The University of Newcastle, Australia

Vice-Chancellor shares insights into building a global tech company

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Professor Alex Zelinksy AO shares his innovation journey as co-founder of tech company Seeing Machines at I2N's Startup Stories.

Professor Alex Zelinsky AO not only leads the University of Newcastle as Vice-Chancellor and President but has also enjoyed a career spanning 30 years in research innovation and entrepreneurship. Professor Zelinsky is a well-known scientist, specialising in robotics and computer vision and is widely recognised as an innovator in human-machine interaction.

At I2N's Startup Stories virtual webinar on Wednesday 6 May, Professor Zelinsky shared his innovation journey and the many business and leadership insights he gained spinning-out the company Seeing Machines from a robotics lab at the Australian National University in what he describes as "a twenty-year overnight success".

Seeing Machines is dedicated to the commercialisation of computer vision systems and is fitted in thousands of off-road heavy mining vehicles, on-road heavy trucks and some regular production cars. Seeing Machines use smart cameras and algorithms to track a driver's face, eyes and eyelids to monitor alertness levels in real-time to keep a driver safe. The company was the first in Canberra to be listed on a foreign stock exchange.

Catch up on Startup Stories with Professor Alex Zelinsky.

Top takeaways:

  • For aspiring entrepreneurs, it’s important to reach out to organisations like the I2N, startup societies on campus and innovation hubs. There you’ll be able to meet others who are like-minded and have the opportunity to tap into networks of knowledge and support.
  • When starting out it’s important to back yourself. Alex recalls a time he and his team rebuilt a highly technical robot that they thought they couldn’t actually build. It was at that point he realised the importance of having an ‘out of this world dream’ and acting on it as early as possible.
  • It’s vital to have a spread of skills on the founding team when starting a company. A well-balanced skillset will increase the company’s chances of success.
  • If you’re looking to commercialise your own research Alex says, “If you really want to solve the problem you’re working on there should be some beneficiary at the end.” He goes on to highlight the importance of speaking to the end-user as they can best define what their needs are which will guide your product development. I2N’s Validator program can help at this stage.
  • Alex explains that whenever you start a company “it has to have a commercial strategy, in other words, to make money”. If you’re unable to generate revenue then it’s a hard sell to explain how the company, whether it is for-profit or a social enterprise, will support itself.
  • Alex reflects on how much universities across Australia have changed in how they support their staff to commercialise their work. It’s important for institutions to operate with generous policies around staff taking leave without pay to pursue a venture and whether they succeed or fail, being able to return to the institution and share what they’ve learned.
  • He explains that there is not a lot of expertise at the CEO level in Australia to run high-tech startups. Alex argues that we’ve got to try and build that expertise up and support and nurture those people because they are the builders of the companies which create the most value for people.
  • Alex expressed his enthusiasm for Australian medical research and that it is performed at an outstanding quality. But highlighted that we need to be better at translating that research into commercial outcomes.
  • You don’t need to leave Newcastle to build your company. He highlights local scale-up Pegasus as a great example of a company that is attracting international investment and business while employing people and building products in Newcastle.
  • Australia has a very individualistic culture, and while you can do a lot on your own, you’ll get more done when you work with others. If you’re able to listen and get people to follow you, more successful ideas will be generated by the team.

The Integrated Innovation Network (I2N) is an initiative of the University of Newcastle aimed at boosting economic growth and diversity through entrepreneurship and innovation in the Hunter region. We fuel the success of innovators and entrepreneurs, regardless of their affiliation to the University, to build great ventures by connecting them to community, coaching, customers and capital through our Innovation Hubs and programs.

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