they’re having.

Alan Jones: Okay. Let me just roll that back and summarize, just make sure I understand. So three years or less, $1.5 million turnover or less?

Megan Sebben: So that’s an either or.

Alan Jones: Either or.

Megan Sebben: Yeah.

Alan Jones: Okay. There’s no restriction on having raised capital or having external investors involved?

Megan Sebben: Not a formal requirement other than the company needs to be able to co-fund their 50% of the project and that is a cash contribution, not in kind contribution. So they would need to have some degree of investment in order to be able to support their part of the project.

Alan Jones: Gotcha. So why is CSIRO in the business of helping companies commercialize using science? What’s that about?

Megan Sebben: In particular with the Kick-Start Program, there are some other schemes out there. CSIRO also facilitates the Innovation Connections scheme, which is another dollar match funding program for research and development with the entire public research sector. But the companies need to be at least three years old and turning over more than 1.5 million in order to qualify. So we sort of looked at what other offerings were out there, and when I say we this predates my time with SME Connect, but we really recognize that there are companies that are less than three years old, maybe they’re pre-revenue, but they’re still doing really novel research or working on novel products and ideas. And with that investment that they have would benefit greatly from undertaking a collaboration with a research organization. Kick-Start is a program that then CSIRO created recognizing this gap in the market.

Megan Sebben: So it is a CSIRO exclusive program. The companies do need to work with our researchers, but it also feeds into… Now CSIRO has a broader, it’s called the SME Collaboration Initiative, and that’s really focused on doubling the number of startups and SMEs that work with publicly funded research organizations. So UNIS, CSIRO, et cetera by 2030. So we want to lead ecosystem change by connecting and amplifying the programs that are out there, but also removing barriers to engagement between industry and the public research sector, and understanding the value of those collaborations. So that’s really our motivation for developing or supporting these programs is to make this industry research collaboration more effective, more efficient, and we want to, as I said, double that by 2030.

Alan Jones: That’s awesome. Can you tell us about some of the successes that you’ve had, some of the ventures that you are proudest of having worked with?

Megan Sebben: Yeah, I think working with particularly early companies, it’s hard to measure the impact because that could be very different depending on where the company comes to you and at what stage. The fact that they survived the first three years of business could be the difference that we’ve made potentially. We’ve had some really great stories over the years. It’s hard to pick. So we’ve worked with… We’ve just commenced our 200th project through the Kick-Start Program. So that would be with around 180 or so companies, Australian companies. So that’s quite a few. Now we work across all sort of industries and sectors. So we’ve done… For example, we worked with a company called Australian Plant Proteins. We’ve got a few case studies on our website actually, of some of the companies we’ve worked with. And they developed a protein powder from fiber beans, and they’ve now got a commercial plant in Horsham where they’re manufacturing this product.

Megan Sebben: So it’s really great to be able to help them early on. They’ve obviously gone and done a lot of work since then. Now have this new full facility up and running to produce their product. We’ve worked with companies now that have developed a company called Camp Power who now are retailing on some big online sellers. And yeah, I think we are seeing a lot come through in the medtech and biotech sectors as well. And also food and agriculture, data sciences. Yeah, it’s hard to pick some favorites or some key ones. To see the companies move forward, they often come back and do a second project with us as well. So building that collaboration on a longer ongoing basis as well is a really nice outcome of some of these projects.

Alan Jones: So, in the time you’ve been in the startup ecosystem, what are the changes in that period of time that’ve really stood out for you?

Megan Sebben: So, I would say I’m still fairly new to the startup ecosystem and I’m learning all sorts of things along the way. But for me, I think our area of expertise, I guess is the research and development, and I would have to say in the past couple of years in particular, I was probably somewhat ignorantly expecting our program to maybe slow down because of the effects of COVID, how that affects small business, supply chains, all those sorts of things. But actually the response has been the complete opposite. We’ve been busier than we’ve ever been since the onset of the pandemic, and I think there’s this real understanding now that we need innovation. Innovation is good, it’s important, it’s going to keep us competitive, it’s going to help us solve some of these global challenges. Even if we’re focusing on a local scale, we need to be investing and creating and doing things differently so that we don’t encounter these same problems in the future.

Megan Sebben: And I think there’s been this real willingness to engage in research and development, whether it be to take your initial business or business idea, maybe pivot it in a slightly different direction in response to current events or perhaps the day to day operations of the company was slowed down because of lockdowns and so you’ve actually got time to go and do some R&D or maybe an idea that you’ve had sitting there for a while, but haven’t had the opportunity to explore. I feel like there’s this appetite to collaborate, to work with expertise, to really explore some new and interesting ideas and to actually to innovate.

Alan Jones: Megan, what do you think we as an industry are doing particularly well, unique to Australia or perhaps Australia does better?

Megan Sebben: Unique to Australia? That’s an interesting question for me. I think I don’t have a lot of experience outside of the Australian market, mainly because our focus is purely on working with Australian startups. I think we’ve got some really interesting focus areas. I’m quite excited about the things I see in the food and say plant protein spaces and things like this. These are global challenges that we have the capacity to make a significant impact in. I think there’s interesting ideas and steps coming out in health and mental health as well, particularly, again, acknowledging current events that we know we need to do things differently.

Megan Sebben: And there’s obviously the telehealth, there’s the interest now in psychedelic assisted therapies and these sorts of things, perhaps topics that might have felt a little bit taboo or people didn’t really talk about. People are talking about these things now and there does seem to be a willingness to look outside of standard models and be the first to do something new or to try something new. I think that’s maybe a inherently kind of have a go spirit that we have too. And I think that features in some of the trends or behaviors that we’re starting to see.

