Data61 chief sees global R&D opportunity

Data61 brought together the NICTA and the CSIRO’s Digital Productivity team, but the organisation will have an approach distinct from both of its predecessors, says Adrian Turner

Adrian Turner is only six months into his tenure as Data61’s chief executive, and while he says he is still “drinking from a fire hose” it hasn’t stopped the Silicon Valley veteran laying out an ambitious program for the organisation.

The organisation, which is part of the CSIRO, was born out of a fusion of NICTA and the CSIRO’s Digital Productivity group but the approach of Data61 will be distinct from both of its predecessors, the CEO said today.

At the heart of the vision for Data61 is what Turner described as “D61+” — an ecosystem that brings together the capabilities of Data61 with corporates, academia, government and startups.

Turner said the aim is to have .1 per cent of global corporate R&D flowing through this network.

“And when we do, we’ll be 10 times bigger than we are today,” the CEO said. Turner intends for Data61 to be funded 50 per cent by the private sector and 50 per cent by government.

Traditional corporates are being disrupted by the shift to data-driven industries, the CEO said. That shift is estimated to have a $10 to $20 trillion impact on global GDP by 2025, he added.

“The challenge for Australia in this is these new businesses are taking on different economic structures,” the CEO said.

“Now we’re moving to a world where ‘platform economics’ are ruling,” Turner said.

Globally, some $1.6 trillion is spent on R&D, and the corporate R&D model is evolving as incumbents seek to grapple with the emergence of disruptive entrants into the market.

“The challenge for [incumbents] is that they can’t hire the digital and data talent that they really need,” Turner said, with many corporates struggling to compete with firms such as Tesla, Google and SpaceX for skills.

Although most big companies are expecting disruption in their industries, only a minority are prepared to deal with it, he said.

“The problem for these big companies is they’re sitting on a lot of cash, the balance sheets are strong [and] they’re facing this big disruption...

“What we’re going to be doing as Data61 is ... going where the money is allocated. We’re going to go around the world where corporate R&D dollars get allocated and what we’re going to do is convince these companies that Australia is a place where primary R&D can take place.”

“We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the capability to do primary research and development,” Turner said.

Many global companies have a presence in Australia, but the focus is on sales and marketing, the CEO said, contrasting it to the primary R&D conducted in Israel.

Data61 has capabilities that span the “full lifecycle of data,” Turner said.“From data capture through to analysis, through to consumption.”

Data61 is organising across four research groups.

The first is ‘cyberphysical,’ which includes the Internet of Things, robotics and autonomous systems. The second is machine learning and analytics, including cognitive computing and AI. The third is software and computation systems/platforms including security. The final is cognitive, behavioural sciences and behavioural economics — the “people part,” the CEO said

Projects are being aligned to themes such as safety and security, smart cities and health.

The talent and scale embodied in Data61 are “incredible”, Turner said.

The organisation has around 1100 people including students, relationships across 22 universities, state and federal government partners, and a significant number of corporate partners as well, he said. Data61 has close to 200 projects underway, Turner said.

“There’s this enormous critical mass capability by bringing together the CSIRO Digital Productivity team with the NICTA team, and at a time where this talent and these resources are globally scarce,” the CEO said.

“These companies overseas can’t hire the talent we have here inside the organisation and inside the network.”

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