14 September 2018

By David Burt, Executive Manager, ON

In my six years at CSIRO, I’ve seen remarkable ideas leap from the lab into the outside world.

We need these ideas to make the leap because we don’t have a future without them. We’ve built a world that consumes our planet faster than we can replenish it – and created a population that expects to maintain its current standard of life. We have created for ourselves a set of wicked problems that only science can help us solve.

One of these wicked problems is how we extract resources like gold. Gold is amazing – it’s in so many of the technologies we use every day. To extract gold from ore we bathe it in cyanide and collect the gold from the run off. The global gold industry uses about 180,000 tons of cyanide each year.

Half a gram of cyanide will kill you in two minutes. A teaspoon holds seven grams.

Every gram of gold we extract creates about 1,000 kilograms of poisoned dirt and slurry called cyanide tailings. Gold mines are often near water sources and can pollute the surrounding area, especially in countries without strong environmental regulations. In just one environmental disaster (the Ok Tedi gold mine in Papua New Guinea) about two billion tons of cyanide tailings have spilled into the surrounding waterways. That gold ring you’re probably wearing is responsible for about 20 tons of cyanide tailings.

But it doesn’t have to be this way – scientists can create a better world. A step in the right direction would be to get our gold in a way that’s not as toxic to the planet that sustains us. This is what a research team at CSIRO did when they formulated an alternative chemical that is far less toxic for the environment but just as effective as cyanide at extracting gold.

Microscope view of gold

The team that did this was Going for Gold, they completed ON Accelerate in 2017 and they have now taken their technology into the world at scale.

There are thousands of teams with ideas like Going for Gold in our Universities and Research Institutes. Thousands of scientists are discovering and creating the knowledge that will help us live safely and sustainably on our tiny planet. We’ve built ON Accelerate for them.

ON Accelerate exists to help more of these ideas make the leap from the research lab into the world. We connect researchers with expert mentors and entrepreneurs who help teams discover the business model that unleashes their science. In three intense months, ON Accelerate helps teams focus on attracting the partners and resources needed to take that first step into the world. We help contribute some of those resources as well – the best team in ON Accelerate will leave the program with $100,000 of (non-dilutive) funding to fuel their first step.

Is ON Accelerate for you?

Before applying for the ON Accelerate program, it’s worth considering if your research is ready for a business model. A great idea will only get you so far. The three questions your team needs to ask itself are:

  1. Can our science solve a globally significant problem?
  2. Is there a team committed to pursuing the opportunity?
  3. Why now?

ON Accelerate is designed for teams that have compelling answers to these three questions. Teams applying for ON Accelerate should already have evidence for who their potential customers are and be able to demonstrate a deep empathy with the problems their customers experience. Knowing what your competition looks like is also a must – and if your answer is “we don’t have any competitors”, you haven’t looked hard enough.

The science also needs to be ready and developed enough to be both commercially viable and scalable. ON Accelerate is for teams who can demonstrate an invention inside the laboratory and who are ready to deploy at scale in the outside world.

Take the Going for Gold team: they needed to demonstrate that their non-cyanide alternative process could effectively extract gold from ore at an industrial scale. They needed to prove that their solution was scalable and financially competitive. They had to get people excited about the potential of their solution to raise funds for an industrial scale to prove it works. This means sifting through tons of ore – as well as attracting millions of dollars in investment. ON Accelerate was the key that this team used to unlock these resources.

Another important consideration is the team: does your team have the skills required, or the motivation to build them? The science team might not be the best people to run the business but they are the best team to lead the early stage commercialisation. ON Accelerate is built to help scientists and deep tech entrepreneurs to inspire customers and investors to support them.

Timing is everything. Being too early is just as deadly to early stage ventures as being too late. We all know of products that missed their window of opportunity – perhaps you have even worked on them. Knowing the history of your idea is important. Who has tried something like your idea before? How did they succeed or fail? Be relentlessly curious about who tried your idea in the past – learning from the failures of others is a cheap way to de-risk your future.

A light to guide your path

You might have the perfect idea, team and timing – so why apply for ON Accelerate at all? Because ON Accelerate helps your team avoid the cardinal sins of deep tech commercialisation:

Moving too slowly: Teams emerging from the research environment consistently underestimate how fast the market moves. I’ve seen teams lose investment offers and customer contracts worth millions of dollars because they couldn’t negotiate multi-party agreements fast enough. Your team might need to sign an IP transfer agreement or raise capital from investors before you can sell to customers – having Australia’s best advisors at your side helps you strike these deals faster. In ON Accelerate we help you build velocity as a habit.

Perfectionism:In scientific research it’s critical that your published results are valid and reproducible. In some domains of science getting it wrong means injury or death. Researchers are often hesitant to promise outcomes until they are absolutely sure of what’s possible – both today and in the future. But in deep tech commercialisation you have to inspire your customers and investors about what might be possible – and be comfortable putting less than perfect creations into the world. In ON Accelerate our coaches have experience helping teams from all sectors and backgrounds, from defence to medical, genetic engineering and nanomaterials, to discover how to safely and rapidly deploy their technology into the hands of early adopters.

The uncomfortable sell:Many researchers are experts in their field but don’t necessarily enjoy taking a customer through a sales cycle. Sometimes people think the product is so good that it will sell itself. Nothing sells itself – your biggest danger is that what you are selling is terrible and you just don’t know it yet. You don’t have to like selling – but if you can’t sell your idea to a wide range of audiences, your idea is going to be trapped in the lab forever.

Underestimating the amount of support needed: It takes an extreme amount of confidence to take new science into the world. No one can successfully make this journey alone. The team needs to shift and grow with your idea – and if you are onto something great then the odds are that your new venture will scale faster than your ability to lead it. Having and learning when to use a support network is critical to success – ON Accelerate is the first support network for your team – the first of many you will need as you scale.

Most of the people I’ve met in science are there because they want to change the world. Discovering or creating new knowledge is the first step – ON Accelerate is here to help your team with what comes next, to help you kick start the change that drove your team to start your research in the first place.

Applications for ON Accelerate are open now and close on 28 September. Apply or find out more about ON Accelerate, or contact me directly if you’d like to hear more.

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