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Exclusive interview: Cicada Innovations CEO Sally-Ann Williams

Sally-Ann Williams is the CEO of deep tech incubator Cicada Innovations. (Source: Supplied)
Sally-Ann Williams is the CEO of deep tech incubator Cicada Innovations. (Source: Supplied)
    This exclusive interview was first published in Rich Thinking, a fortnightly weekend read delivered to Yahoo Finance's Fully Briefed subscribers. Get it straight to your inbox here.

Note: Questions are not published in the order they were asked.

As a chief executive, you command an executive salary. How do you like to spend your money?

That's a really interesting question. Gosh, I don't talk about this often.

As a kid, my parents owned a fruit and veggie shop. I was the first in my family to finish high school and go to uni. My parents have always taught me to be generous with what you have. And if what you have is a bunch of cookies that you've made on Sunday, you take them and you share them with your friends. When you earn money, you share that with other people who don't have it.


So my husband and I actually give a lot of money away. We believe in philanthropy in a whole bunch of different areas that are near and dear to our heart, so we make regular commitments to things that we care about and we do it for the long term. But we don't talk about it much.

We’re also big believers in experiences. We love having dinner with people and doing things with friends and family that actually enrich our community. The question of how you spend your money is really closely linked to how you spend your time, otherwise it’s just a transaction. I will happily spend money on anything that builds community.

On the topic of money, what’s the best monetary, financial or investment move you’ve made?

This is interesting. Gosh, I don’t know if I’m breaking my own confidentiality here. For me, in all of the things I do, it’s about negotiating other opportunities. What I mean by that is, in every position I've ever held. I've always negotiated time to serve in some capacity. When I was at Google, one of the things I did in my years there was negotiate to be able to serve on nonprofit boards and external communities, because that was important to me.

The standard answers for this [question] could be ‘I bought this share or I invested in this company or house’; all of those things are true, but I actually don't think they're things that have got me to where I am now. It's been negotiating opportunities to spend time in situations where I'm serving others with my skills but I'm also in return learning and being stretched well outside of my comfort zone and outside of my day-to-day thinking.

That has paid off in spades. It's the investment of my time that I have spent serving in not-for-profits, volunteering, and doing these other things that's actually led to the opportunities that I've had career-wise.

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What’s a technology you wish you invested in five years ago?

Synthetic biology, but not in the food sense – in the material sense. I love the fact that we can make leather alternatives from mushrooms, that we are looking to replace plastics and polymer through seaweed, so they’ll be marine biodegradable.

But it's not just a 5-year-ago investment, it's still a current investment. Australia is a bit late to the game in that one, but the rest of the world has been doing this for about 10 or 15 years. I think synthetic biology has the ability to reinvent how we actually build the functional and the foundational building blocks of the world.

We could have bricks that are actually made from farm waste; we can have clothing and textiles where the elastic is actually straight from seaweed polymer. It's ethical, and it's actually not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. Those kinds of things, to me, are transformative.

What are two technologies you would invest in today?

Oh gosh, you’re asking me to pick my favourite babies.

[The question] is not an easy one to answer. AI is interesting, quantum is interesting, space is interesting. But technology is only interesting if it serves a purpose – to make things better for people, planet and prosperity. For me, technology is an enabler of those things.

It’s going to be a similar answer [as before] – creating novel and new materials from waste, I think, is a really interesting one. There are many companies that we profiled that are actually using what would end up being burnt or put into the ground as the foundational building blocks for an entire new product or service, and I think that's awesome.

The second thing I would invest in: I would look at any technology around protecting and enhancing the ocean. The ocean is really interesting. We enjoy it because summer is coming, we enjoy the resources from it because we like to eat seafood, but the ocean is the lungs of the earth. So we actually really need to figure out how to enhance and protect it, but also to sustainably rethink how we manage it and what we abstract from it.

Seaweed is a really interesting one from a health perspective, a new materials perspective, and a carbon emissions perspective. There’s a great company out of Tasmania harvesting a native seaweed, turning it into fuel for cattle. It reduces carbon emissions by making the quality of the cattle better – so it’s good for the cows. Look at the property of something in nature and find a way it can replace something we use in everyday life. The ocean is full of potential in that space.

Sally-Ann Williams, Cicada Innovations CEO. (Source: Supplied)
Sally-Ann Williams, Cicada Innovations CEO. (Source: Supplied)

Are there any companies you see becoming the next Atlassian or Canva?

