Since taking up the role in 2019, the CEO of Cicada Innovations has made a name for herself championing the cause of deep tech startups in Australia. But not many know of the instrumental role she has played in the emergence of Australia’s startup eco-system.
Making it matter
In December 2023, accepting an honorary doctorate from Griffith University, Sally-Ann delivered an inspiring speech to graduating students about making a mark on the world. It was a fitting topic from someone who has made a major contribution to how Australia supports innovation. Often working behind the scenes, she has helped to create an environment where startups can flourish, and founders can achieve their vision.
When she took on her current role at Cicada Innovations, she followed her own advice of: “Say yes to unexpected opportunities, even when they scare you.” Being a CEO was not something she was looking for or seeking out having spent 13 years on the engineering team at Google.
“I wanted to do something more than tech for tech’s sake,” she says. “I wanted to help people use technology to solve real world problems.”
Cicada was an ideal place to do this. Founded in Sydney in 2000 as ATP Innovations by a consortium of leading universities: ANU, UNSW, USYD, and UTS, the incubator is a cornerstone of Australia's deep tech ecosystem, with the goal of nurturing a vibrant community of innovators tackling the world's most pressing challenges.
In 2016 ATP rebranded to Cicada, to reflect that its goal was to help startups emerge fully formed from their period of incubation, equipped to take on the world.
start it up
Transforming the game for Australia’s startups has been part of Sally-Ann’s DNA for more than a decade. She has played an instrumental role in supporting the development of Australia’s nascent innovation eco-system.
You’d be hard pressed to find areas she hasn’t contributed to. To name a few: she played a pivotal role at StartupAus, the grassroots lobbying body that put “startups” on the government and corporate agenda. She was a non-executive director for co-working community, Fishburners. She advocated for female founders as an advisory board member of industry group Rare Birds and as an Activator for SheEO.
The opportunity to lead Cicada in 2019 brought her three passions together: technology solving real world problems, helping to support founders, and influencing government policy around innovation.
Cicada has a hugely impressive track record in incubating deep tech startups with over 300 alum companies, $1.8 billion raised in funding, and $1.4 billion in exits. Sally-Ann points to the role that Cicada has played in fostering truly transformational startups.
Its residents are solving problems across a huge range of industries, from medtech to textiles, hydrogen storage, space and beyond.
Medical diagnostic company SpeeDx, which received the Prime Minister's Prize for Innovation in 2022, is one example. “Alison Todd and Elisa Mokhani raised a tiny amount of money, put some stuff on the trolley and walked up the road to us and started a business. That business now employs over 100 people and sells molecular diagnostic & AMR testing technology to labs all over the world,” she says. “I love the fact you can benefit from what was created right here, and you may never even know it was born here, because it’s in a lab where your samples get tested.”
Another standout is Xefco, which is transforming how textiles are created using sustainable, water-free manufacturing. “The textile industry uses a lot of toxic chemicals. It's typically in developing countries near waterways that get polluted and that's an incredible problem for both people and planet,” she says. “Xefco have built a solution that uses 10% of the water, using no nasty chemicals, and can do amazing things with fabrics to improve their longevity.”
the founder mindset
What sets deep tech founders apart when it comes to creating successful startups?
Perhaps counterintuitively, Sally-Ann says that being obsessed about the technology itself may not necessarily breed success. “The founders that build businesses tend to be obsessed by the problem, not just the tech. It’s about deeply understanding and connecting to the problem, the market dynamics and what makes it a business.”
The best founders also recognise both their own strengths and limitations and are excited to enlist the best people to help them solve the problem. “Not one single person on this planet is brilliant at everything. So founders that come in and recognise where their gaps are and are not afraid to hire people that are stronger in those areas tend to do really well.”
Also, a healthy dose of stubbornness is key.
Who are you calling stubborn?
Sally-Ann’s own obsession with solving the problem of unlocking Australia’s deep tech potential has led her to throw herself into the role of CEO at Cicada Innovations.
“My real job here is to be the custodian of the vision and the mission: growing deep tech businesses for Australia and supporting founders wherever they come from, with connections and capital. We're not the CSIRO. We're not a university. We don't do research for people. But we connect people to the right people and that's it. We are a massive super-connector,” she says.
Since she joined Cicada there has been a myriad of new initiatives. In the past 18 months alone, the size of the team has doubled, and Cicada has become home of the National Space industry hub, with 20 space companies doing upstream and downstream space work.
In mid-2023, Cicada launched the Jumar Bioincubator, in partnership with CSL and WEHI, at Melbourne’s Biomedical Precinct, backed by $65 million in industry and government funding.
A new Cicada HealthTech Hub for entrepreneurs and innovators with the ambition to launch life-changing healthtech startups is currently being built at Sydney’s Westmead Health Precinct. This year, Cicada also took ownership of leading tech startup conference, Tech23.
“We’ve delivered a new updated, commercialisation training program for the New South Wales Office of Health and Medical Research with 1,000 people coming through every year. We've got partnerships with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation; we've done work with University of Newcastle and Griffith University. We work with the Grain Research Development Corporation on innovation, and with the Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer in NSW,” Sally-Ann adds.
a future less ordinary
There’s no slowing down for Sally-Ann. Above and beyond her role at Cicada she holds non-executive director and advisory board positions at a dizzying array of entities including: the NSW Innovation and Productivity Council, CSIRO's Data61 Advisory group, the ANU Heavy Ion Accelerator, Chair of the federal Government’s Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review, AusOcean and Qudos Bank. Additionally, she is a member of Chief Executive Women and, last but not least a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering.
It’s a long way away from when she started working, with a weekend job at the family fruit and veg shop. Sally-Ann was the first in her family finish high school, to graduate university, to receive a higher degree, and now to receive one of the highest honours a university can award: an honourary doctorate.
As she looks to the next 12 months, Sally-Ann sees further opportunities for Cicada Innovations to help transform Australian industry.
“If we can get this piece humming, we start to build a really interesting economic opportunity in Australia. That’s what that we're focused on, and we're spending a lot of time and effort on it.”
Learn more about Cicada Innovations here.
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