Home » “Doesn’t come for free”: New TCA CEO on Australia’s tech future

“Doesn’t come for free”: New TCA CEO on Australia’s tech future

“Doesn’t come for free”: New TCA CEO on Australia’s tech future

“Damian, it’s great to have you in the role of chief executive. You’re ex-Afterpay, ex-Uber, ex-Block. You say you’re here to give back. Translation: I’m here because my options are vested.”

These were the words of Paul Fletcher, Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy.

They were met with laughter from the crowd that had gathered in the Mural Hall at Parliament House in early July.

The Minister was speaking at the Tech Council of Australia’s (TCA) yearly Parliamentary Innovative Tech Showcase. Backed by the likes of Google and Microsoft, it heroes some of the best tech startups in Australia.

But this year it also acted as a hard launch for the TCA’s new CEO, Damian Kassabgi.

Minister Fletcher wasn’t wrong when it came to Kassabgi’s laundry list of SaaS pedigree. Though he missed the stint at Google. But that’s only half the story. He also held significant roles in the offices of then-prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

This blend of public and private sector experience places him in a unique position to advocate for tech in Australia’s future landscape.

While Minister Fletcher was simply ribbing Kassabgi, the new CEO agrees with his sentiments around the Australian tech sector making money and how that’s a positive thing.

“I think it’s a really good thing that Australians can participate in that and – not to be facetious about it, and yes I’m an example of it – but there is an equity in having average employees be able to share in the wealth and the growth of an organisation more than just having a base pay,” Kassabgi said in an interview with SmartCompany in our Parliament House office.

Zooming out from employees, Kassabgi also views the tech sector as something that has enabled comparatively new Australian businesses to become major players on the world stage.

“When you think about corporate Australia, most of our big companies are not ones that have successfully launched overseas. They’re very big in the Australian context.

“But one of the big things about the tech sector and of the global nature of innovation – if you create something good and unique, and you’re able to innovate and produce something that consumers like, it doesn’t have to be just for Australia,” Kassabgi said.

The challenge of big tech in Australia

At SXSW Sydney last year, former TCA Kate Pounder discussed how compared to SaaS, Australia has struggled when it comes to scaling up the deep tech capabilities that we have.

Pounder pointed out we have a good research base, high-performing universities and talent. Moreover, we have some great startups operating in the biotech, robotics and space sectors which are seeing increasingly more private investment.

Since then the government has also taken a stronger stance on quantum computing with a $36 million grant program and a $1 billion investment into PsiQuantum alongside the Queensland government — though there continues to be controversy around the latter.

The private sector has also been investing. Last year we saw multiple investments into quantum startups such as $50 million for Silicon Quantum Computing and $25.7 million for Quantum Brilliance. And back in February, Diraq secured $23 million in Series A.

“I think the question for us as a country is: can we scale those companies and those industries to the same degree we’re able to do with software,” Pounder said at the time.

“If you look at just some of those companies, they need physical space [and] a substantial amount of capital to invest in building those sites and getting the specialist equipment.”

Kassabgi believes there is a role for the government when it comes to supporting deep tech, particularly as those kinds of technologies are important to the future of the country.

“At the end of the day, a lot of VCs and private money are thinking about returns in the 5x or 10x,” Kassabgi said.

“But they may be deep tech technologies that are more about the national interest to begin with that are important, but may not flourish for 15 years, that we should be investing in now. Quantum Computing is a very, very good example.”

For Kassabgi, the future of Australia’s tech sector will be a balancing act between the private and public sectors.

“It needs to be a shared approach. This is not just about the private sector investing. The senior government invests a lot of money through the NRF to think about ways to boost innovation in this country,” Kassabgi said.

“There is also an ability for the sector to continually update and educate government. What are the skills and training needed for the future?”

Kassabagi points to the AI jobs report that the TCA released last week, which found the AI sector could have 200,000 jobs by 2030 – but only if we addressed the prevalent skills gap.

“That doesn’t come for free. That comes with re-skilling, that comes with education, that comes with a concerted effort to make sure that our workforce is ready for it,” Kassabgi said.

“It also comes with responsibility to ensure the infrastructure is there for it, including things like data centres, and to make sure that our immigration system is suitable to allow the skills that we need to train locals in relation to what the future looks like as well.”

