The Innovation Nation: Aussie innovators and entrepreneurs are creating the future

Macworld Australia Staff
5 January, 2016
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Innovation – it’s a word that conjures up myriad images of cool products, disruptive companies and flamboyant personalities who inspire us to ‘think different’ as Apple used to say.

The reality is far different. The perceived overnight success of companies like our own Cochlear with its bionic ear, or Uber and Airbnb with what they’ve done for travel and accommodation, or Elon Musk’s Tesla for the use of renewable energy, comes from many years of hard work and even failure.

What many companies call innovation is often little more than incremental improvement on something we already have. Although Apple’s original iPhone was certainly an innovation – a marked leap from other products of its ilk – subsequent versions have taken what the original iPhone delivered and built on it. That’s not to say the most recent iPhone isn’t far superior to the first one, but if you look at each iteration of the iPhone, you can see that it incrementally improves on the one before.

Gideon Kowadlo, a director and co-founder of local app development company Outware Mobile, says, “Innovation is such a catch-all phrase. It’s made up of so many sub areas. From being creative and innovative with your application, you can address whole new segments of the market and companies can reach their customers in ways they couldn’t in the past.”

One of the things that is clear about innovation is the connection with disruption. When a truly innovative product, app or service is released, it fundamentally changes everyone’s perceptions. And, in many cases, it alters market structures.

The app economy that was created when Apple launched the App Store for the iPhone completely changed the way software was developed and delivered. It was a huge innovation. In the past, apps for mobile devices were sold through multiple marketplaces or directly to devices. Prices were generally higher and there was little quality control.

Today, apps are easily loaded, low cost and easily managed. And the pool of developers creating software has greatly expanded.

Innovation goes beyond apps. And Australia leads the world in many fields. It may be hard to believe, but Wi-Fi is a local invention, created by scientists from CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation). It’s fair to say there has been some dispute over the years about CSIRO’s involvement in the invention of Wi-Fi, but the fact remains that the organisation has received close to half a billion dollars in settlements when it has defended its patents in US courts.

Sun protection by coral

Australian innovation extends into just about every field you can imagine. For example, scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) were the first to discover that Great Barrier Reef coral had its own natural sun screening ability.

Local aromatherapy company Larissa Bright Australia teamed up with AIMS to convert this natural method of coping with exposure to the intensive UV (ultraviolet) rays from Queensland’s sunshine into a safe and effective sunscreen for human use.

Supported through a Department of Industry grant program, AIMS and Larissa Bright spent two years adapting the complex molecular make-up of the coral’s natural sunscreen filter and modifying it to create a single molecule that is resistant to both UVA and UVB.

The new UV filters are clear and colourless, so they can be used in any cream emulsion and are expected to be available to consumers across the globe within five years.

Getting social

There are about 13.5 million Facebook accounts and over 2.7 million Twitter accounts in Australia. And for many companies, the insight that can be gleaned about customers from that data is marketing gold. However, monitoring and analysing that data requires a massive effort. But, as Tony Stark says in the most recent Avengers movie, searching for a needle in a haystack is easy if you have a magnet.

Researchers from CSIRO have developed a suite of tools that act as magnets for extracting those needles. And those tools have been used to create some interesting apps.

Governments can use Vizie to track what is happening on social media in order to respond to customer queries and concerns in real time.

Vizie uses natural language processing and text analysis algorithms to group content by topic. This gives social media managers immediate insight into the major issues that they can expect to deal with on any given day. From there, they’re able to drill down to channels and individual posts for more information, such as individual posts. This allows them to respond to queries, combat potentially misleading rumours, and track trends with very little manual processing.

Although the initial applications of Vizie are focused on government agencies, there are obviously broader commercial applications that CSIRO is looking at as it seeks to commercialise the application.

It’s not all about tracking the needs of clients though. Social media monitoring can be used to better channel efforts for healthcare.

Many public health programs use statistics that are up to five years old. And that data represents mere snapshots of a particular time and place. In contrast, there are thousands of updates on social media every second.

Amazon Web Services and CSIRO have partnered up to develop a web-based tool for the Black Dog Institute, called We Feel. The service aims to find out if social media can accurately map our emotions.

We Feel uses natural language analysis to review about 27 million tweets each day. Users are allowed to visually explore emotions on a minute-by-minute time scale that goes back days or weeks.

Importantly, the program doesn’t only tell us how we are feeling, but also allows users to map those feelings against other variables, such as the weather or the news. It’s also allowing the Black Dog Institute to evaluate the efficacy of public health campaigns.

Social media has become, for many people, how they get their news. As traditional news channels such as television and newspapers continue to fall in popularity, more of us get our news via our social feeds.

Emergency Situation Awareness (ESA) software, developed by CSIRO, uses historical word occurrences from past disasters and looks at the statistical incidence of words used on Twitter to describe events.

