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VALD proves Advance Queensland grants work but is it the exception or the rule?

Business

Advance Queensland support has helped sports technology company VALD grow spectacularly, but what about the other 7,800 recipients of government help? asks Robert MacDonald.

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The Queensland Government announced last week it was tipping another $142 million into its Advance Queensland innovation strategy.

That will bring the total investment of the Palaszczuk administration’s signature economic development program – launched just weeks after it came to office in early 2015 – to almost one billion dollars.

Much of the money has been handed out in grants and other forms of support to more than 7,800 recipients so far – from scientists to start-ups and multinationals.

Seven-and-a-half years on there should be enough evidence to answer the question, is it money well spent?

Yes, if all of the Government’s investments have been as successful as its investment in sports technology company, VALD.

Newstead-based VALD has received several hundred thousand dollars in grants and equity investment from various Advance Queensland schemes.

QUT graduates, Laurie Malone, a lawyer, and Sam James, an industrial designer, founded VALD in 2015 to commercialise a hamstring strength-testing system developed by QUT academics, Tony Shield and David Opar.

Today, VALD has 177 staff world-wide – 79 of them hired this year alone – and is a finalist in the 2022 Premier of Queensland’s Export Awards.

Its product range, in addition to its original NordBord hamstring testing system, now includes a suite of human movement diagnostic devices for seemingly every muscle in the body.

It has a client list of more than 1000 global sport and health organisations, among them 27 American NFL franchises, 22 Major League baseball teams and all 20 English Premier League Clubs. VALD is also making big inroads into the allied health services sector.

Sam James, now VALD’s chief strategic officer, says Queensland Government support was a crucial support for the company’s rapid growth.

“We were a recipient of an (Advance Queensland) Ignite Ideas grant, which was early in the business,” he says.

That grant, in 2017, helped the company test and develop its ForceFrame strength testing system.

A year later, it received another $100,000 from the Advance Queensland Sports Science Challenge fund to develop and test a portable swimming training device.

Also in 2018, the now-closed Queensland Government-funded Business Development Fund invested equity in VALD.

Just how much is unknown. QIC, which manages the fund, says it’s commercial-in-confidence.

QIC invested more equity into the company late last year – the amount again undisclosed – by way of the Backing Queensland Business Investment Fund, which the State Government launched as part of its Covid-19 economic recovery package.

“We’ve sort of risen up the tiers,” James says, adding he believed only one other company had progressed through the various Advance Queensland funding stages.

“And so they have some poster children now. I don’t know whether we deserve to be among them, but we have certainly grown a lot.”

And the State Government has certainly embraced VALD as an Advance Queensland success story.

Premier Palaszczuk visited the company recently and issued a media release praising the company on the day of the recent third State of Origin match in Brisbane.

“Chances are most State of Origin players on a team tonight will have used VALD’s sport tech and diagnostic health products at their NRL club,” Palaszczuk said.

VALD’s James believes the just-announced reboot of the Advance Queensland program, now described as the “Innovation for a Future Economy – 2022-2032 roadmap” is a good idea.

“A lot of these things can be just a a waste of money but I do think the Advance Queensland scheme has done a lot of good, so I was quite pleased to see it renewed,” he says.

“If a company’s on a fast-growth trajectory and the government can invest, in the relative scheme of things, a small amount of money, it can usually be turned into a very quick and very big turnaround.

“And when governments are being measured by job creation, I think these innovation initiatives can be a very good marketing scheme for them because they can have a very quick and obvious impact.”

Which goes back to the question, is Advance Queensland’s $750 million (and counting) money well spent?

“With these schemes, the success rate is always going to be very low but there are quite a few that have gone on and had quite a lot of success,” James says.

On the evidence of VALD’s success and other high-profile Advance Queensland alumni such as Tritium, now a world leader in the electric vehicle charger market, the model does work.

But precise measurements of success are hard to find.

The Government says the $755 million invested to date through Advance Queensland programs has leveraged nearly a billion dollars in investment from external partners and supported more than 28,000 new jobs in Queensland.

It has also published dozens of case studies of Advance Queensland grant recipients.

What’s missing is any actual cost-benefit analysis or reporting against predetermined performance criteria.

And QIC is hiding behind the commercial-in-confidence cloak to avoid revealing the performance details of its Business Development and Backing Queensland Innovation funds.

These two funds are investing $180 million of public money into entrepreneurial local companies, including VALD.

It’s high-risk investing and some bets will definitely fail.

But as VALD’s performance to date has shown there will be some spectacular winners.

The Palaszczuk Government has recently committed itself to being open and honest in the wake of Professor Peter Coaldrake’s damning review into Queensland public sector culture and accountability.

If that were truly the case, it wouldn’t just be cherry-picking and celebrating Advance Queensland’s successes such as VALD – as well deserved as that recognition might be.

It would also be giving us a warts-and-all accounting of the successes – and failures – of this massively expensive program.

It is our money after all. They should come clean on how they’re spending it.

InQueensland is a media partner of the Premier’s Queensland Export Awards.

 

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