The bigger picture

Meet the entrepreneur who built a company that the world's technology giants now rely on.

Image:Novelist Susanne Gervay

"I've always been entrepreneurial," says Adrian Turner. "I think that began when I was busking outside Myer's department store in Sydney when I was nine or 10, playing Christmas carols on my violin. That was when I first realised that you could do very well if you were a little creative in your thinking."

Creative thinking has taken Turner a long way in his 43 years. One of Silicon Valley's brightest minds, he co-founded Mocana, which provides security systems and applications for connected devices. The former pupil of St Ives Public School on Sydney's north shore is also the author of the 2012 book, Blue Sky Mining.

From 2006-11, Turner was Chairman of Advance, a not-for-profit network which connects 20,000 expatriate Australians. He resigned from that position because he didn't want Advance to be tarred with the personal views he expressed in Blue Sky Mining.

"During my time as Chairman of Advance I saw a lot of entrepreneurs leave Australia because they couldn't raise the capital here to build their business," he says. "There's something structurally wrong when that has to happen."

Blue Sky Mining contrasts Silicon Valley's ability to create a plethora of new billion dollar industries with Australia's inability to leverage innovative ideas, which has lead to some of the country's brightest talent heading overseas because they can't find backers here.

"I copped a lot of heat in the period just after the book came out," Turner admits. "People were saying, 'This mining boom is going to last 20 years. You're out of your mind saying we need to worry about building new entrepreneurial businesses now'".

"That's changed now, with many people picking up the phone in recent months to say, 'I'm ready for that conversation about creating the conditions for entrepreneur success in Australia.'"

UTS is the one

Adrian's older brother Nick (a celebrated architect) had already studied at UTS, but the younger Turner says his choice of university in 1992 went much deeper than following family footsteps.

"The thing I've always struggled with is that I have a logical part of my brain − I had an affinity for mathematics at school. But I'm also a frustrated artist. I paint, I sculpt, and I used to play drums in a jazz band"

"UTS was perfect for me. At the time it was the only university I could find that allowed me to combine marketing with business. I actually did a business degree with double majors in marketing and finance. UTS is still the pioneer when it comes to combining creativity with business."

"UTS also had a reputation for being a practical university. I did a part-time degree because I couldn't wait to start work. I had a fire in my belly to get things done and I felt that studying full-time would be putting that on hold."

While studying at night, weekends and holidays, Turner held down a full-time job firstly with News Ltd, and then with eye care chain OPSM where he learned about interactive TV. From there, he transitioned to IT by working at Ozemail as a Marketing Consultant, where he helped launch the world's first network of coin-operated internet terminals.

Silicon Valley

After graduating in May 1997, Turner married in October, and then decided to move to the US.

"Going to the States was roll of the dice," says Turner. "Everyone was saying that if I wanted to work in tech, I had to head west. So we landed in the heart of Silicon Valley. Remember this was in 1998, when the internet was getting started."

"There was this amazing anything-can-be-achieved mentality," Turner recalls. "Australia seemed hierarchical by comparison. Here, it was who you knew and where you went to school. In Silicon Valley, it's a complete meritocracy. It doesn't matter where you've come from or how old you are − if you're good, you'll succeed."

Turner was just six months into his employment at Dutch-based electronics giant Philips when he came up with an entrepreneurial scheme to develop.

"I convinced my line management to let me pitch my idea to some directors of the company which employed 240,000 people. My idea was to build the infrastructure to support connected devices. Anything other than people connecting to the internet was not being discussed in the mainstream at that time. There were even questions about whether the internet would take off."

"I told them, 'the internet is going to move beyond the web as we know it. Things are going to be connected to the web − things like the internet kiosks or business electronics. If I'm right, we will have to build infrastructure to support our connected devices, even deliver services online'."

The directors gave him the go-ahead, and teams in Silicon Valley, Washington DC and the UK were engaged to deliver his idea.

"I was 27. We built the infrastructure I'd recommended, but it became clear it shouldn't just be supporting Philips devices, but the entire industry. I tried to spin the idea out to Philips, but they wouldn't let it go outside the company. So I left. That was the moment when I switched from being an employee to an entrepreneur."

And he never looked back. In 2004, he and a colleague, James Blaisdell, launched Mocana. "We could see all these devices were going to connect to the internet and we realised the place to start was security.

"We self-funded the business for the first two and a half years, got revenue up to around $US 1 million from around 30 customers, then got venture capital to fund the business."

"Fast forward and we're one of the leaders in the world. Our customers include Cisco, Sony, Honeywell, Dell, General Electric and five of the top seven Android OEMs (original equipment manufacturers)."

Venture capital

Mocana has raised $US 65 million to date and Turner was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum 2013 in Davos, Switzerland detailing what a fully networked society means for every business. Mocana was one of 11 companies named a World Economic Forum 2012 Technology Pioneer, selected from more than 800 global nominations.

Turner resigned as Mocana's Chief Executive late last year, though he is still on the board.

"It's a different sort of growth now," Turner explains, "I enjoy the creative side of figuring out what the business will be. The more process-orientated part of running a business, I find less enjoyable."

In 2014, Turner launched a second business, Borondi Group, with a fellow Sydney-sider he'd met through Advance, Chris Aitken.

Turner describes it as "a company that is building a portfolio of global operating assets at the intersection of pervasive computing and traditionally conservative industries like agriculture, mining, water management, transportation and healthcare."

He predicts the next 15 years will all be about what people are calling "persuasive computing". That means computers intersecting with the industries that have historically been Australia's strength industries.

"The first investment we have made is in solar-powered atmospheric satellites (or ATMOSAT™) pioneered by Titan Aerospace. They are redefining the economics to launch low orbit satellites with a range of possible geospatial and data applications."

The focus on pervasive computing intersecting with Australia's strength industries means Turner will be back in Sydney a lot more over the next few years.

He plans to bring his daughter back to Sydney − if only to work on her accent.

"I was just listening to her in the hotel and she definitely sounds American," he laughs. "I keep reminding her she is one half Australian."

Story by Steve Meacham
Photo by Anna Zhu

 

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