Problem or Potential; Dr Alan Finkel

Posted on: Monday, 18 July 2016 at 6:32:53 PM

Problem or potential:  It’s Always Up For Us To Decide

Report from AICC(WA) Technology Series Event, 14 July 2016.

It was the sense of optimism and a “can do” attitude that was the hallmark of a landmark address by Dr Alan Finkel AO, Australia’s Chief Scientist.  With the topic “fuelled by attitude” Dr Finkel addressed matters including energy generation, as well as the metaphoric scientific and economic energy that will drive Australian innovation forward.

Professor Robyn Owens, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), The University of Western Australia

The evening was hosted by Professor Robyn Owens, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) of UWA, and sponsored by Cisco Systems Australia Pty Ltd alongside other Technology Series sponsors (see below). 

Dr Finkel’s address was preceded by notable presentations about Israel’s innovation economy.  Professor Owens made reference to reciprocal relationships between UWA and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Technion, particularly relating to science and humanities.  UWA fosters partnerships between research and industry both within Australia and globally, and has close ties with its Israeli partners. 

Similarly Mr Gary Hale from Cisco drew on his recent experience as a member of the AICC(WA) Cybersecurity delegation to Israel to emphasise how the tripartisan relationship between industry, Government and academia combine to drive innovation forward.  “The drive for innovation in WA is an opportunity not because of technology, but because of disruption” said Mr Hale, “Due to connectivity, Perth is not isolated anymore.  We showcase the alignment of digital services, the development and running of remote operations, and the ability to service markets globally”.  Cisco is working to foster further collaboration for new industry development and foresees major investment opportunities for Australian service delivery. 


From top:  Mr Gary Hale, Director, Cyber Security & Speciality Projects, Cisco Systems Australia Pty Ltd; Mr Paul Israel, Executive Director, Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce; Professor Peter Leedman, Director, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research

 Mr Paul Israel, CEO of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce based in Tel Aviv, and Professor Peter Leedman, Director Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and forthcoming AICC Medical Research Delegation leader further reinforced the value of the Israel business ecosystem as both a model for Australian economic development and in the context of specific business opportunities that can be sourced through Israeli enterprise.

Dr Finkel commenced as Australia’s Chief Scientist in January 2016.  He is Australia’s eighth Chief Scientist.  Dr Finkel has an extensive science background as an entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist and educator.  Prior to becoming Chief Scientist, he was the Chancellor of Monash University and President of the ATSE-Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (See below for Dr Finkel’s short biography).   


 Dr Alan Finkel AO, Australia’s Chief Scientist

Opening his address, Dr Finkel extended an accolade to Cisco for visibly leading corporate change for innovation in Australia and reinforced the remarkable accomplishments of Israel in the area of technology transfer. He noted that Israel has the highest number of new start-ups in the world with $4.4b worth of start up commercialisation in Israel being recorded in 2015.  Yet Israel’s Chief Scientist has recently still expressed concern that its pool of skilled workers is not sufficient to maintain its current level of start up success.  It may be a problem that Australia would love to have, but nonetheless it shows perspective and the ongoing need to evolve economic reform.

Dr Finkel referenced the additional dimension of identifying and solving problems, as the place where an innovation discussion starts; far before science is engaged.  Citing both the accomplishments and potential within the WA market he urged his audience to be less pessimistic.  WA has opportunity within use of remote locations for energy development, radio data (“where silence is golden)” and associated big data analytics, and agriculture. 


Posing the hypothetical “What would an Israeli innovator consider as opportunities for Western Australia” Dr Finkel posed that “Problem or potential; it is up for us to decide”.  Globally there are issues of providing energy to lift people out of poverty, growing a sustainable environment, and feeding vast population.  He extrapolated on these themes suggesting that if the problems are big, then so must be the appetite for solutions;

  • Our energy markets are still coal generated.  In 2000 25% of global power was coal fired and today the proportion is higher at 29%.  Storage is evolving but the capacity and cost of this limits effective disruption at this point in time.  With natural lithium resources within Australia there is a commercial opportunity. The base price of lithium doubled in 2015.  However Dr Finkel noted that Australia needs to look beyond the primary and natural resource of lithium, and to further utilise this to develop new technology and products which become unicorn investments.  He noted that the Pilbara has already been colloquially dubbed “Tesla’s quarry” and challenged his audience to think broader towards new secondary industry development.
  • Food quality and consumption is a critical area of development and the entire world is getting bigger and hungrier.  For example, China has quadrupled its amount of meat consumption since the 1980’s.  Dr Finkel submitted that intelligent farming and agritech were areas of opportunity and that climate modelling, crop growth and robotics were areas in the value chain that can enhance Australia’s contribution to farming innovation.  “Consumers want to have confidence in the providence of what they are buying and technology innovation can assist to deliver this”.

