What do hacker groups, mothers' circles and German immigrants have in common?
The two dominant approaches to encouraging research that leads to business outcomes have long been at loggerheads.
In one camp are those who advocate for public funding, via universities, tax credits, the CSIRO, or direct investment in defence or strategic industries like broadband.
In the other are those who prefer to create spaces for entrepreneurs through liberal tax and migration policies, bulwarked by a legal system that defends intellectual property rights.
Paradoxically, both sides of the argument are relying on government intervention - whether it's to subsidise research directly, or to guard the boundaries of a free market.
But what if there were a third option, one in which the entrepreneurs generated their own safe spaces to share ideas - each of them with a potentially marketable solution, but all needing the input of their peers to help turn insights into viable business plans?
That option is the focus of Professor Jason Potts' work at RMIT. Potts, who holds an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, is fascinated by the potential to apply evolutionary theory to economics, to see how cooperation and competition can interact to create new "species" of entrepreneurs.
His work in the field of business ideas builds on the insights of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who explored the informal ways in which communities ("the commons") collaborate to exploit natural resources without competing to the point of collapse.
"I'm excited to find examples in the commons - in civil society - of innovation that springs from enthusiasts who are not hiding behind IP, and who are not corporate employees or academics, but who are connected through flat structures - effectively clubs with their own rules and pooled resources," Potts says.
"Mothers' groups are one place where new business ideas have been incubated. German immigrants helped lay the basis of the Australian wine industry by forming clubs to experiment with varietals, soils and climate.
"But it is the hacker club that probably provides the clearest example - the most famous being the Homebrew Computer Club in California's Silicon Valley from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, which helped spawn Apple and Microsoft."
Potts is taking a deep interest in the growth of 3D printing, a sunrise industry which is demonstrating the way in which sharing ideas in the commons can ease the process of commercialisation.
"The process is happening before our eyes. Last year, for the first time, you could buy a 3D printer for home use," he says.
"3D printing is transitioning from clubs and community sharing, with individuals collaborating on software development, to a corporate structure.
"3D printing has developed around hacker spaces and open-source software. The community is now on the move from uncertainty to certainty, from sharing market information to protecting intellectual property rights.
"Researchers have already undertaken a lot of sociological and ethnographical work on this phenomenon. I'm now investigating what policy outcomes can be developed and shared in other industries."
Evolutionary entrepreneurship theory runs counter to the common sense that new businesses and new industries spring from the private thinking of individuals, who develop patentable ideas and nurture them to commercial success.
But as Potts says: "Clubs allow people with technical insights to share with others. The longer the ideas are in the commons, the more they mature.
"Everyone in the club wants to be rich, but the logic of sharing is that each must contribute to have a chance of being the next Bill Gates."
Story: David Glanz
Photo: Carla Gottgens
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.