Australia: embracing technology and nurturing fintech

Tech Australia 2017 was held at London’s Australia House in partnership with Austrade, the Australian State Governments and the Australian High Commission. It set out Australia’s stall as a tech-oriented economy with fintech firmly on the agenda. Jo Murray reports from the event.

The Hon Alexander Downer AC – Australian High Commissioner was bold in his statement: “We will not improve productivity unless we embrace technology.” The High Commissioner has had a long and distinguished political career in Australia and was, until recently, the United Nations Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Cyprus. At Tech Australia, he was quite simply a champion of tech.

He explained Australia’s technology relationship with the UK and the reciprocal support between the two countries, especially in terms of fintech. “There is a huge opportunity for the two countries,” he said.

Tech Australia 2017 was sponsored by PwC and addressed by Sapna Patel, Solicitor/Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal. She said PwC’s role was to help move talent around internationally, especially in today’s increasingly job-protectionist environment. “But something exciting is happening regarding meeting the future skills needs for specific sectors, especially technology,” she added.” Sapna pointed out that often the tech sector needs are non-traditional: pay is often equity related and not salaries; and entrepreneurs are often juggling several projects at once rather than fixed on one “job”. “The immigration system is shifting to accommodate this,” she said.

The keynote speaker was Michael Harte, Group Head of Innovation, Barclays. He said: “It is not about tech; it is about people.” He was emphatic that regulation and technology will transform the market; but ultimately all the value and all the convenience will be for the benefit of the consumer. However, he conceded that things are a little messy at the moment. “That is why we crave open systems,” he said.

Michael commented that fintech in China is rushing ahead with new ways of thinking based on multiple layers of data driving innovative methods in the finance world. Those Chinese advances are now being exported and the regulators in the West are being compelled to accommodate them. He also said that traditional banks and digital start-ups are not so much competing but collaborating in a new disruptive business model. Ultimately all consumers will benefit from the shift of power to the people.

A panel discussion then ensued, moderated by Aaron Birkby, CEO, Startup Catalyst and a tech entrepreneur. The rest of the panel comprised: Alex Ford – VP Operations & Marketing, Encompass Corporation; Stuart Richardson – Founder and Managing Partner, Adventure Capital; Nicholas (Nick) Lembo – Head of Communications APAC, TransferWise; and Jock Gordon – Entrepreneur and Founder, Aussie.EU.

Nick said that it is an exciting time in Sydney, which is undergoing a rapid period of tech growth. Stuart concurred, saying partnerships are a key focus and scaling up is a priority. Alex, based in Scotland, commented on the value of running into your peers wherever you are based. She is particularly interested in regtech as a subset of fintech. In fact, it was the parallels between Australian and UK law – each sharing the Common Law – that brought her company to the UK. She said, however, that a lot of intent behind financial regulation, like money laundering, for example, is global.

Nick commented that, in today’s tech environment, it is important to scale up a business immediately in order to attract funding. “This comes down to accessing talent,” he said. Aaron added that increasingly Australian talent is coming home which is helping the local talent pool. Jock added that around 275,000 overseas students are studying in Australia so there is a huge opportunity for UK tech companies to hire staff in Australia who have lots of different languages as their mother tongues.

Continuing the talent theme, Aaron pointed out that Australian technology companies that go global keep their core development teams in Australia for cost and talent reasons; and because the churn rate is much lower.

Stuart said that the government is a large part of the puzzle, especially in relation to fintech and regtech. And he said that funding is increasingly to be found in Australia, especially for start-ups, although the funding scene in Australia is somewhat trailing that of the UK.

The Tech Australia message is that Australia most definitely offers growth opportunities for foreign investment in digital technologies. In fact, Australia’s economic transition (following the boom in commodity prices and mining investment) is driving opportunities in digital technologies across almost every sector of the economy.