Wyatt Roy: Bridging the gap between startups and politics

- September 22, 2015 6 MIN READ

After his first day in his new role as Assistant Minister for Innovation, Federal Member for Longman, The Hon. Wyatt Roy answered a question on his Facebook page that has probably been thrown at him by the media all day: what is innovation about? Using the words of startup incubator Bluechilli as inspiration, Roy wrote, “Innovation is the output of a strong entrepreneurial culture. A culture of speed of execution, empowerment of people and ideas and a tolerance of failure and those who try.”

A lot has been said in the last 24 hours about Roy being the youngest federal member to have ever been given a frontbench role in parliament. Is it an achievement? Of course it is. However, that holds little to no significance to the startup industry. What is important to us is passion and the willingness to execute on ideas – this is something Roy has displayed in leaps and bounds when it comes to the technology sector over the last two years in his position as a government backbencher.

While I publicly take issue with most career politicians, as of this moment, I see him as an exception to the rule. He may not be a total rebel when it comes to making a stance on issues within the Liberal Party, but you do have to admire someone that very publicly calls them out on their views on social issues like marriage equality, especially when you represent a fairly conservative constituency such as Longman. And whether or not you agree that ousting a sitting Prime Minister from his job is the correct thing to be a part of, the fact that he made and executed on that choice displays an appetite for risk and commitment to his beliefs. After all, 10 votes in the wrong direction could have spelt out political suicide for Roy.

It is because he made that choice that I have respect for him. It is never easy exiting a leader for the long-term benefit of an organisation. I know, I have been there. I did it with my own co-founder about three years ago. Was it nice? No. Did it make me feel good? Not really. Is Startup Daily better off today because of that decision? Absolutely. In fact, a quick peruse through this website will reveal many startups at many different stages where founders and boards have had to make these types of decisions – they just garner less attention than what happens in Canberra.

The decision Roy made last week has now opened up a door of opportunity for him; and if he plays his cards right, if his walking is congruent with his talking, then his eventual play for the top public servant job in the country years from now shouldn’t come with too much difficult. After all, winning elections (even in Australia) is about raising campaign money; and the technology sector, if allowed to thrive in Australia will have a lot of it to give in support.

Perception is reality: Wyatt wins against the other ministers, hands down.

There are two other major players aside from our “tech loving” Prime Minister and Wyatt Roy that will have a lot more to do with the startup and digital sectors under the new Turnbull Government.

The first is The Hon. Mitch Fifield who now takes on the roles of Communications Minister, Arts Minister, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Government. It was announced yesterday that the Copyright Act, which had sat under the portfolio of Governor General George Brandis, will now be sitting with him as part of the communications portfolio – most likely a welcome relief to content-related startups, ISPs and large tech firms like Google and Yahoo!.

The other person of course is The Hon. Christopher Pyne, who is now the Industry, Innovation and Science Minister. Roy will work directly within Pyne’s portfolio assisting in the Innovation sector. However, given the crossovers between Industry, Communication, Science and Innovation as sectors, it wouldn’t be going out on a limb to suggest that all three Ministers will work closely together across many projects and policies.

Perception within the startup scene, however, puts both Fifield and Pyne at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to Roy. Fifield has no “brand power” in the startup or technology sector just yet – nobody knows exactly who he is, what he stands for – and he is also filling the shoes left empty by the our current Prime Minister. Though I am sure many have a lot to say on whether or not Turnbull was a great Communications Minister, no-one can successfully argue against the fact that he has maintained a very prominent perception that he’s been a consistent gladiator for the tech community within the walls of parliament. Fifield will need to get some home runs on the board fast, and connect with influencers within the ecosystem in order build his brand as quickly as possible. It would be wise of him to use Roy to do that.

While Fifield does not resonate with many, Pyne on the other hand is in a whole different league. Pyne is well known, having been a key front bench minister for many years and in charge of the Education portfolio. There are a few things that startups should admire about him: foremost, his focus on pushing the agenda of proper STEM education reforms in schools and for underrepresented minorities. However, it is hard to shake off some of the behavioural traits he has displayed in the past like calling a fellow opposition colleague a ‘cunt’ in The House of Reps. To be fair, he did put out a statement saying he said the word ‘grub’ but unless I’ve forgotten how to speak English, that is not what it sounded like to me.

Pyne is politically savvy enough to team up with Roy and make a good first impression in his ‘startup ecosystem debut’, which I am sure will happen shortly. The reason is because Roy’s perception across the startup ecosystem is generally impeccable. His announcement saw an influx of congratulations come from well-known industry influencers like investor and StartupAUS Chief Advocate Steve Baxter who reflected on Roy’s recent visit to River City Labs with Tony Abbott.

“[He is] one of few Federal politicians who has spent real time amongst the startup community. He was the driving force behind a recent visit to River City Labs in Queensland with Tony Abbott. It’s clear that he understands the startup ecosystem and what needs to be done to support it. I’m pleased to see that formally recognised,” Baxter said.

Professor and Director of the Centre for Business Growth at the UniSA Business School, Dr Jana Matthews had similar thoughts.

“I am encouraged with the elevation of Wyatt Roy to the Assistant Minister for Innovation. Roy has made several trips to Israel and the United States to learn what those countries have done to stimulate and capitalise on innovation. The creation of this appointment underscores the importance that Prime Minister Turnbull places on innovation; the choice ofWyatt Roy means someone who understands the shifts taking place in our global economy will have an opportunity to shape public policy for Australia,” Matthews said.

Social media was also a place that key figures like Paul Bassat, Jonathan Barouch, Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin and Mike Cannon-Brookes reached out to extend congratulations about the new appointment.

Roy already has a startup cheer squad. He can only ruin the perception held by the majority of us by not acting in the best interest of Australia’s startup community. Unlike others, he was proactive and began to champion an industry before it became core to the government’s agenda.

It’s time to build some bridges.

It wouldn’t be out of this world to expect Pyne to be the individual that bridges the gap between the Innovation and Education portfolio. It makes sense. After all, the focus on STEM education and particularly coding in schools plays a pivotal role within his own portfolio – the companies being created today will be hiring tomorrow’s students.

When it comes to bridging the gap between Australia’s startup ecosystem and politics, however, it is pretty clear that the role, whether it officially has been structured that way or not, goes to Wyatt Roy. All signs indicate he is motivated and wants this role. This is further evidenced by his educational trips to startup capitals like Israel and Silicon Valley.

My hope is that he understands that while there are many things that could very well be implemented straight away, it is important to remember that culturally our ecosystem is about 50 years behind Silicon Valley and around 25 years behind Israel. We really only started riding our startup and innovation wave seriously in 2010. Therefore, comparing our ecosystem to either of theirs is a void discussion – instead, comparisons should be made only about specific initiatives that encourage and assist startups to grow and flourish. The people and culture part of the ecosystem is something that will develop naturally on its own and form its own unique local identity.

My other request of Roy is that, from the outset, he approaches his role wearing a big old set of diversity glasses. It is really easy to spot the men in Australia’s startup ecosystem; it’s getting easier to spot the women, but in his new role,  Roy has the opportunity to make a real difference by amplifying the importance of women and diversity in technology.

Wyatt Roy is now the middleman. Will we be heard in Parliament House?