Innovation is a concept that most start-ups instinctively want to embrace. But it’s not something that comes naturally to some entrepreneurs and is notoriously hard to measure.
With many sectors of our economy undergoing upheaval, it’s fair to say that innovation is increasingly important for companies. But it seems many of us still don’t get it.
After all, recent Australian Bureau of Statistics numbers show a recent drop in innovative activity in our businesses, down to 39% in 2010-11 with, perhaps counter intuitively, large businesses out-innovating smaller ones.
A separate study, undertaken by University of Sydney Business School, found that more needed to be done to foster innovation in Australia, which was currently at risk from being swamped by the mining boom.
According to report author Catherine Welch, the three-year study, which followed 25 start-ups from idea to commercialisation stage, shows: “Innovation is not just a single discovery. It’s usually a chain of discoveries that happen over time. What you need more than anything is a degree of continuity.”
So which Australian start-ups are doing best when it comes to embracing what former Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull recently called “creative destruction”?
BRW has just released its list of the 30 most innovative companies in Australia, as judged by the magazine and ‘innovation workshop’ provider Inventium.
ClickView, an educational video streaming service, came top of the pile. The business was lauded for recruiting its sales staff from teachers and librarians and adding value-enhancing features such as ClickView Live, where school events can be streamed live throughout the building, and Exchange, a cloud-based tool that allows more than 2,500 different schools share video content.
Second position was awarded to the Commonwealth Bank, which has instituted an “innovation academy” where employees can register new ideas, along with seed funding for internal ideas deemed to have the most merit.
But what about the best-placed start-ups on the list?
We look at the three leading new enterprises on the BRW countdown to see what they can teach other start-ups when it comes to innovation:
1. Blue Chilli
Sydney-based start-up incubator Blue Chilli, headed by former Navy action man Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin, is refreshingly ambitious.
The venture aims to plough money into 100 start-ups by 2016. A large ramp-up is expected next year, with Blue Chilli currently sitting on 19 investments.
The BRW list ranks Blue Chilli in third, based mainly on its work with one of its first investments, Housl.com, an online and mobile app that allows tenants to apply for rental properties without having to fill out application forms.
The tool allows property applicants to submit their details and pass the ID test once, cutting out the frustrating process that requires agents to sift through hundreds of applications and prospective tenants to make a fresh application each time they want to apply to the same agent.
Eckersley-Maslin says Blue Chilli’s approach is very different to other technology businesses, with the focus on getting the business model right before looking at the technological solution to support it.
“We firstly look at the target market and a strategic marketing plan and only after we’ve done that do we look at the software,” he says.
One of Blue Chilli’s standout innovations is its LongTable incubator, whereby start-ups work around a 25-metre table with a “virtual window” into BlueChilli’s other offices, initially connecting Sydney and Melbourne.
“Every week, we have mentoring and events and random sessions designed to provoke creative thinking,” says the Blue Chilli CEO.
“For example, every Monday morning we have CEO stand-up, where the CEOs go through their business.”
“They say what their name is, what their business’s name is, what their elevator pitch is, what they did last week, what they’re doing this week, and what they need a hand with.”
According to Eckersley-Maslin, the goal of this exercise is to create a “micro economy”, whereby the start-ups can utilise each other’s services. It’s also designed to motivate people.
“It’s very difficult to admit to people they didn’t do anything. By pledging a commitment to do something next week, you’re telling 30 people, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” he says.
2. Planet Innovation
Launched in 2009, Planet Innovation’s core competency, as its name suggests, is innovative thinking.
The business says it provides “technology development and commercialisation services to its clients while also developing its own products in the biomedical and clean tech sectors.”
Ranked eighth in the BRW list, Planet Innovation’s previous brush with fame came via the creation of an innovative solar air heating system – SolaMate, which won the HIA Green Smart Product of the Year in 2009 and was also an episode winner on the ABC’s New Inventors show.
SolaMate is a simple-looking sheet of plastic that allows heat to pass through it before trapping it in a honeycomb-like section that “harvests” the heat continually, meaning that energy is retained even on cloudy days.
It can also cool down a house by drawing in cooler air at night time, allowing households to reduce their reliance on air conditioners throughout the day.
Company director Sam Lanyon told BRW that Planet Innovation also created an internal think tank called the Eureka Program which gave staff $500,000 in seed money to develop their best ideas.
The result of this competition was a remote control, accessed via smartphone, that is compatible with the mechanical and technical instruments encountered throughout the day, from opening the gartage door to reading the electricity meter.
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