Western Australian tech experts are calling for more government investment as the state seeks to shift away from the resource sector

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Known as a mining state, Western Australia has long relied on its natural resources for the prosperous situation it finds itself in.

Financial figures released last month showed the state’s budget surplus revised upwards to $6 billion.

But what will Western Australia do when the rocks run out?

The McGowan government has long talked about the need to diversify Western Australia’s economy and wants to do so through science, innovation and technology, among other things.

While the state is known for maintaining its place on the world stage when it comes to developing innovations in medical research, its record in developing new industries through innovation is not as impressive.

Glenn Butcher is a retired tech executive who has held senior positions at several large technology companies including Atlassian and Amazon.

He is passionate about helping the next generation of tech entrepreneurs achieve their ambitions.

“When I was leaving [Western Australia]there wasn’t really anything here,” said Mr. Butcher

Glenn Butcher is calling on the state government to make “bold and bold” decisions about technological innovation in Western Australia.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

“And in the last decade or so we’ve really changed, and we now have the beginnings of a thriving ecosystem for generating … new startups [and] new, innovative companies in all kinds of fields.”

He says that while the government has done a lot to help with the transition, it still has more to do.

“Some numbers [the government] have actually shown that they have a fivefold return. For every dollar they put in, the state got $5 back, so it was tremendously valuable for the state government to do that,” Mr. Butcher said.

Calls for more investment

“But [the money they’ve spent] really not enough to really change the situation. With other states in Australia pouring hundreds of millions or billions of dollars into the sector, we really need to catch up, if not outperform, what those other states are doing.

Stephen Dawson only took over the innovation and ICT portfolio in December 2021.

He is also Minister for Medical Research and together with Deputy Prime Minister Roger Cook, Secretary of State for Labor and Trade, the two are responsible for driving innovation and commercialization in Western Australia.

A half-length view of WA's Environment Secretary Stephen Dawson speaking at a media conference.
Stephen Dawson defended the government’s record investment in technology. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Mr Dawson says the Government is committed to creating an ecosystem locally for the sector to “thrive and thrive”, citing the New Industries Fund, the Industry Attraction Fund and the Future Health Research and Innovation Fund as examples the state’s commitment to this goal.

The total money pool for these funds is $260 million.

In contrast, the Government of Victoria has committed $2 billion to innovation through its Breakthrough Victoria Fund and the Government of Queensland has committed $750 million through its Advance Queensland Initiative.

Mr Dawson says the McGowan Government is doing things differently in Western Australia.

“We’re trying to spread our money as widely as possible to create more opportunities across the sector,” he said.

WA Premier Mark McGowan
Mark McGowan’s administration rides wave of $6 billion surplus (ABC News: James Carmody)

“So, with Collie, for example, we made the decision to move away from coal. And so there is a significant investment – about $3.8 billion 3 [that] will invest in renewable energy technology and a new operation in this area. That’s significant.

“That’s more than any other state or territory in the country.

“In addition, of course, we spend money on health innovations, medical research and the establishment of new industries here.

“So overall, if you add up all these buckets of money, it’s several billion dollars. And we … compare well to other states on that score.”

Queensland also has a Chief Entrepreneur who is the flag bearer for innovation and entrepreneurship in the state.

Minister says Government is considering doing so for Western Australia.

“It has been raised with me by the industry over the past few months. We’re working on how it could work in Western Australia,” said Mr Dawson.

“We have a senior scientist in Western Australia – Professor Peter Klinken AC – who is doing a great job of ensuring that science is at the forefront of government decisions.

“So I would want to figure out how a chief contractor might work with the chief scientist.”

prevent brain drain

There are many stories of Western Australian start-ups that have left the state simply because there wasn’t the support to thrive here. The most famous departure is Canva, the now multi-billion dollar graphic design company.

Lucy Cooke dreams that SpaceDraft – the software planning tool she developed – will achieve the same success.

A woman is looking seriously at the camera while a computer programmer is working in the background.
Lucy Cooke would like to keep her business in Perth but is considering moving abroad where she feels businesses like hers are better supported.(ABC News: Samia O’Keefe)

The 34-year-old employs 10 full-time staff from her office in the Netherlands and wants to stay in Perth but is considering moving to Singapore where she says more support is on offer.

“Unless we get more support in Western Australia, we have no choice,” Ms Cooke said.

“I’ve worked too hard, the team has worked too hard to get to this point.

“The product deserves the greatest chance of success.”

“So if we don’t get that kind of funding on the ground from the government and that … confirmation of ‘Yes, we’re proud that you’re here,’ then we have to go somewhere else where we’re going to get that kind of support. “

Ms Cooke said she applied for about 15 grants to help develop her business but only received one of $25,000.

A man and woman talk at a table while a computer programmer works in the background
Lucy Cooke at work with a SpaceDraft team member in her office in Nedlands. (ABC News: Samia O’Keefe)

“We have about 17 interns that come through SpaceDraft from all over the world,” she said.

“We work with a lot of neurodiverse students who come here and have found their world in game design.

“So it would be great for [the government] knowing how much we are trying to give back to the community here in Western Australia in terms of technology and in the startup ecosystem and yes we are just not getting the support I was hoping for given the money I was able to raise and of the jobs I could create.”

The lure of funding triggers movements

Glenn Butcher says it’s a known scenario.

“I know of several startups that have moved interstate based on signals that the other states have given,” he said.

“So the other states, like Victoria, have said they’re going to allocate a certain amount of money to ‘X’.

“Whether they actually got access to the capital or not doesn’t matter. They moved because they thought they could.”

“So if we can send the same signal here in Western Australia, we have an opportunity to keep these companies here… and maybe even attract companies from elsewhere to Western Australia.”

Mr Dawson has invited any business facing roadblocks to contact him directly.

“I want companies to have a choice. They can choose to stay in Western Australia and not be forced to go elsewhere,” the minister said.

A man sits in front of several computer screens and programs.
Western Australian tech startup SpaceDraft is considering a move to Singapore. (ABC News: Samia O’Keefe)

“Some companies are choosing to go to the US because they want to make it big and I can’t help that, but certainly for those who want to stay in Western Australia, who have family roots here you know how well this is. I want them to have every opportunity to stay here.”

The government might be the biggest supporter

He says the government is in talks with venture capital funds to facilitate this.

“I think things like that [private sector funding] change the rules of the game and make the difference between someone staying here and someone leaving,” said Mr Dawson.

While that’s music to Mr Butcher’s ears, he says it’s the West Australian government that has the chance to be the biggest game-changer of all.

“I think we have such an opportunity with all the changes in the world. We have so many benefits arising from COVID,” Mr Butcher said.

“We have so many advantages as a state. It would be an incredible shame if we didn’t seize this opportunity [that] We must be bold and bold now and make a real difference for ourselves and our children who are growing up here in Western Australia.

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