In the life sciences and the health space, one of our residents SpeeDx is a phenomenal company that was started by two female founders when they were made redundant when Johnson & Johnson labs closed down during the GFC.

They founded their molecular diagnostics business, and they do diagnostics and antimicrobial resistance. They do a couple of things: they have multiple tests, and started out with STI testing. STIs are growing around the world, and one of the reasons why is because people are antibiotic resistant. So not only do they diagnose what you have, but they tell you what you're resistant to so that your doctor can give you the appropriate antibiotics and you can get treatment.

They've gone from there and used that underlying base technology, and they've now built out respiratory testing. They initially tested the influenza A and B, they now have a COVID test kit, they're actually building an at-home rapid-PCR COVID test kit. They’ve gone from 44 people when I joined Cicada 2.5 years ago to well over 100, and they’re selling to the largest labs around the world with their COVID test kits. 100% SpeeDx is one of my favourites; they’re solving fundamental problems.

That’s a company that should grow on scale. I don't want to compare them to Atlassian or Canva, I want to compare them to Cochlear and CSL because they're the kinds of companies I want to see built.

For number two, I’m going to go with my oceans and seaweed theme: ULUU. So ULUU is a company that came through StartMate recently, and I was their mentor in the program. They’ve just had Main Sequence backing them, and a few other companies have backed them.

They're extracting polymers from seaweed and they want to completely transform plastics in the supply chain from rigid plastics, all the way through to the elastic threads in our clothing, and they’re just brilliant. They’re in Perth, they have this huge vision, and they are solving some of the fundamental and hard challenges, and their product isn't just carbon neutral; they actually are a carbon negative product which is amazing. So I love that.

What are your thoughts on Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is an interesting one. It's an interesting process or way of people decentralising banking and finance and transactions.

Do I get excited about it? On a personal level, I don't. And the reason that I don't get excited about it is, I’ve worked in tech most of my life, and I love the intellectual challenge of technology and the intellectual rigour of solving a really hard problem.

The most excited I get is when you actually apply technology to solve a fundamental problem for people on the planet – the application of technology in health, planetary wellbeing, agriculture, and new materials.

There are some really big consequences of Bitcoin mining from an energy perspective. Do I get excited about people potentially becoming wealthy from Bitcoin and applying that wealth to solve some of the fundamental challenges that we have, by investing in companies solving problems around climate science? Then I can get excited about Bitcoin.

In and of itself, it's not exciting to me as a commodity, or as a product. It’s not going to get me out of bed in the morning.

Sally-Ann Williams at _southstart in 2019. (Source: Medium/_southstart)
Sally-Ann Williams at _southstart in 2019. (Source: Medium/_southstart)

Can regular consumers who aren’t deep tech investors or venture capitalists with resources or money get behind a start-up? Would it be possible for a regular person with $1,000 or $5,000 to invest in one of your tech companies, or is it too high-risk?

That’s a complicated question, because to be a sophisticated investor, you have to meet certain criteria to be able to do that unless they're ASX-listed and you’re buying stocks.

But that being said, I think there's a couple of ways that absolutely everybody in the community can engage in this sector and think about spending their money, because I think we can all contribute to supporting deep tech companies. And it's not always about investment; it's actually becoming that first customer.

There are three things: first of all, you need to know about it … to understand it. We need to demystify deep tech; it's not just commodity driven consumer stuff, it's the hard stuff that solves challenges. It's the stuff that's curing COVID – or will one day.

I think the second one is to look at some of the really interesting crowdfunding equity opportunities that are out there. You sometimes get brands out there that are doing things like zero-waste circular economy consumer-driven products, and they look to raise capital on the funding platforms out there, so that’s another mechanism to do it.

But I think the third and the most important one is becoming a conscious consumer: understanding some of the challenges that you see in the world. So for example, you might be really concerned about ageing populations and how we're going to manage that as a society. You might be concerned about agriculture providing sustainable food for the world; you might be concerned about climate change. I hope people are concerned about climate change. And [it’s about] looking at your own practices and going, ‘Well how could I connect that and change my purchasing habits with my $1,000 to help contribute to the change that I want to see?’

Consumer-led revolution for business and government is really important. If consumers say, I'm only going to buy a product that meets these criteria, it actually changes how businesses think about their long term R&D, and it changes how the government invests in it, and there’s market pull for venture capital to invest in it.

You’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs come in and out the door. Has there been a common or characteristic you’ve seen, time and time again, that differentiates those who are successful and the ones who fail?

The ones who succeed have this attitude of: ‘I'm not really sure how I'm going to do it but I'm going to do it anyway.’ They have the courage or a real conviction about the problem that they're trying to solve.

