Master of Innovation

Image: Peter Le Lievre

This year's winner of the Advanced Manufacturing category in the prestigious Advance Global Australian Awards 2013, Peter Le Lievre, has spent decades commercialising world-leading Australian designs.

A current resident of Silicon Valley, California, Peter Le Lievre graduated from UTS more than two decades ago with a degree in industrial design and was back in Australia in March to accept an Advance Global Australian Award in the Advanced Manufacturing category. Le Lievre has been a pioneer in adapting technology since completing his degree in May 1987 at the Sydney College of the Arts (which became part of UTS in 1988), and has 21 patents to his name.

"My first job out of university was to build a heart pump for a North Shore surgeon and that came out of a patent we developed for a dishwasher. We developed this dishwasher pump and it also happened to work well for hearts," he says.

The dishwasher valve had a peristaltic design that could also be applied to a pump. Peristalsis refers to the wave of contractions of muscles in tubes in the body that promotes movement of items, such as food, through the tract. "This was used to pump blood as it had no sharp edges and no butterfly valve. It was therefore not prone to thrombosis [blood clots] like conventional pumps," Le Lievre says.

Since then Le Lievre has started a handful of companies, as well as being involved with what he calls the "dark side", or venture capitalism, raising funds to commercialise new technologies.

Le Lievre says that industrial design is a generalist profession but his degree taught him important aspects of manufacturing and commercialisation.

"It was a very good degree to have for someone getting into venture capitalism. It was a very good foundation," he says.

After a few frustrating years working on good Australian technologies that struggled to find proper funding, Le Lievre moved to venture capitalist fund Fairgill Investments in 1991. "Over that period of time I had a few successes," he says.

Out on a limb

In 2001 Le Lievre decided to quit his day job, or in his words, "I decided not to build companies for other people".

He left to co-found solar thermal renewable energy company Solar Heat and Power Pty Ltd, which was renamed Ausra when it was moved to the US in 2007.

"It was a hard slog," he says. "All start-ups are hard slogs. There is no such thing as an easy start-up. Ausra was my eighth start-up. It was the first one I did on my own, so you know the good and bad by then."

Image: Peter Le Lievre - article image1

Ausra was sold to Areva in 2010. Because of his background and expertise in the industry, Le Lievre made sure that the technology Ausra was commercialising, which resulted in the world's first direct steam generation solar steam plant, would work, something which he says is not always the case.

"It's very easy to take a company to market when the core idea is a good idea and I was lucky with Ausra that both my co-founders were long-term university academics who had been working on this technology for ages. So when we went to market, the technology worked as advertised."

Dr David Mills and Professor Graham Morrison were the company's co-founders and the three initially built the first plant in a garage in Sydney's Artarmon. "I can't take credit for that, I need to recognise there was a team effort there," Le Lievre stresses.

That's another reason why Le Lievre is always involved in the registering of the technology and has his name on so many patents. If he is involved from the very beginning, he has a fair idea that the technology he is taking to market will work.

He calls himself very "hands-on" and likes to roll his sleeves up to get involved with projects. "That's a bit unique maybe for me personally, but I like to know that the core technology really has something unique about it."

Lean manufacturing

Although many of us don't realise it, there are plenty of stories of Australian innovation besides the clichéd Hills Hoist and Victor lawnmower.

According to Le Lievre, Australia is a world leader in lean manufacturing, or being able to mass-produce goods for a low cost and with minimal resources.

Image: Peter Le Lievre - article image2

"But we are hindered by our limited market size and we are hindered by a fairly underdeveloped capital market," he says.

Sometimes the best solution is to commercialise globally and look for capital across the seas, in order to attract not just Australian investment but also global interest.

"Now with the internet, it is easy to take a company global and Australian companies are becoming more and more successful at commercialising," Le Lievre says.

He would love to see a strong venture capital market in Australia but he is also pleased about the changes in the market since his graduation more than two decades ago.

"One of the nice things since I've graduated is that most tertiary universities have very strong streams on innovation and commercialisation. That's made it a lot easier for young people coming through to grasp the opportunities of building new companies and to get a better skill set for building these technologies."

Words Penny Pryor
Photography Kasia Werstak