International competitiveness hinges on policy pivot

Daniel Paperny for FinTech Australia

The federal government’s $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda must be expanded with greater consideration placed on immigration and trade policy to help advance Australia as an attractive hub for both local and foreign entrepreneurs, according to a panel of fintech leaders.

Speaking as part of a panel session examining the health of Australia’s FinTech Ecosystem, Brighte founder and CEO Katherine McConnell said a commitment by the federal government to entrepreneurship through its Innovation Agenda should place greater emphasis on loosening restrictions around its current ‘Entrepreneur Visa’ if Australia is to attract highly-skilled individuals to its shores and remain internationally competitive.

“I think the Turnbull government’s Innovation Agenda needs to be far broader in terms of how it focuses on policy; it needs to extend an innovation lens and criteria to immigration policy, to industry and trade,” McConnell said.

“I think this innovation criteria really needs to extend to other areas of government too and it’s something that will have long term implications for many of you in this room.”

Currently, the federal government’s Innovation Agenda provides an ‘Entrepreneur Visa’ for international entrepreneurs who want to develop or commercialise their innovative ideas in Australia, however applicants must have $200,000 in funding from what is termed a “specified third party” or “approved investor” to be considered.

A joint submission by Fintech Australia, StartupAUS and TechSydney in June this year argued in favour of relaxing these visa restrictions, particularly as funding tends to come from either venture capital (VC) investments, government grants, or specified higher education providers.

“For the majority of applicants, the current restrictions will require a start-up raising $200,000 from established Australian VCs before they are eligible to apply for the visa,” the submission stated.

“This presents a very significant barrier given that many Australian VCs do not invest in seed stage enterprises.”

York Butter Factory chair and ex-ANZ Bank chief executive officer Mike Smith said that while the federal government had shown a willingness to participate in discussions surrounding what was needed to make Australia more competitive on a regional front as a hub for innovation, there was still “an awfully long way to go” in terms of policy reform.

“Innovation is critical for our future, that is what’s going to provide the jobs for our kids and our kids’ kids. It’s about getting hold of the new economy and that’s what the government must look at,” he said.

Airtree Ventures partner James Cameron agreed, saying that innovation had come to be seen as a “dirty word” and while state governments had worked hard on cultivating the local fintech ecosystem, the onus was on the federal government to enact real policy reform and better articulate Australia’s vision for becoming internationally competitive and attract offshore talent.

“If we are unable to craft an innovation story which is inclusive and deals well with the reality that in 20 years time, the work environment for the general population is going to be very different, then we are going to be faced with real problems and we must address this from a policy perspective,” Cameron said.

Daniel Paperny was formerly a senior journalist for trade publication Financial Observer and now works as an Account Manager for Media & Capital Partners.