Date posted: 01/12/2016 6 min read

Hamish Jolly discusses the business of shark-repelling

A chartered accountant is behind the technology that helps protect ocean users from shark encounters

In brief

  • Inspired by fatal shark attacks, Jolly has commercialised a range of shark repelling technologies
  • His business has developed a sonar detection system and a “don’t eat me” wetsuit and surfboard
  • He believes entrepreneurs need aggressive concessional tax treatments and risk/reward structures

By Ben Power
Photography by Ryan Pierse

When entrepreneur, scientist and chartered accountant Hamish Jolly appears on radio, it’s usually preceded by the “dun dun, dun dun” of the infamous Jaws soundtrack.

After a series of fatal shark attacks in his home state of Western Australia, Jolly has commercialised a range of technologies to protect against shark encounters. His commercialisation of the famous “striped” wet suit has become an Australian innovation classic.

Sharks are a powerful, emotive issue. Just weeks before we speak, two more people were killed in Western Australia’s waters. Jolly is reluctant to comment.

“When you take on the development of a technology in this domain, there is a responsibility to be really objective and science-led,” he says.

“The whole issue of shark attack is quite incendiary — people have strong views and are highly polarised. We have to defend against getting swept up in the hysteria.”

All through his career Jolly says he has vacillated between what he calls “the money or the box”. The money is the pursuit of wealth creation, while the box is his love of science.

The money

Jolly grew up in Fremantle. His father was a merchant seaman and deputy harbour master of Fremantle Port and his mother was a nurse.

“We were a public service family living in a middle class suburb in Perth,” he says.

When he was about six he was given a book for his birthday called Discovering Nature, which helped trigger a love of science.

His parents sent him to the elite Christ Church Grammar, which counts high-profile business people including Andrew Forrest and Sir Rod Eddington among its alumni.

Despite Jolly’s love of science, when he graduated it was the heady boom days of the 1980s.

“All my mates were stockbrokers, lawyers and finance guys who seemed to be doing really well.”

So he decided to study business. He completed a double major in Business Law and Accounting, then joined Arthur Andersen’s corporate reconstruction and insolvency practice where he completed his chartered accountant’s qualification. The money, at least temporarily, had won.

Jolly says his time as a chartered accountant set the parameters for how he does business — ethical, professional, high-energy and with a commitment to deliver at all costs.

But then science called again, and he returned to the University of Western Australia to undertake Master of Science studies.

The box

Jolly’s career became “very diverse” as he struggled to integrate both business and science. He worked in the international development and defence technology sectors. After settling and marrying in Adelaide, he wanted to move back to Perth. So he set up a technology software company, before joining Bankwest in a Group Strategy and M&A role where he found himself unpicking a series of the bank’s stalled tech investments.

“I was definitely restless,” he says.

“I had a bottom drawer full of projects and no time to properly execute them.”

He took what he describes as a sabbatical in the not-for-profit sector and became CEO of Greening Australia, the country’s largest environmental non-government organisation, but even there he brought his commercial acumen to the role.

Jolly drove Greening Australia’s acquisition of a native seed business that delivered a vertical integration strategy, both providing seeds for planting but also generating an income stream.

But in 2012 he decided that if he were to get the “bottom drawer” projects moving, he was going to have to devote himself full time. From a home office he began developing a portfolio of start-ups in the technology, renewable energy and science domain.

“I backed myself,” he says.

He now has two main ventures. The first is Biogass Renewables, which is developing and commercialising anaerobic digestion bioenergy technology. It has already commissioned a plant that takes 50,000 tonnes of food waste to produce two megawatts of power and is servicing a pipeline of deals to roll out the technology across Australasia.

But the most high-profile is Shark Mitigation Systems Ltd (SMS) which is developing non-invasive shark deterrent technology, including the sonar detection system Clever Buoy and shark visual systems technology leading to the striped “don’t eat me” wetsuit and surfboard.

Keeping sharks at bay

But would it actually work in the water? The UWA has begun independent testing where a perforated drum is filled with bait and wrapped in a neoprene skin. An underwater camera captures the shark’s behaviour. They started with tiger sharks, then the more confident great whites, and videos show the sharks moving towards the drum then turning away when they close in.

Jolly says testing is ongoing in South Africa, and the unpublished results remain very encouraging. SMS licenses the technology to third party brands. ARENA, for example, has a global license to integrate the technology into its new FINA-compliant open water swimming and triathlon suits.

SMS, in conjunction with Optus and with funding from Google, is also developing other technology, including the Clever Buoy, which uses sonar and satellite to detect sharks. It was successfully tested in a 45 day trial in February 2016 at Bondi and is slated by the NSW Government for rollout to other beaches in NSW.

Many potentially great technologies get written up, published in a journal with limited reach, and wither on the vine. They never make the jump to commercialisation, which is the other 90% of the work.

Commercialising ideas

Innovation is a buzzword and many are turning to universities for research and technology to commercialise. Jolly says universities are an “Aladdin’s Cave of technology and opportunity just ripe for commercialisation”.

“But universities historically have not been very good at it,” he says, adding “a whole range of things hold unis back from commercialisation.”

The currency unit for an academic scientist is the scientific paper.

“Many potentially great technologies get written up, published in a journal with limited reach, and wither on the vine,” he says.

“They never make the jump to commercialisation, which is the other 90 per cent of the work.”

Jolly says there is little opportunity for the innovator inside a university environment to benefit materially and financially from the commercialisation process. He believes some major structural changes are required to connect technology systematically to money and market.

It’s not about direct grants and subsidies though.

“We need structural incentivisation with more aggressive concessional tax treatment and advantageous risk/reward structures for start-up entrepreneurs.”

But commercialisation of research ideas is also a mindset — that both the money and the box matter and that by combining them, solutions to real problems can be delivered to the world.

Chartered accountants have a key role in that process, Jolly says, noting there are four key roles needed in development of a technology. The technical skills of the inventor, someone to raise capital, someone to run the day to day business and a marketeer.

“CAs live and breathe business and finance. They naturally already carry half of the necessary skills.”

SMS listed on the ASX on 24 March at a 30 per cent premium in its IPO debut. Jolly says the company is capitalised for growth, is attracting a range of new ideas, and will potentially diversify beyond shark technology into wider marine-related innovation.

There is evidence that shark attacks are increasing.

“We are seeing an escalation in global engagements between sharks and people,” Jolly says. But his commercialisation efforts are helping ease the threat, at least in people’s minds.

There is still an element of restlessness about Jolly. He expects to continue to innovate and commercialise ideas, a process he describes as “almost addictive”.

But there is also a level of satisfaction, because he’s finally worked out how to combine the money with the box.

“It’s only later in my career I have been able to combine the two in a really comprehensive way. I’m finally on a path where investment, finance, tech, science and commercialisation is all coalescing in a really exciting way.”

Ben Power is a freelance writer and communications consultant.

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.