Australia looks to deepen innovation partnership with China

Austrian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull arrives for the opening ceremony of the G20 Hangzhou Summit in Hangzhou city Source: AAP

China and Australia may have their differences, but encouraging innovation, says Malcolm Turnbull, isn’t one of them.

Deep in the lush mountainous province of Guizhou in southern China sits one of the most impressive astronomical technologies in the world: a single-dish telescope that’s 500 metres wide and designed to discover galaxies far far away – and Australia has a hand in it.

It’s known as the Five hundred metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, project. It's the world's largest radio telescope and has four missions: discover new pulsars (star remnants), examine hydrogen clouds in the milky way, search for new galaxies and last but not least, pick up radio emissions from planets orbiting other stars- including extra-terrestrial activity.

FAST telescope in China
The world's largest radio telescope was built in China with Australian expertise

Despite being made in China it was Aussie expertise that made it possible. Australia’s CSIRO was responsible for constructing FAST’s all-important 19-beam receiver. “The receiver is small enough to fit in one room, but is packed with high technology,” says CSIRO’s Owen Craig.  “It allows you to speed up the mapping of the sky.”

CSIRO says the initiative is a part of long-term collaboration with Chinese scientists in a relationship which has spanned 40 years. And if Malcolm Turnbull has his way, there will be more like it.

Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the Australian press at the 2016 G20
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addressing Australian press at the 2016 G20 in Hangzhou, China
SBS News

Attending the G20 in China the Prime Minister lauded innovation as one of the pillars of Australia’s relationship with China. Speaking to Australian press before the opening of the summit Mr Turnbull said, “China has made innovation its absolute centre going forward, and the centre of its agenda here for the G20. It’s also one of the first big elements of our economic plan.”

With diplomatic formalities now wrapped up, the Prime Minister will spend his last morning in Hangzhou touring Chinese tech giant Alibaba, as well as meeting its founder Jack Ma. There he'll witness the signing of an agreement between Austrade and the e-commerce company.

Also in Hangzhou to attend the G20 is Laurie Pearcey, the executive director of International at the University of NSW (UNSW) who’s been working with China for fifteen years. “What we’re seeing is the G20 mobilising around innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s not only Australia doing this, and that underscores how important it is for Australia to get it right,” says Pearcey.

On the final day of the G20 Pearcey launched a joint venture between UNSW and Chinese manufacturer Hangzhou Cable Co. Ltd. (HCCL) that is expected to deliver more than $100 million to the University over the next 5 years.

The partnership sees UNSW developing prototype power cords using graphene – a more efficient and environmentally-friendly material than the commonly used copper. These would then be manufactured and distributed by HCCL throughout China and the world.

“Here we get to scale up the production and commercialise that technology and sell it on really exciting global markets,” says Pearcey. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is expected to visit the Hangzhou facility on Wednesday.

“As a small country we punch well above our weight when it comes to research and development,” says Pearcey. “But there’s often a gap between theory and application. Through China there’s an opportunity for us to achieve the translational outcomes our economy needs.”

But the relationship runs both ways. China’s aging population means there’s a desperate need for Australian input when it comes areas such as healthcare.   

Canceraid is an app designed to connect and empower those affected by cancer. Sydney-based founder Nikhil Pooviah came up with the idea while working as a radiation oncology doctor. “I realised there’s a deficiency in what we provide to patients, and there wasn’t much in the app market that addressed day to day issues in cancer care.”

Two weeks before this year’s G20 Pooviah participated in an innovation tour to China’s western city of Chengdu. Facilitated by Austrade the focus was on helping Australian firms engage with the Chinese market. 

“The Chinese market is one of the biggest market for our company or any company - purely based on numbers. And users are a lot more tech savvy,” says Pooviah.

He says during the trip he was introduced to investors who were not only especially interested in health, but less afraid of taking risks.

“Australia doesn’t handle innovation that well. Yes there’s an interest, but in terms of what’s actually happening it’s way behind other countries. I don't think there enough resources and tools that Australian start-ups have access to. Chinese incubators provide a lot more.”

But despite the appeal of China’s hungry market Pooviah says he doesn’t want to release Canceraid into its market prematurely. “It can be quite difficult compared to other markets, not just language, but culture. Establishing relationships takes a long time,” says Pooviah.

It’s for this reason that Laurie Pearcey feels Australians should get a move on when it comes to looking to China for opportunities for creative partnerships. “We’re not the only ones well-placed when it comes to these opportunities. Countries all around the world, in the G20 and outside of it, are courting political and economic relationships with Beijing.”

“Any so-called community anxiety on one hand needs to be tempered by facts on the other. Without foreign investment we wouldn’t have jobs we wouldn’t have growth, we wouldn’t have opportunities to realise the full promise of Australia’s potential,” says Pearcey.

"Any so-called community anxiety on one hand needs to be tempered by facts on the other. Without foreign investment we wouldn’t have jobs we wouldn’t have growth, we wouldn’t have opportunities to realise the full promise of Australia’s potential."

CSIRO say they’re currently developing plans for future projects with China, and are likely to continue to do so for at least another 40 years. “Australia produces 3% of the world’s science,” says Owen Craig. “So we need to be connected to the other 97% around the world.”

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