David James Connolly
Australia’s next unicorns will come from five areas
An edited extract of a speech given by
Robyn Denholm, the Tesla and
Technology Council of Australia
chairman, at the Australian Financial
Review Business Summit 2022.
“As we reflect on the last 70 years and celebrate each of those
defining moments of great storytelling – I want to challenge the
room to think about the role that each and every one of us must
play in defining the next 70 years of Australia’s future.
“Australia is renowned for punching above our weight, for a
country of 27 million people, we make ourselves known on the
world stage. Whether it’s sports, arts, industry or any number of
other sectors, Aussies typically are among the world’s best.
We’re a competitive bunch, we strive to be the best we can. We
have a great ‘can do attitude’ and we are not afraid to change the status quo.
“Last year’s Summer Olympics and this year’s Winter Olympics
are perfect illustrations of this fact. We are no strangers to
celebrating these victories and the names of our greatest
sporting heroes are woven into the fabric of our national
identity and I think this is a fantastic Aussie trait.
“But imagine for a moment if we applied that same approach to
setting the agenda for our economy and for our business
leaders, for the decades to come. If we looked across our
modern workforce and identified areas where we could punch
above our weight and believe that we could win.
“One area which will define our future economic prosperity, I
believe, is seizing the opportunity of our innate technology
leadership and using our natural advantage to make Australian businesses the
most competitive in the world.
“The reason I call out technology here, apart from the fact that
I’m the chair of the Technology Council of Australia and Chair of
Tesla and through Blackbird get to help some of the most
phenomenal tech startups in Australia and NZ is because, I am a
“Over the course of my career, I have witnessed a changing
dynamic in the modern workforce. Once when talking about
tech, we all visualised people parked behind computer screens
writing code, in languages mere mortals didn’t understand.
However, today I struggle to think of a single business or job in
our vibrant and diverse economy that is not in some way
touched by technology.
“Today’s technologists might be found sitting on a tractor,
mapping out new digital farming strategies, in a warehouse
building an e-commerce solution or a high-school student
designing new software for sharing education resources. We are
now all technologists, and our businesses are all technology
businesses and I think it’s time the business community
embraced our new identity.
“I call out our potential here because the benefits of technology
leadership can help lift and grow all sectors of our economy. I
believe, the only way to drive sustained, real economic growth is
through productivity gains. That by its very definition means
applying technology. The only way to be globally competitive
and increase our exports across all sectors whilst at the same
time improving the standard of living for everyone is through
“Until 30 years ago, Australia did not have a strong, local tech
sector. But in the last 30 years, that’s changed. In Australia
today, the technology sector is generating $167 billion in output
per year and employing over 860,000 Australians. That makes it
equivalent to our third biggest industry by value – just behind
banking and mining – and our seventh biggest employer.
“In the last 30 years, we have created 100 Australian tech
companies’ worth $100m plus. More than twenty have gone on
to become unicorns. They include great companies like
Atlassian, Canva, Afterpay, Wisetech, Seek, REA, Airwallex,
SafetyCulture, Go1, Cultureamp and most recently Employment
“What is so exciting about these companies are the common
traits they possess. These are businesses who have dreamed big
from the beginning, sought to solve complex problems, have
challenged the status quo, taken risks, failed, succeeded, grown,
and prospered. They have reimagined the way we do business
and have not shied away from creating the type of world-beating
excellence which has the potential to define the next era of
Australia’s economic prosperity.
“But we need to re-gain some of our appetite for risk taking,
because in order to create the next cohort of world-changing
engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs, we need to ensure we
celebrate and amplify this type of risk taking, visionary thinking,
we have got to view failure as a stepping stone to success.
“I say re-gain our risk appetite for risk taking ... I recall many
examples in my youth of Australian risk taking. I think the loss
of our risk appetite in business was primarily driven by being so
successful doing what we were doing for almost 30 years
without a recession ... But that is now in the rear-view mirror,
and with it the opportunity to set a course for our future, we
have the opportunity to re-embrace our appetite for risk taking.
“In the same way we celebrate our sporting stars, we must all
work toward a future where the next generation of young
people are celebrating the achievements of our greatest creators
& innovators, like Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht and Cameron
Adams, co-founders of Canva. Or maybe its Scott Farquhar and
Mike Cannon-Brooks of Atlassian.
“Because what we are really trying to do is inspire them with a
different type of leadership. One that they could be.
“New work the Tech Council has done with McKinsey has
looked at which tech industries are actually producing the
highest-value companies in the last couple of decades. It found
four tech subsectors drive 95 per cent of the company value
being created. They are B2C and B2B software, life sciences and
health, and fintech. Three out of four of these sectors are
software, and the other – life sciences – is heavily dependent on
software and analytics to be competitive.
“But no one is telling that story. In fact, it’s more common to
hear myths such as Canva, Atlassian and Afterpay being
exceptions to the main way we create value in Australia. The
reality is the reverse – these companies are the most successful
examples of the main way Australia is now commercialising
ideas, creating new companies, and generating new jobs.
“The other clear finding from the research is that Australia’s
software strength is now lifting up other industries. The
research identifies five tech segments which have the most
potential to produce Australia’s next unicorns and high-value
tech sectors, based on Australia’s domain expertise and the
growth pathway for the sector.
“They are mining tech, ed tech, gaming, distributed ledger and
diversified fintech. This shows how strength in software,
combined with strength in traditional industries such as mining
(Australia’s largest industry by value), financial services
(Australia’s second largest industry) and education (Australia’s
largest service export industry), are now generating exciting
new industries, companies and jobs for Australia.”
David James Connolly