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Innovation as a Contact Sport - Geoff Garrett, CSIRO Chief Executive

‘Innovation as a Contact Sport’

Geoff Garrett – Chief Executive – CSIRO


AGA Luncheon 19th November 2009


Today I joined the AGA for a luncheon with Geoff Garrett as the key speaker.


It was an intimate event with about 30 business leaders there to hear his description of why innovation is a contact sport. Geoff summarised the process down to the three C’s.


Though before we get there, it is interesting to note that Geoff, who has a distinguished educational background of honours, also has a sporting history and in earlier years received a ‘Boxing Blue’ – awarded in alumni fights between Cambridge and Oxford.


Geoff then got up to explain in one of his earlier fights he was knocked out in the first 37 seconds and had to explain to his mother he was on a extracurricular excursion for 4 days after waking up in a hospital bed.


Australia is currently in the process of defining our innovation roadmap and Geoff explained that his best definition of innovation – from John Bessant of Imperial College - is ‘Ideas successfully applied’


With the CSIRO currently being in the top 1% of the world’s R&D in 13 research areas, based on their published research outputs, it is still very important to look at the future of how we apply that knowledge to generate jobs and improve quality of life.


Geoff then went on to explain three, people-centred lessons on innovation, based on his experience.


1) Crossing boundaries


Geoff’s background is metallurgy where metalurgical boundaries are very important in understanding how metals and alloys behave.


Over the decades ahead we will see that effectively working across boundaries is also very important, between science and business, but also across disciplinary boundaries particularly with the convergence of technologies such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, etc.


Citing a Boston Consulting Group study of the web based ‘technological marriage brokerage’, innocentive, where technology providers/solvers are put in touch with companies needing solutions, problems are often solved within 4 days.


Most importantly, 80% are solved from outside of the field!


Working across boundaries is therefore important. Examples are numerous and beyond comprehension for many, but Geoff gave some useful illustrations.


He talked about a young CSIRO scientist who worked on space re-entry physics now engaged with catchment hydrology programs: “Same equations – different problem”.


And another who spent many years in drug discovery now working very effectively in photovoltaic renewable energy.


And many more.


X rays are constantly used in transport security to distinguish shape and contrast. Now, neutron measurement is being added to provide composition – with extensive value in defining the location of weapons and drugs. This product is now in active commercialisation with the Chinese company, Nutech.


Mining in Australia has some significant exploration challenges in many areas given our tens of metres of impenetrable crust (the ‘regolith’), problematic for more conventional exploration equipment. Now – through a CRC - botanists are coming to the rescue.


Acacias’ roots act like hydraulic pumps, exploring beneath the crust with roots that bring the nutrients and minerals back to the surface, that get deposited preferentially in the leaves and the bark. Thus botanists, through the study of plants, are showing miners where to explore.


In new biofuels development, chemists are working with entomologists using their knowledge of sophisticated enzyme chemistry, inside the guts of termites, effectively and efficiently breaking down plant matter.


2) Conversion


Many people will remember Bill Murray’s weekend in Tokyo, ‘Lost in Translation’.


The translation and communication aspects of taking science and research through to practical innovation can be a major problem.


When Canberra had serious problems with bushfires, quite a lot of CSIRO’s many years of research in bushfire modelling and prediction was not as effectively employed as it might have been – lost in translation. They have fixed this now.


Innovation – like Rugby – is a contact sport. Many people will remember, in Rugby Union, John Eales’ magnificent last minute conversion from the touchline in the 2000 Bledisloe Cup match with New Zealand. We need ‘conversion’ from the ‘tries’!


The gap between what we know and don’t know is huge – that’s why we do research. However, the gap between what we know and what we effectively use is also huge. Provocatively (to make a point) what would happen if we stopped researching for just a year and spent our time in catch up and making conversions!


‘Impact’, like billiard balls in collision, produces a change in velocity or direction. That’s why CSIRO they’ve been working hard on undertaking programs to speed up the rate of conversion, from ideas to impact.


As an example, CSIRO copped some heat for the release of their Total Wellbeing Diet book with Penguin. However, it has made real impact with over 750,000 copies of the first book sold and over 250,000 copies of Book 2 sold already. Normally, just publishing in an international nutrition research journal might be read by perhaps 200 people.


In this sort of way we can better communicate great research produced over many years to those who can really use the information in a way they can handle it.


Citing an example from his time in South Africa, over a number of years they produced many good papers on safety for gold miners working between 2 and 4 kms beneath the surface. On average several hundred workers were killed each year through rock bursts and rock falls. Relatively unaffected by many years of publishing papers, better ‘conversion’ was needed.


Sending the research teams underground, for extended periods, working closely with the mining teams and leadership, produced much more effective technology take-up, as well as a much better understanding of the research needs. Technology travels on two legs!


3) Collaboration


In Australia, with similar statistics out of the UK, the ABS have indicated that the number of innovating firms connecting with our Universities and agencies like CSIRO is only about 3%. Getting better connections is imperative.


It is also important to recognise that most smart people around don’t work for you, so interfacing and partnering with the best is key.


If the old maxim is ‘publish or perish’, the future is – partner or perish!


Citing author Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s call for more ‘collaboranauts’, innovating firms are moving away from a traditional hierarchical structure to organisations that are more open and slightly chaotic, and partner extensively.


Geoff finished with a quote from the best selling book of Robert Fulghum – ‘All I ever need to know I learnt in kindergarten’.


As kids we are told by teachers, on a visit to the chocolate factory or fire station:

‘Line up and hold hands, stick together – there is a lot of heavy traffic out there’. So too in the frenetic, fast-changing world of business and innovation – there is a lot of heavy traffic out there, and holding hands (with key partners) is critical for survival.


He quoted, in closing, the Italian poet Luciano De Crescenzo: ‘We are all angels with one wing, and we can only fly when we embrace one another’.



This was followed with questions from the audience.


Dealing with the CSIRO administrative hurdles are very difficult to overcome – conversion is difficult?


CRC’s have been important to the CSIRO? Will they continue with importance into the future?


The answers involved the future of simplifying of relationships and having the lawyers very much part of the team, and not on the outside.


Though most significantly Geoff finished answers with the following...


At the end of the day it is about trust.


By way of contrast, Finland with 5.3million people has twice as much R&D as a percentage of their GDP and very successful ‘conversion rates’. As one of his colleagues there quipped, ‘Finland is not a country, it is a club’. In another small country like Australia, we can, similarly, harness these close connections.


Our challenge is to trust more, sometimes we get disappointed, or we make things too complex (e.g. contractually!) – simplicity management is key.


The conversation finished with Peter Roberts from News Limited – giving his experience with the CSIRO during his 30 years as a journalist and editor.


He explained, Australia is not a Germany or Taiwan, the CSIRO is different.

Throughout the 800+ submissions for the innovation review CSIRO was the most mentioned organisation.


Still for many of us we re-call the CSIRO from many years ago as the solution to problems facing our land – like the prickly pear cactus that they help remove, by controlled introduction of a moth.


Since his inception, Geoff has had an extreme influence on CSIRO, as he reduced the authority between silos. For a while he provided endless opportunity for journalism in the breakdown of these silos as he encouraged cross divisional research and collaboration which has been one of the best things CSIRO have accomplished.


Looking forward, it is important to understand that the CSIRO is not going to touch all small and large businesses.


However, the CSIRO will always remain a fountain of information, a touchstone for business and a way to learn where to find out more about how we can improve.








Reader Comments (1)

‘Ideas successfully applied’
A nice way to look at innovation.

Till the idea is applied, it's nothing!
August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPuneet Bhatnagar

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