From L to R - Mr John Cluer, Chief Executive, Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (WA), Professor Peter Leedman, Director, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, Mr Matt Taylor MLA, Member for Bateman, WA Parliament, Professor Lyn Beazley AO, FTSE CIE, Sir Walter Murdoch Distinguished Professor of Science, Murdoch University & Board Member, AICC(WA), Dr Alan Finkel AO, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Elizabeth Finkel, Editor in Chief, Cosmos Magazine, Professor Robyn Owens, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), The University of Western Australia, Mr Gary Hale, Director, Cyber Security & Speciality Projects, Cisco Systems Australia Pty Ltd and Mr Paul Israel, Executive Director, Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce


Addressing the role of the Chief Scientist, Dr Finkel referenced the Federal National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) and its implementation.  With capacity to lead, engage, advise, and facilitate, he is optimistic about the opportunities available, and this positivity was well reflected through each element of his presentation.  However Dr Finkel also cautioned that the same level of funding that Israel and other innovation aspirant economies enjoy is not prevalent within Australia at this time.  Seeing this too as an opportunity, he noted that the public and private sectors need to work in tandem to achieve innovation outcomes.  

Whilst Dr Finkel affectionately expressed envy for his Israeli counterpart who has substantial funds and an established start-up structure within which to operate, he perhaps also unwittingly expressed the vision of Albert Einstein, the preeminent ‘chief scientist’ and near Israeli President, who wrote “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”

Dr Finkel concluded “This is about science, this is about engineering and this is about entrepreneurship, all combining to reach for the future; the vanguard of new industry development.  Australia has a great deal to offer, and we need to make the world well aware of this”.   

Dr Alan Finkel AO, Australia’s Chief Scientist and Professor Robyn Owens, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), The University of Western Australia


Professor Owens facilitated a discussion with the audience, suggesting that the role of Chief Scientist is as much of a role as “Chief Cultural Change Agent”, a notion quickly affirmed by incumbent WA Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken and former WA Chief Scientist and AICC(WA) Board Member Professor Lyn Beazley.  The topic of Australia’s approach and experience with adversity and the impact on Australian resistance was posed, with Dr Finkel responding that Australia has the “opposite of adversity”.  Whilst Israel has to confront hostility, resource limitation and therefore apply unique solutions to existential problems, Australia is a land of relative comfort and opportunity.  This poses a challenge of staying motivated and creating an appetite for innovation.  Good approaches to this entail celebration of success, repositioning the focus of educational systems, and further economic reform.

Early into his tenure as Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Finkel has engaged with Western Australian business and evidenced that he is well attuned to the unique opportunities and economic potential that sits within the State of Western Australia. 

We can anticipate further visits and an active approach from Dr Finkel towards driving the innovation economy as both a timely and necessary opportunity that sits before us.    


Professor Peter Klinken, Chief Scientist of WA, Office of Science, Department of the Premier and Cabinet presenting Dr Alan Finkel AO, Australia’s Chief Scientist with an AICC(WA) special gift certificate acknowledging that a tree has been planted in Israel  in recognition and appreciation of tonight’s keynote address.



 Dr Finkel AO Short Biography

In 1983 Dr Finkel founded Axon Instruments, leading the development of precision scientific instruments used for the discovery of new medicines. Post commercialisation in 2004, he became a director of the acquiring company, NASDAQ-listed Molecular Devices.  In 2006, he returned to Australia to lead the amalgamation that formed the Florey Neuroscience Institutes; he became Chair of the Australian Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and was a director of the ASX-listed diagnostics company Cogstate Limited. He was Executive Chair of the educational software company Stile Education, Chair of Manhattan Investment Group, Chief Technology Officer of Better Place Australia and Chair of Speed panel Australia.

Technology Series Sponsors

The AICC(WA) acknowledges and thanks the Technology Series Sponsors, without whom the important thought leadership associated with this program could not occur.

Naming Rights Sponsor:  Cisco Systems Australia Pty Ltd

Host Sponsor:  UWA - The University of Western Australia

TS Platinum Sponsors: Convergio, Konica Minolta Business Solutions Australia Pty Ltd, Microsoft Australia, Mt Barker Chicken

TS Diamond Sponsors: Australian Venture Consultants, Diversus, Schneider Electric

TS Silver Sponsors: Hazer Group, Market Creations, OzgeneThe University of Western Australia - Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics, Vizstone Pty Ltd, Wrays

Event Supporters: AIIA – Australian Information Industry Association, ATSE - Australian Academy of Technological Sciences




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