Australia funds innovation in Vietnam

April 19th, 2021

Aus4Innovation, an Australian development assistance program, is offering grants worth AUD1.5 million (US$1.13 million) to fund innovation in Vietnam.

Tom Wood, Aus4Innovation Program Director, speaks about the assistance provided to Vietnam’s innovation development.

– What is Australia’s standing in the partnership with Vietnam? Why was innovation chosen to be a focus in Australia’s support to Vietnam?

Bilateral links between Australia and Vietnam have developed significantly since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1973. In 2017 Australia and Vietnam announced that the bilateral relationship would be elevated to a strategic partnership, and on March 15, 2018, signed a Joint Statement on the Establishment of a Strategic Partnership between Australia and Vietnam.

Acknowledging the diverse bilateral relationship, encompassing wide-ranging cooperation on different issues, the two countries agreed that the Plan of Action for the Strategic Partnership for the period of 2020-23 would focus on three priority areas: enhancing economic engagement, deepening strategic, defense and security cooperation and building knowledge and innovation partnerships.

Innovation is therefore clearly articulated as a priority for the governments of Australia and Vietnam as a means to increase our trade and economic links, but also to accelerate inclusive economic growth in Vietnam.

This shared aspiration to become innovation-led nations is reflected in the Australia-Vietnam Innovation Partnership, chaired by Australia’s ambassador to Vietnam and Vietnam’s minister of science and technology, and Aus4Innovation (A4I), our flagship development program in the sector.

– As a flagship program, how is Aus4Innovation designed to create a lasting impact on Vietnam’s innovation ecosystem?

Aus4Innovation is a four-year collaboration between Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and National Science Agency (CSIRO) and Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). In 2018-22 Australia and Vietnam are together exploring emerging areas of technology and digital transformation, trialing new models for partnerships between public and private sector institutions, and strengthening Vietnamese capability in digital foresight, scenario planning, commercialization, and innovation policies. This wide range of support activities and flexible approaches allows for rapid iteration of programming to ensure it will deliver lasting impact at the system level.

Originally open across all sectors, A4I has narrowed the focus in the first phase of work to two areas: future digital economy, and resilient agriculture and food systems.

Steady progress was made through the first half of the program, building relationships and testing collaborative models to scale up. In 2020 MOST and DFAT agreed to plan for a second phase of work (to 2025) and to fund transitional initiatives in 2021 and 2022 that respond to Covid-19 recovery priorities. Artificial intelligence activities, under the future digital economy theme, were the first to be supported.

A water treatment system using Rapido model from the University of Technology Sydney is installed at a school in Ha Nam Province in northern Vietnam.

– What is the purpose of the Aus4Innovation partnership grants and how can they foster innovation initiatives in Vietnam?

The innovation partnership grants are a critical feature of the Aus4Innovation program. The purpose of the grants is to provide targeted funds to scale up already tested activities that address emerging challenges or opportunities in any sector of Vietnam’s innovation system.

Experiences from past development assistance programs for start-ups showed there were brilliant initiatives with potential widespread socioeconomic impact that were tested for feasibility but not scaled up due to the lack of access to funding. Public funding for innovation in Vietnam is still modest while private funds and investors are not interested in initiatives that are for public interest and cannot be commercialized. Therefore, the innovation partnership grants help bridge that gap to give innovators the chance to turn their tested ideas into scaled-up reality.

– What was funded in the previous two rounds? What did the grantees achieve using the grant from Aus4Innovation? Are there any highlights you want to share?

Eight projects were chosen for funding in the previous rounds with a total budget allocation of approximately AUD3.6 million. The most competitive were selected from 190 applications. Projects from the first round have nearly completed all activities, while second round teams are half way through implementation. Each team has utilized technologies and experiences from Australia, combined with local know-how and need, to build on existing proven results and scale up ideas. Highlights include:

Round 1 highlights include:

– Bringing a novel university technology development model, Rapido, to Vietnam and demonstrating its effectiveness by delivering water treatment and monitoring solutions to farmers in Phu Yen, communities in the Red River Delta, and flood-affected areas in central Vietnam.

– Producing 20,000 fingerling white teatfish sea cucumbers (a high-value species) by inducing spawning with a novel hormone. These sea cucumbers are a valuable export item, their production complements other aquaculture operations, and captive breeding reduces pressure on wild stocks.

– Demonstrating the use of artificial intelligence and new training techniques to improve breast cancer screening accuracy.

Round 2 projects in sectors including agriculture, aquaculture, environmental monitoring, and flood management.

A man holds a white teatfish sea cucumber grown with a novel hormone, a project between Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast and Vietnam’s Research Institute for Aquaculture 3, and a grantee of Aus4Innovation.

– Why did you decide to fund Round 3?

2020 has been challenging, with the Covid-19 pandemic infecting millions and bringing many traditional channels of economic activity to a near standstill as countries imposed tight restrictions on movement to halt the transmission of the virus. In this context, however, our Round 2 and 3 grantees have continued to work well together – going digital has been a primary focus of efforts to minimize the disruption caused by the pandemic, and adapt to the new normal.

When considering program activities for 2021, it was natural to extend our successful partnership grants program and target it toward enabling Vietnam’s future digital economy. While digitization had been a priority for MOST even before Covid-19, the pandemic has accelerated the transformation, increasing both speed and scale. In June this year the Vietnamese prime minister approved the National Digital Transformation Program to transform Vietnam into a digital country, where government management, business operations, and people’s lives are enabled in a secure digital environment.

In this backdrop, the third round of innovation partnership grants forms an integral component of MOST’s efforts to enable digital transformation in support of economic recovery from the pandemic. Grants will fund initiatives that have the potential to enhance the digital transformation in the economy and deliver inclusive social impacts.

– With its theme of ‘Enhancing digital transformation,’ what do you expect from this round of funding?

This time our grants have a specific theme. Initiatives should aim to deliver innovative products, services or business models and solutions that build on emerging digital technologies like AI, blockchain, the Internet of Things, and deep tech and cloud-based services, for example. Solutions should help improve efficiency, agility and productivity in a specific sector or across the economy. While there is no restriction on the sectors that applicants select, suggestions include smart manufacturing, smart agriculture, digital health, smart education, smart cities, finance and banking, natural resources and environment, and e-government.

The Aus4Innovation program is now calling for expressions of interest in round 3 of its innovation partnership grants with the theme ‘Enhancing digital transformation.’ The applications can be submitted from now until April 4, 2021, by existing Australia-Vietnam partnerships. The applications will be reviewed based on a set of criteria including partnerships, innovation, readiness, relevance to and potential impacts on Vietnam’s digital transformation process, social impacts, and Covid-19 adaptability.

Funding of AUD100,000 to AUD1 million will be provided on a competitive basis, and grantees will have up to 12 months to implement their proposed activities. Find out more here.