Innovation lessons from the USA’s best

The American Chamber of Commerce in Australia is holding its inaugural Innovation Mission, exploring some of the reasons behind the USA’s tech business success, next month. 

It’s reasonable to say the word “innovation” has gotten a fair work out this year and – in various discussions, op-eds, hackathons and elsewhere – it’s reasonable to say that this will continue.

In the above situations, references to high technology clusters such as Silicon Valley often feature. Though the likelihood of re-creating a Silicon Valley in Australia is unrealistic, there’s no reason why the Californian tech ecosystem and the United States in general shouldn’t be scrutinised in the hope of a few innovation lessons.

“The US remains the world’s most innovative market [and] we are the American Chamber of Commerce, so it’s a bridge for us to build between Australia and the US,” said Geoff Culbert, President and CEO of GE Australia and New Zealand, of the AmCham’s inaugural “Innovation Mission” to the US west coast next month.

The trip is split between San Diego and Silicon Valley, with the latter a big influence on GE’s operations.
Occasionally referring to itself as a “120-year-old start-up company”, the American industrial conglomerate started to pay careful attention to the tech hub about five years ago, said Culbert. It has also invested around $US 1 billion to open its software centre of excellence in San Ramon – employing around 1,000 software engineers and data scientists – a major move as part of its “Industrial Internet” initiative.

GE has developed its own internal methodology based on the way that Silicon Valley operates. It’s around “failing fast, failing small” and adjusting with agility.
“You’ve got small companies that only have a limited amount of funding, a limited amount of oxygen – they only get to continue in their life if they meet milestones,” Culbert told Manufacturers’ Monthly of the start-up mindset.

“And you also have to constantly recalibrate and co-create with your customer base to make sure what you’re delivering and producing is what the market actually wants. A great saying in Silicon Valley is that ‘the idea that you first came up with is very rarely the idea you end up with.’”

Genuine, early-stage businesses will be featured on the mission, as well as those that are at the extreme other end of the scale, with visits to LinkedIn, Google and Zebra Technologies and others – “the entire spectrum of innovation,” suggested Culbert.
Considering the success of the United States when it comes to industry and university collaboration is also a part of the mission, with visits to University of California, San Diego, and Stanford University during the two legs of the trip.
“I think the synergies between business and academia and also government are indeed, with these different universities, without parallel,” Niels Marquardt, CEO of AmCham Australia, told PACE.

“In San Diego we’re going into a business school in Stanford we’re still working out whether we’re going to go to a medicine or an engineering or business or a combination.”

Though Australia performs strongly in research, it’s frequently pointed out that its record at commercialising this is poor. A report released in March, Innovate and Prosper, placed Australia’s research output per capita ninth out of 30 OECD nations. However, the country’s industry/research sector collaboration came in second-last. There are numerous other studies that have indicated a similar situation.

The need to lift the country’s productivity performance and slow post-mining boom growth in general will ensure that suggestions on how to lift innovation will continue to be thrown about. Its link to productivity is well-known; for example, 2007 research from the Productivity Commission put 65 per cent of economic growth per capita from 1964-65 to 2004-5 down to “improvements in the country’s use of capital and labour, made possible by innovation.”

Whatever the way forward for Australia, AmCham suggests there is plenty to learn for individual businesses and others from American business innovators.
“What is it that allows companies to be consistently more innovative than the competition?” asked

Marquardt, adding that there were many areas that could add to the way a firm encourages its employees to contribute.

“I think that folks will see that there are even organisational reasons – there’s the reporting hierarchy, there’s the way people are seated, it’s the way they eat lunch, it’s the way they share ideas.
“And this is the first time that we’ve done this, but the theory is that everyone is going to come back with some ideas that will make their own operation more innovative.”
AmCham Australia’s Inaugural Innovation Mission takes place November 8-13.


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