ESA can reveal emerging topics and flag them for investigation and to quickly alert a user when a disaster is being broadcast. It also stores complete Twitter stream information and allows post-event analyses.

This isn’t just pie in the sky research. Recently, the ESA software was able to give the Queensland Department of Community Safety early warning of a grass fire at Cloncurry in outback Queensland. The early notification gave crisis coordinators time to prepare their response while waiting for official confirmation. This meant the evacuation plan could be prepared providing precious extra time to the emergency management workers on the ground.

Getting and staying healthy

Over the last couple of years, the number of fitness trackers and other health-enhancing devices on the market has exploded. But innovation in health has gone much further.

For example, Telstra’s MyHealthPoint works with a number of measurement devices developed by Entra Health Systems. These include Bluetooth-enabled glucometers, scales, thermometers, blood-pressure monitors and oximeters.

When the devices are used, they automatically connect to customised home routers and send readings automatically to the patient’s doctor.

This means doctors have access to trend information in real-time, so that they can receive alerts when there’s a problem. If a patient with diabetes experiences a slow increase in their blood sugar levels or an acute hypoglycaemic episode, the doctor would be aware before the situation becomes critical.

Similarly, Queensland Health, through the Australian e-Health Research Centre, has undertaken a clinical trial of an online program developed by CSIRO. The Care Assessment Platform, or CAP, brings the rehabilitation for cardiac patients directly to the patient’s home.

For cardiac patients, participation in, adherence to and completion of rehabilitation programs has been greatly enhanced. CAP doesn’t replace standard rehabilitation programs. Rather, it offers a more flexible option for eligible patients and greatly minimises reliance on health centre visits.

Even hospital waiting times, something governments of all persuasions have struggled with, can be impacted by the application of technology.

Researchers have found, contrary to what most people believe, emergency patient volumes are predictable and the number of admissions per day can be accurately forecast. Two tools – the Patient Admission and Prediction Tool and the Demand Prediction Analysis Tool – are being used in Queensland and Victoria respectively to make predictions about the spread of diseases such as influenza and better manage hospital facilities.

The tools use historical data to predict patient load, their medical urgency and speciality, and how many will be admitted and discharged. This extends to reducing ‘bed block’ in emergency departments to minimising waiting time for elective surgery.

Solving energy challenges

When the Tesla was first released in 2008, it was something of a novelty, but with predicted sales of around 40,000 vehicles per year, 10,000 employees and over US$3 billion in revenues, Elon Musk’s baby is growing quickly.

However, while the Tesla cars have shaken up the automotive industry, it’s the recently announced Tesla battery system that has the potential to change how we all use energy.

The Tesla Powerwall comes in 7kWh (kilowatts per hour) and 10kWh models priced at US$3000 and US$3500 respectively. Multiple Powerwalls can be installed together to create higher capacities. Those prices don’t include installation.

One of the challenges many renewable energy systems, such as solar, face is that their energy production is ‘lumpy’. That is, there are times when energy production is higher than at other times. The Powerwall will allow you to store the excess energy that’s produced, rather than selling it into the grid. The battery system will also allow you to be immune from short blackouts.

Another part of the energy puzzle could be solved by the Solar Generation Forecasting project being run by NICTA (National Information and Communications Technology Australia). It’s using sensor data from solar panels on residential houses across Canberra to predict future energy production. Data loggers are being installed on residential solar systems and cameras are being used on the top of buildings to capture information about cloudbursts. This is because weather satellite images are not sufficient to predict solar energy output to the grid at a suburb or even finer local level.

The data that is collected is entered into powerful machine learning algorithms that predict the energy output from solar panels across Canberra. This will assist grid operators to put measures in place to control fluctuations on the grid as solar panel uptake increases.

Innovations such as these have the capacity to completely change the dynamics of our power production and use.

From idea to market

The world is full of people with good ideas. But how do you make the leap from idea to successful business?

Australian entrepreneur, Jonathan Zuvela had an idea for a new style of headphones. While Bluetooth headphones aren’t new, it is innovative to have a set of earphones where the left and right sides aren’t connected to each other. The Nextear wireless earphones resemble a set of earplugs.

Lithgow, New South Wales-based Zuvela launched a campaign on crowd-funding site Indiegogo with a goal of raising US$20,000. At the halfway mark of the campaign, Zuvela has raised over six times his goal.

The Nextear earphones pair with your mobile device via Bluetooth. They pair as one device and then they communicate with each other through Bluetooth to give stereo sound. You can also just use one earbud at a time, while the other one charges. The Nextear earphones even have 16GB of integrated flash memory so you can listen to your tunes in places you don’t want to take your phone.

