Why is it so hard for Australia’s innovators to win acceptance by Defence?

Finding a path out of the economic ashes of the Covid-19 pandemic while addressing growing tensions in our region has forced Australia to reassess its defence objectives and shift its national goal of ‘sovereign capability’ from a catch phrase to a high priority.

There are many innovative thinkers, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and service providers in Australia that are willing to roll up their sleeves and answer the call. But the journey they face in gaining the attention of the defence sector and winning acceptance for their ideas and skills can be long and arduous.

The team at Life h2o Australia, like many entrepreneurs and innovators, has spent countless hours, many sleepless nights and significant capital investment on research and development to bring innovative concepts and new technology to the attention of decision-makers.

Our team has developed patented prototypes that provide portable, efficient and sustainable water in a wide range of applications, and what might be life-and-death situations.

The company’s objectives are to offer essential resources, operational support and sovereign capability to organisations such as the Australian Defence Force, allied forces, the Australian Border Force and emergency services and to provide assistance for humanitarian aid efforts and natural disaster responses in Australia and the Indo-Pacific region.

Our developing suite of military-grade equipment ranges from man-portable trunk units, backpack-sized systems that can be carried by a single soldier to much larger units designed to utilise mechanised transport. This type of equipment does away with the need for the vast amounts of bottled water issued to personnel by the world’s defence forces, with all the plastic waste that entails, while reducing the militaries’ logistic footprint and thus their vulnerability.

Despite having the very best of intentions and often excellent products, start-ups and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) such as ours are confronted with a maze of inconsistent processes and no clear pathway, resulting in a lack of engagement with subject-matter experts. And there seems to be lots of box-ticking by people who look straight past the innovation.

Unlike the large defence ‘primes’, these SMEs are easily pin-balled around the huge and intricate beast that is Australia’s defence establishment.

Unless these smaller companies have the financial ability to stay the course and realise their full potential, the result can often be that innovative and potentially viable technologies go from ‘cutting edge’ to the cutting-room floor, or are backed by overseas investment only to be purchased at a later date by our sovereign entities at a premium cost.

The difficulty in navigating this flawed system can discourage businesses from persevering with their ideas. That will, in turn, stifle creative thinking and halt crucial research and development.

Perhaps the worst outcome from our nation’s point of view is that our home-grown products and services will become commercially accepted offshore, along with the revenue and valuable jobs they generate.

With the system screaming out for change, there are encouraging signs that some government stakeholders are attempting to play matchmaker and foster a positive and sustainable relationship between innovative industry and our defence establishment.

In our company’s case, it’s worth acknowledging, as an example of what can be done, the efforts of DefenceNT, part of the Northern Territory government’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade, to facilitate this process, with encouraging results and measurable success.

While this is a significant step in the right direction by one public organisation, much more effort and a targeted approach are needed across the board so that SMEs with valuable technologies and the ability to become economy-building enterprises don’t continue to slip through the bureaucratic cracks.

In terms of new technology, Australians have a history of punching above their weight, but with our start-ups and recently established SMEs, it’s very much a case of ‘help us, help you’. The time is now to revamp the system, foster the growth of new home-grown innovative technologies, reduce red tape and support our nation’s entrepreneurs and creative thinkers so that they can continue to work tirelessly towards the common goal of economic growth, peace and prosperity.