Alan Jones: Yeah, I sometimes wonder if there are industries in Australia, particularly the healthcare industry that are very risk averse because there are very few upsides to taking a risk that pays off and there are enormous downsides for taking a risk that doesn’t pay off. Whether you are at the ground level or a health policy leader, still anything that goes wrong, you really get hung, drawn and quartered. But then you throw a global pandemic into the mix and suddenly the baseline level of risk goes from negligible to was always significant risk in the healthcare system right now. So what can we try that might actually bring that down a bit? And I think that’s been an interesting development.

Megan Sebben: Absolutely. And yeah, I think some of the barriers that might have existed previously have been lowered as well. We look at, again, at telehealth for example, that’s something that was made available during the pandemic and it looks like now it’s here to stay and that’s going to make of a significant impact in the lives of a lot of people who maybe struggle to have access to a regular GP and whether it be remote or other reasons. These shifts in things that initially were maybe challenging you’d have to be very committed to want to go down that sort of path to now having more opportunities open up because we know that we need to take new approaches.

Alan Jones: Cool. Megan, do you have an unpopular opinion about the Australian startup industry? Something that most people wouldn’t agree with you about?

Megan Sebben: Oh, an unpopular opinion? I’m not sure if it’s unpopular, but I think really the coming back to the collaboration side of things, that’s something that we need to do better and we should be doing better and we can do better. So that’s the role that we’re trying to play and we believe that there’s appetite there for it. Maybe it’s taken a little bit longer, but I think that we will definitely get there.

Alan Jones: Cool. More collaboration. The people who think that we’re collaborating enough need to dial it up a notch.

Megan Sebben: Yes. I think there’s so much opportunity there and hesitancy, again, barriers to making things simpler, easier, streamlining processes. We can all benefit from working with and sharing expertise and the research sector might not necessarily understand how certain things work in industry or with business and vice versa. So the more that we can understand how each other operates, what the end goals are, those sorts of things, the better those and more effective and efficient those collaborations are going to be. And that’s better for everybody. We’re getting science out there, getting these businesses, the support through expertise, being able to tap into resources that maybe they thought weren’t available to them, but they actually are. A somewhat common comment I get through Kick-Start is that they didn’t necessarily realize that that was a program that CSIRO offered. I think that lends itself to a lot of opportunity that we can take advantage of.

Alan Jones: Cool, cool. That’s a helpful way of approaching that. I like it. You’ve always been a passionate advocate for women in STEM and for building diversity in all industries and society as a whole. How do you think we’ve gone over the past five years and in improving diversity access for women and other underrepresented groups in our industry? Are we making progress?

Megan Sebben: Slowly. I mean, I’m optimistic. I think there’s still a lot of challenge. There’s a lot of barriers, and I can only speak from my personal experience as a woman in the STEM fields and I don’t want to be seen as speaking for any other group and the challenges that they are facing. But I want to acknowledge that and acknowledge that there’s a lot of people that have to work a lot harder than what they probably should have to to get that recognition to have cultural competency and representation and all these sorts of things. So I know there’s a lot of attention, I guess being paid to this. There’s initiatives to try and increase the participation of women and minority groups in STEM. I think these are all really good things. But from a personal perspective, I think a lot of this starts way before we get into a school.

Megan Sebben: It starts way before we get into a university or a job environment. This is culture and conversations that we have in the house. Small children already identify a scientist, for example, as being an older male figure, and we can impact this I think really early on in just the conversations we have, the environments we create in our homes and our communities. I’ve regularly told a story about a toy Barbie doll I had as a child who made comments about maths is too hard, let’s go shopping, and I’m playing with this Barbie doll well and truly before I’ve started school. So there’s this subliminal messaging there from a very early age.

Alan Jones: I’m with Barbie on this one. Can I just say.

Megan Sebben: Yeah. Turns out I quite like maths and I hate shopping, so it didn’t get me in the end. I think that we can do more. But I think it’s a very grassroots, acknowledging that we have a lot to learn, particularly in Australia. Australian indigenous people are the first scientists in this country, and they’ve been living successfully, sustainably, harmoniously in this country for at least 60,000 years. So there are voices there that need to be heard and that we need to learn from. And the sooner that’s acknowledged and we take positive action towards that, then I think we all stand to benefit from that, particularly from the perspective of an environmental scientist, that’s just an absolute given.

Alan Jones: I love that, Megan. Thank you. That’s really good stuff. That’s fantastic. We have just one more question. So Megan, if a new aspiring founder comes to you or somebody who’s just getting started on their journey in startups, given all of your experience in the past, what one piece of advice would you give them that might help increase their chances of success?

Megan Sebben: Do your homework. You might have a fantastic idea, and I’m thinking about a stage that companies might come to us to engage on a building that product or making that idea reality. Do you know the market? Do you know that you have customers? Are people interested in what it is that you are wanting to develop or sell or buy? Who are your competitors? I think having this understanding of what your pathway to market is going to be and understanding that the environment that you’re working is really important. And particularly with very early companies, sometimes when they engage with us, they might not know the answers to those questions yet. And I think that you really need to have an understanding of all of these aspects before taking on a big research and development project. Because if what you’re developing doesn’t have a customer at the end of it, then may be need to reevaluate.

Megan Sebben: So there are things that I would generally look for. And that also comes back to this idea of connection, linking in with people, seeking out advice, talking to others in the ecosystem and community. I think it can be a lonely journey a lot of the time, but there is support out. There are people that will pick up the phone and I think the more that we can connect, collaborate, take advantage of each other’s various skill sets, then the journey I think will be easier. But I hope more enjoyable as well.

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.

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