Cicada Innovations CEO Sally-Ann Williams on the best & worst of 2020, the lessons learnt and books she’ll read this summer

- December 16, 2020 5 MIN READ
Cicada Innovations CEO Sally-Ann Williams

Its been a big year for Cicada Innovations and CEO Sally-Ann Williams in her first full year as CEO.

Australia’s first ever incubator celebrated its 20th anniversary, with the Sydney deep tech venture having nurtured more than 100 startups, and helped more than 300 companies raise over $450 million in venture capital and government grants.

To kick off a series looking back on an extraordinary year and the one ahead, we asked Williams about the good, the bad and what she learnt, her summer plans and for suggestions on what to read when she gets a chance to catch her breath.

Here’s what she said.

Out of 10 (that figure being totally awesome) what mark would you give 2020 and why?

8. While it’s been a tough year it could have been so much worse.

I know I’ve learnt a lot personally & professionally and I’m choosing to be grateful for that and that if you have to live through a pandemic – emerging safe and well on the other side is something to be thankful for.

What were your personal highlights?

The unexpected opportunity to go deeper with fewer people personally and professionally has been wonderful. It has really affirmed that relationships are key in life, community and businesses.

Also I unintentionally ran a half marathon during COVID. I had increased my runs to help with stress management and found myself at 15km one day and thought why not keep going.

I had no idea I could do it and I’m not sure I will do it again but I learnt something about my stamina – mentally and physically.

And lowlights?

Making decisions in uncertainty and with no data is always a challenge. COVID amplified with the sheer volume of decisions needed to be made, in a greater level of uncertainty that I can remember.

What was the hardest thing you had to do in 2020?

Tough conversations are hard. I’ve had a few too many in 2020.

And what brought you the greatest joy?

Spending more time on long and slow conversations with neighbours and friends. Quality of relationship over quantity has made me cherish the people who surround me.

What did you learn from 2020 and is there anything you’d do differently?

Find a way to breathe through all of the things you can’t control.

2020 took control out of everyone’s hands and that has taken some adjustment.

Learning to be comfortable in the uncertainty is a lesson I don’t think I’ll ever be finished learning but one that keeps giving back to me if I can walk it out.

What company do you most admire for its achievements in 2020?

All of our residents who have thrived through this time.

SpeeDx is best known for its fight against the global scourge of “superbugs” and STIs, but has recently ramped up work on a respiratory virus test panel that tests for 11 main respiratory virus pathogens (including COVID) in a fast and high throughput format, to meet the increased demand for testing.

Calumino builds an innovative, affordable, proprietary thermal sensor and AI software for unprecedented data capture now being used in health and wellbeing management for COVID to scan temperatures. I could go on an on with the incredible work our residents have done.

How do you view the current technology climate in Australia?

Out of challenges sometimes the greatest breakthroughs are born. I think we are going to see some amazing technologies emerge out of this period.

SpeeDx, one of our largest residents, was born out of the founders being made redundant at the end of the global financial crisis.

Today they are a global company, manufacturing solutions in diagnostics and health from Sydney. I think we will see more companies born out of the challenging circumstances of 2020.

What tech companies/startup will you be watching in 2021?

I’m really interested in companies that are removing plastic from the supply chain – not just bottles and containers, but in clothing, food services, pens – you name it.

New technologies using seaweed, shellfish and other sources of biodegradable and renewable sources have the ability to transform multiple industries and do good for people and the planet.

I’m also really excited about regenerative agricultural solutions, new ag and food tech solutions and personalised health.

What are you expecting to see in tech in 2021 and hoping will happen?

A greater focus on deep tech. Companies founded in complex science and engineering that are solving the world’s toughest challenges in climate, health, sustainability, equality and education will be even more of a focus as we enjoy revived community interest in science as a solution provider because of COVID.

While we’ve seen some really challenging times in our Universities and research sector I’m hopeful that we’re going to see more innovations spin out and more deep tech companies launch to help drive Australia’s economy to one that is more complex and robust.

I hope that we take forward the lessons learned in 2020 to put people at the heart of what we do and seek out science and engineering solutions for the hardest problems.

When the world was rocked with COVID we did come together and seek a solution, and while we aren’t there yet it demonstrates that collaboration is key to solving our common challenges.

What are your goals for the year ahead?

It sounds boring but to stay on track.

Wicked problems take a long time to find solutions and bring them to market.

I want to double down on supporting deep tech innovations survive and thrive in Australia and ensure that we build an ecosystem that will generate returns for people and the planet for generations to come.

What’s keeping you awake at night, business-wise?

There are so many things to be done and that can be done. It’s a challenge to prioritise and keep to the truly impactful and urgent. Switching my brain off is always a challenge.

Taking time off over Christmas?

Only a short break to recharge. I like to spend time thinking about the future and create space all January to give ideas room to grow.

Where’s your favourite place to head to relax?

For me it’s always about people and great conversations. If I can have that I’m happy.

The beach is always a special place too as looking out at the immensity of the ocean and watching waves roll is a gift in perspective of how big the world really is.

What are you most looking forward to for Christmas and what’s you favourite summer tradition?

Seeing my family in QLD. Thank you for open borders! And seafood and champagne.

3 books people should read over summer

Humankind – A hopeful history by Rutger Bregman.

It makes you rethink what you think to be true about humankind. It challenges common beliefs about the flawed nature of humanity and presents the case that we are created to collaborate and that at our core we are good.

We’ve seen lots of examples of this in 2021 and we certainly need to come together to solve the future challenges the world is facing.

Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

I keep revisiting it as a reminder that the most challenging problems often have the most elegant and simple solutions.

Phosphorescence by Julia Baird.

There’s some great lessons and truths in learning to slow down in awe and wonder at the world around us. When we take a moment to reflect on the creativity we see in nature, in people, in art, music and science we are invigorated, inspired and hope stirs within us.