'Australian mafia', please come home

More than 20,000 Australians have been attracted by Silicon Valley's flourishing technology and innovation culture.
More than 20,000 Australians have been attracted by Silicon Valley's flourishing technology and innovation culture.PHOTO: ST FILE

Canberra trying to win back talent from Silicon Valley amid dearth of tech skills

In Silicon Valley, they are known as the "Australian mafia".

Like many from across the world, these more than 20,000 Australians have been attracted by Silicon Valley's flourishing technology and innovation culture.

Australians have found it particularly easy to adapt to life on California's west coast, which is culturally similar and relatively close to Sydney and Melbourne.

But the exodus in recent years has raised concerns that Australia is losing its talent and has been left with skill shortages in the techno-logy sector.

So Canberra has now decided to try to lure its talented workforce back home. The federal government says it wants the nation to become a "hub of entrepreneurship" and has begun introducing measures to make it easier for investors to back local start-ups.

  • AUSSIE HIGH-FLIERS

  • Australian entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area:

    Anthony Goldbloom: Founder and CEO of Kaggle, which runs predictive modelling competitions to solve data problems.

    Cathy Edwards: Entrepreneur who worked at Apple and co-founded Chomp, an app search engine.

    Danny Kennedy: President and founder of Sungevity, a solar energy firm.

    Ryan Junee: Sold video editing platform Omnisia to Google. Now president of Wearable Intelligence, which develops uses for wearable hardware.

Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne said last week that Australia needed to promote an "ideas boom" and replicate the innovation culture found in places such as Berlin, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley, Singapore and South Korea.

"Australia must make the cultural shift to being a nation that is more inclined to take a chance on its ideas," he said in a statement.

"Australia needs to grasp new ideas in innovation and science, identify and capitalise on new opportunities, and create new sources of growth to secure our nation's future."

The federal government said last week it will spend A$28 million (S$28.2 million) to promote a package of new measures designed to boost innovation and technology skills. The package, to cost A$1.1 billion, includes plans to relax insolvency laws for failed start-ups and create tax incentives for investors backing new technology firms.

The government also wants to create five "landing pads" across the world to help emerging firms in innovation hot spots.

A government source told The Straits Times that two would be in Asia, and Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley have already been named as locations.

The package, unveiled last month by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a former Internet entrepreneur, has largely been welcomed by members of the so-called Australian mafia, who said it could encourage Silicon Valley-based firms to open offices in Australia.

San Francisco-based Australian entrepreneur Ryan Junee said keen competition to hire skilled workers in Silicon Valley increasingly made it "impossible" to find good talent. "I think it's a competitive advantage to hire your engineering team outside of San Francisco and Australia is a good choice to do that, with the only downside being the time zone difference," he told The Australian Financial Review. 

Another Australian entrepreneur Anthony Goldbloom noted Australia had the "raw talent" but its workers were less experienced.

Research released last week by the government showed less than 5 per cent of Australians believe the nation is a global leader in innovation and 64 per cent support efforts to encourage risk-taking. 

Experts largely welcomed the effort to promote local entrepreneurship but said Australia should not try to replicate Silicon Valley. Some said it should focus on its strengths such as mining, medical and agriculture technology.

The director of entrepreneurial programmes at the University of Melbourne's innovation precinct,  Mr Rohan Workman, said it was "unrealistic" to assume Australia could stop the outflow of talent.

"I think the government should actively encourage Australians or other expats who made it overseas to come back... These are people with deep understanding and expertise who can then share that knowledge."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2016, with the headline ''Australian mafia', please come home'. Print Edition | Subscribe