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Farewell Lego, Hello Driverless Cars

By Ben Brooks.

“One Christmas soon,” began Matt Barrie, “there will be a $300 dollar 3D printer that everyone will buy for their kids. Now, imagine if you were Lego. It’s going to be the end of Lego, of Airfix – of so many companies that just make plastic or nylon bits.”

He delivered this dire pronouncement with undisguised glee. The panel nodded in agreement, excited by the prospect of torrenting an iPhone case off the internet.

Beside Barrie, CEO of Freelancer.com, INCUBATE had assembled a line up of entrepreneurs and investors to discuss emerging trends shaping the startup environment. The discussion was animated and thought-provoking. If their predictions are accurate, the future will look like a cross between Skynet and the Wonka Factory, sans Westfield, Holden or Harvey Norman.

Inevitably, 3D printing dominated the conversation. Led by Paul Hunyor, co-founder of OneBigSwitch and former University of Sydney Union World Debating Champion, the panel considered the implications of affordable 3D printing on conventional retail models. Businesses like Nike already print entire sneakers, for instance, whilst aircraft manufacturers print sophisticated composite aerofoils.

But for other companies, the proliferation of cheap printing technology will have significant repercussions. 3D printers satisfy consumer demands for personalisation and immediate gratification. If they can eventually synthesise an iPhone 8 atom by atom, said Barrie, then shopfronts, malls and parts retailers might find themselves obsolete – casualties of creative destruction.

For Matt Byrne, CEO of Curicon, machine learning was another field likely to shape future technology. Making autonomous vehicles viable, he argued, would require control systems capable of learning and adapting. Without this capability, they would be unable to operate in complex, unpredictable real-world environments.

But ultimately, the commercialisation of autonomous cars, like Google’s driverless Lexus, would be driven by health and safety. “It will get to a point where insurance companies charge a premium to drive a car yourself,” said Barrie. “It will eventually become as socially unacceptable as smoking.”

Google500KmilesLexus

Google’s self-driving car in San Francisco

“It will get to a point where insurance companies charge a premium to drive a car yourself…eventually becoming as socially unacceptable as smoking.” – Matt Barrie, CEO Freelancer

The prospect of Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000 in a Honda was intriguing. Other startup trends were less exciting, but no less significant. “Businesses are often overlooked as clients,” said Byrne, pointing to the series of real-time timetable apps developed for Transport NSW. “If you can do something for businesses, B2B, the opportunities are huge.”

Held at the University of Sydney, it was appropriate that the discussion soon turned to education. Michelle Deaker, managing partner of OneVentures, explained the impact of the internet on chalk-and-textbook learning. “Education needs to become social, adaptive and interactive,” she explained, citing the massive open online courses run by universities like Harvard, Berkley and MIT. The ramifications of commercial online education would be keenly felt at home, added Barrie. “Good lecturers go where students are, and students go where good lecturers are. Why come to USYD from India for $40,000 when a lecturer from Stanford does the same thing for $100?”

In the shadow of the election, the audience was particularly concerned by government internet and innovation policy. The panel dismissed the NBN issue as a distracting furphy. Deaker encouraged a renewed focus on STEM tertiary education, lest Australia lose its appetite for high-tech entrepreneurship.

Stanford University

Massive open online courses run by universities like Harvard and Stanford will prove disruptive to traditional universities.

“Education needs to become social, adaptive and interactive…with a renewed focus on STEM degrees” – Michelle Deaker, Managing Partner OneVentures

According to Barrie, the problem is misguided policymaking. “Government has this double-speak. When they say startups, they mean small-medium enterprises. When they say digital, they mean electronic.” As a result, initiatives are poorly devised and implemented. Instead of teaching programming, “schools bring in filmmaking, art and all these other irrelevant disciplines. We have this crazy situation where the computer teacher reports to the woodwork teacher.”

Exasperated by bargepole policymaking in Canberra, the panel concluded with a look at not-for-profit startups. “People equate not-for-profit with shouldn’t-make-any-money,” complained Barrie. “Yet you need a profit to support your social impact,” agreed Byrne. Here, innovation lies not in technological wizardry, but in revising unprofitable business models.

It means repudiating the cap-in-hand approach to not-for-profit funding. There are willing investors, explained Deaker, who want to see organisations become profitable and then reinvest in social projects. They are not always interested in financial return.

It was a warm conclusion to a talk otherwise dominated by data and algorithms. The panel canvassed some issues which were broadly familiar to the gathered audience. Other issues were altogether new. It was a refreshing assessment of the startup scene beyond Angry Birds, into the future.

INCUBATE Startup and Entrepreneur Trends in 2013 event review by Ben Brooks.

Incubate Panel

Incubate panel members: Matt Barrie, Michelle Deaker, Paul Hunyor and Matt Byrne

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