The need for accessible education

One of the other issues with deep tech is equitable access to education. Many of the pathways are restricted to university and post-graduate education.

But we have seen some progress in this area. In 2023, Q-CTRL partnered with the Quad Investors Network to offer advanced quantum technology training to TAFE students across Australia.

Microsoft also promised part of its $5 million investment into Australian digital infrastructure to launch the Microsoft Datacentre Academy in collaboration with TAFE NSW.

Still, the deep tech skills gap is an issue that’s becoming increasingly important, particularly with the Labor government aiming to hit 1.2 million tech jobs by 2030.

The TCA highlighted the skills gap with AI in particular in its jobs report. So one has to ask what is going to be done to open up alternative pathways – including those looking for a mid-career shift – to tech through the likes of TAFE.

“That is probably the most important and core area that needs focus,” Kassabgi said.

“And there’s organisations like the Institute of Applied Technology, which is supported by Microsoft, which is a good example of an organisation creating courses and education for people that want to upskill on AI. We need more of that.”

According to Kassabgi, that is also what the TCA helps facilitate by having quantum and AI companies involved, as well as working with groups such as the CSIRO.

“[It’s] to ensure that if there is a capacity building or education that’s needed, that we can do that in a way that is industry-focussed, not company-focussed, and in a way that is accessible to government. So if there is a gap, we absolutely there to help fill it,” Kassabgi said.

Kassabgi’s first 100 days and future plans

Kassabgi places some of this responsibility for the growth of the Australian tech sector at his own feet as he steps in to lead the TCA.

“When I started in the industry 14 years ago, Atlassian would have been one of two or three companies worth $100 million that were in the tech space,” Kassabgi said.

“Now they’re a multi-billion dollar organisation and we have 100 companies worth $100 million or more in the tech space waiting to become the next Atlassian or Canva.

“Can we continue to foster that? It will be something that will be judged on.”

Kassabgi goes on to say that it isn’t just about startups making money.

“What are the overall research development investment goals for Australia, not just the private sector, but for the government as well? How much foreign investment would we target? What is our local investment and what is government investment? That is something that I’d like to look at more broadly,” Kassabgi said.

In his first 100 days in the role Kassabgi is making a point of meeting with a large number of companies looking to grow.

“I do have a focus on what I would call scale-ups, or mid-tier organisations. They see a lot of value in the TCA. They’re less established, less about giving back to the community and more about how you scale up and become global,” Kassabgi said.

According to Kassabgi, the questions being asked concern the logistics around launching overseas such as establishing a company abroad, finding VCs that will support you and hiring up.

“They’re the kinds of things that I think I can introduce through my background working globally into the TCA to support these different types of organisations,” Kassabgi said.

Another early focus is developing partnerships with legacy tech companies that are interested in jobs, skills and investment.

“A lot of tech workers in this country sit in major corporations, in older industries, but are doing a lot of investment in engineering and tech and taking a lot of the R&D tax credit,” Kassabgi said.

“I see a role for them to play, not necessarily as members of the TCA, but as partners of the TCA.”

Steering the TCA into the future, Kassabgi doesn’t think that the tech industry and the government need to be at loggerheads with one another — particularly when it comes to new technology sectors such as quantum and AI that require regulation reviews.

“Most of the time, there’s an acceptance that when there is something new, that there should be a new framework around it,” Kassabgi said.

“I think where tech and innovative companies get worried is that old rules applied to a legacy sector, or an industry that already existed, gets automatically put on a new sector.

“It’s not about whether there should be rules or not. It should be a conversation about what is fit for purpose, and how do you create the rules that enable future growth. I think that is kind of one core area I can bring to the table.”

In regards to challenges, Kassabgi wants the national superannuation sector to think about early-stage investment and riskier investment.

“At the moment, our whole superannuation system is predicated on slight growth for retirement, and I can understand those policy segments.

“But when you see that we’ve got one of the biggest national savings, not just per capita, but in the world, and only 1% of that is invested in tech, I think that’s a problem.

“So there is an opportunity for us to unlock more investment in this sector for more growth, more businesses and more education.”

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