That conviction might be: ‘We just need to cure these rare cancers, no one should not have treatment’. They have so much conviction that they're not worried about failures, they're not worried about what's not working from a science or tech perspective. They’re like: ‘every problem is just a solution that hasn't happened yet’. We often talk about two sides of a coin: problem and opportunity.

The other thing is, you have to have a certain amount of naivety as a founder to believe you can actually do it. I think it's a matter of ego and naivety caught up together.

The best founders I see are very certain in what they bring to the table, but they're very self aware about what's missing. They don't have any fear of hiring somebody that knows more about something in their team – they actually welcome it. I think the best founders recognise that the business doesn't succeed on them, it succeeds on the team that they hire.

These are people with some degree of EQ, they're really resilient, they've generally had to figure out stuff in life, the hard way, and they tend to be the ones [where] you just know they're going to succeed in what they're doing because they're too focused on the problem and they're willing to make mistakes.

There's no fear of failure. There's a natural innate curiosity. A problem is just a speed bump in the journey for them. It’s not a roadblocker.

Have you developed a non-negotiable in your daily routine to ensure you’re productive and performing at your best?

I notice what happens when I neglect one thing – and that is a form of physical exercise. If I do that first thing in the morning, I'm respecting my brain and my body and putting myself first, which means that I have the capacity to give back to other people later.

I feel like that the number one thing you do in your employment is to serve other people and serve the community that you work with. If you're a manager you serve your team; your job is to serve people. You have to serve yourself before you can serve other people. You can't give to somebody what you don’t have inside of you.

A CEO wears many hats. Step-by-step, what’s your best method or top tips for prioritising what needs to be done for the day or week ahead?

I have to set the multi-year company strategy, obviously. So I break that down into: what do we do this year that contributes to a 10-year, 15-year or 20-year goal? I tend to zoom right out; what is the ‘moon shot’, the big ambitious goal that we want to achieve? Then I work backwards from there into those micro moments.

I think it's really important that you share the priorities with your team, because you want everybody in your organisation to understand what is strategic and purposeful and align with it, because they then help you keep focused and keep away a lot of the things that are not important.

This is something that started in COVID but harks back to my Google days in engineering; there’s a common practice of having a daily 15-minute stand-up, a quick walk around the team of everyone’s priorities and what we try to solve for this week. We do that every single day, first thing in the morning: what are the three goals that I need to achieve this week?

I make sure these are the things that are going to make a difference in the business, and everything else is secondary. So that daily reminder and touchpoint is mutual accountability: I share mine to my team before they share theirs with me. I give them permission to hold me accountable to achieving those goals each week.

An extra 10 hours in the working week – where would you put that?

I would log off from my email, shut down every calendar meeting, and give myself 10 hours to read, to think, and to walk and talk with people who would challenge my thinking about some of the things that I haven't solved in the business.

So I would spend the time on those really hard problems that I don't know how to solve. And I would give space for solutions to emerge and invite people that think differently to me that I definitely won't agree with necessarily, to really stress-test me on it. So strategy, but strategy in a very tactical way [regarding] the deep challenges that are going to face the business in 3, 5, 10 or 15 years. Really thinking on the long-term horizon... I would spend more time in that space.

Speaking of the long term, if you had $10,000 to invest for a child, nephew or niece, where would you put that?

Honestly, the share market is boring, but it's got good returns over the long term. I think if they're young enough and I have an interesting enough company that I'm seeing in my portfolio here, I might consider making a little bit of an investment into that on their behalf because the payoff is in that 15 year horizon. But I'd set some pretty interesting criteria about how they're allowed to spend the money on the other side of it, I think.

I want them to focus on education and an experiential learning opportunity. I'm a big believer that ... putting yourself into that unfamiliar environment, moving out of home, all these [situations] can help you grow as an individual, emotionally, mentally, [and] in your resilience levels. So I'd want them to spend it in an education and an enrichment type of activity that shapes them into a well rounded individual.

I moved out of home very very young and I worked four jobs to put myself through uni. I did go and travel overseas, and I had to fund it myself. But those are the things that actually made me very comfortable in unfamiliar environments.

I look back on those things and go, ‘Those might be some of my greatest skills that I have now’. If this is my niece or my nephew, or somebody I'm related to, how could I give them that experience that will give them an education in life skills? That would be the best possible thing I could do because it sets them up. No matter what happens in life, they will be able to survive.

Note: This interview transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

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