The hackathon cauldron

If necessity is the mother of invention, hackathons are the birthing suite. By throwing talented people together with limited time, good ideas and a steady supply of coffee and pizza, hackathons create a vibrant creative environment where problems can be solved.

GovHack is a national competition that brings people from government, industry, academia and the general public together. Their goal is to mash up, reuse and remix government data in innovative ways.

During the most recent GovHack, participants were given 36 hours over a weekend to find an innovative way to use government data in a manner that benefits the community. That time isn’t just about coming up with an idea. They needed to present the idea, deliver a solution and create the marketing collateral, including pitching the idea for approval, developing the application and producing a promotional video – all within the 36-hour window.

Ravi Nichani from NEC Australia led a team with members from PricewaterhouseCoopers and Synergy. They created an application called Sarbii, which is used by people embarking on potentially risky activities to notify family and friends, and potentially authorities, of their movements. The team won the Western Australia state prize of ‘WA Government Prize for Bigger Picture Thinking’ and a national award at GovHack.

“We did some investigation and found that in WA, when you go on a fishing trip you use a VMR (volunteer marine rescue) radio on the boat to notify the authorities. Those people work in the daytime, from six or seven in the morning until five in the evening. Every time you notify them, they put it down on paper – they track everything on paper,” explains Nichani.

While this works during daylight hours, if someone wants to go on a late night trip, there’s no way to let authorities know. So Nichani and his team created an app for iOS and Android devices and a web browser that leverages social identities, so travellers can use their Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn identity.

By eliminating the need for another username or password, they simplified the user experience.

“We wanted to make it simple for the users,” says Nichani. “They can check in, using a Facebook-like process. You tell the application your starting location, destination and when you’ll be back. You can tell the application what transport you’re using, whether it’s a four-wheel drive or a boat. There’s lots of information you can provide.”

When the planned return time passes, the user is prompted to either check out, telling everyone they have returned safely, or they can extend the trip. That way, if they’re running late, family, friends and authorities know that there’s no reason to worry. Also, by using GPS (global positioning system), the traveller’s location is sent to a backend service every 10 minutes or so. In the event that someone goes missing, there’s a way of knowing where they should be.

Adopting a similar philosophy, the aforementioned local development firm Outware Mobile ran a mobile health hackathon in May 2015. The developers that attended vied for six different awards.

The Flare Diary won the HISA & Dragon Claw Challenge award. This pain management and monitoring app uses the Apple Watch and an iPhone to prompt users throughout the day to register their pain scale. The data is used to create graphs to track severity and mood. The app also triggers alerts to visit a medical professional when particular time or severity thresholds are breached.

The winner of the Most Innovative award went to Schmooze. This iOS app engages users in a conversation using artificial intelligence to lighten the mood. It simulates a friend to talk to, and helps users work through their problems and emotions. It’s like a Turing Test in your pocket.

Uplift won the Popular Choice. This is an iOS game and Facebook community that teaches young people to use a scientifically proven breathing exercise to reduce and manage stress.

The innovation secret sauce

So – how does someone become innovative? Is there a secret formula? Or is it a process that anyone can follow?

One thing that’s clear from our observations is that many businesses say that they’re innovative. But the reality is that they are often doing the same things they’ve always done, but with some fancier marketing.

A recent research report by McKinsey and Company says, “Innovation is difficult for well-established companies. By and large, they are better executors than innovators, and most succeed less through game-changing creativity than by optimising their existing businesses.”

The research identified eight key attributes in innovative companies.

  • Does your company regard innovation-led growth as critical?
  • Is there investment in a coherent portfolio of initiatives that are given a reasonable chance of success?
  • Can you develop and launch innovations faster than your competition?
  • Do you create new business models that you can defend in the marketplace and that scale?
  • Do you have differentiated business, market and technology insights?
  • When a new innovation is launched, is it done in a place and at a scale that gives it a fair opportunity to flourish?
  • Do you use external networks to your advantage?
  • And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, are people motivated, rewarded and organised to innovate repeatedly?

It’s that last point that we see as most important.

Innovation involves risk. In order to differentiate yourself from competitors, you can’t do the same things they do. That may mean taking a chance that puts not only time and money at risk, but also your company’s reputation.

Arguably, Silicon Valley is the capital of the world when it comes to innovation. Venture capitalists and angel investors are always on the lookout for ‘the next big thing’.

Many fledging businesses, powered through their first few years on the blood, sweat and tears of founders, receive massive injections of capital only to fail when their idea doesn’t scale or someone else beats them to the punch.

What’s interesting is that many so-called overnight success stories come after years of failures and heartache.

The secret, many say, is to fail fast. If an idea, no matter how good it seems, doesn’t work out, then it should be abandoned. Rather than continuing to throw good money and effort at the idea, it’s better to learn from the experience and move on.

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