Tapping Into Green Mainstream

The Sunday Age | 14 January 2007

PROFILE: ALAN FINKEL, publisher

He rides an electric scooter and has booked a seat on a 2009 galactic flight: Alan Finkel tells Peter Wilmoth about his interest in ‘reducing our footprint’ on the planet.

DR ALAN FINKEL is clean and green and, standing in the garage of his Toorak office, he’s showing us the fully electric scooter on which he rides to work. It’s roughly the power of a 50cc bike, works for an hour or two before it needs recharging and its top speed is about 60kph.

“It’s no good on the highway,” he says, “and I avoid Dandenong Road, but it’s fantastic for suburban and city commuting.”

A $3500 scooter is not the mode of transport you’d expect to see a BRW Rich Lister getting around on, but it’s a symbol of where we’re all going as environmental concerns keep rising.

“My guess is that, in five years, there will be a massive migration to hybrid cars, and, in 15 years, there will be a huge migration to pure electric, which is the ultimate goal,” he says. “In 15 years, 10 to 20 per cent of car sales will be electric and at least half will be hybrid.”

In 15 years, how will we look back at the year 2006 with our massive reliance on petrol?

“We will wish we had moved more quickly,” he says.

As the publisher of a new, bi-monthly magazine called G, which focuses on environmental sustainability and bills itself as “a practical guide to treading lightly”, green topics are front and centre of Finkel’s work and life.

“There are what I call ‘angry’ magazines about what’s wrong, that complain about the government and business, but don’t help you, and there are magazines for the do-it-yourselfers, which appeal to a small subset,” he says in explaining that they had seen a gap in the market. “We realised talking to our friends that we all wanted to do something that would have a positive impact in reducing our footprint on the planet, but without sacrificing our lifestyles.

“You don’t have to sell your house and move to the country and live like a hermit. There are lots of things you can do that don’t involve a quality-of-life sacrifice.”

The first issue of G contains articles on sustainable house renovations (rainwater tank to flush toilets and irrigate garden beds; a garden of native Australian plants needing little water), how to access green electricity, a piece on a working holiday on a sustainable farm, “44 eco-fabulous solutions” in food, fashion, beauty, travel and entertaining, and Australia’s first “carbon-neutral” wedding.

On the magazine’s advisory board are British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson; scientist and writer Tim Flannery; organic farmer, author and environmentalist Patrice Newell; and Nick Rowley, until December senior policy adviser on sustainability and climate change to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The timing is good. Growing concerns about global warming, drought and the future availability of the earth’s finite resources; the buzz around Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth; and the grim warnings and recommendations of the British Stern report on climate change have created a receptive climate for an accessible magazine about green living.

Despite Prime Minister John Howard’s dismissal of Gore’s film and people who “talk theoretically about what might happen to Australia and the planet in 50 years’ time”, there’s little doubt that green topics - once the preserve of a small band of committed environmentalists regarded by some as idealistic hippies - are now cemented into the mainstream.

The Government’s Industry Minister might have called Gore’s film “just entertainment”, but “Think globally, act locally” is no longer just a sign at a Nimbin market. Increasingly, it’s a mantra by which people try to live.

“It almost feels like we have picked the sweet spot for launching the magazine,” Finkel says. “All these issues are talking points.” He says people have moved past the dismissive view that an individual’s choices are pointless. “You are not going to save the planet by buying a hybrid car, but people are sophisticated enough to understand that their individual action can make a difference.”

After 22 years as the chief executive of his own company, Finkel, 53, is in a process of rediscovery. He is revelling in his second career as a publisher, co-owning the boutique Sydney-based publishing house Luna Media.

It’s a path he finds exciting and rewarding, especially given that for most of the 1980s and ‘90s, Finkel had little time to think about anything but business.

After Monash University, where he studied electrical engineering for which he received his doctorate in 1981, Finkel worked as a research fellow at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in Canberra.

During this time, he developed a device that measured electrical activity in nerve and heart cells. It enabled the measurement of brain cells in mammals.

The invention, which was embraced by scientists around the world, became the foundation product for a new biotech company, Axon Instruments, which Finkel started in 1983, making scientific equipment in Silicon Valley, outside San Francisco.

Finkel’s wife, Elizabeth, who holds a PhD in biochemistry and spent 10 years as a professional research scientist before becoming a science journalist (she is the author of a new book, Stem Cells: Controversy at the Frontiers of Science) had been granted a postgraduate scholarship to study in San Francisco. In moving there with his wife, Finkel, using money borrowed from family, rented a building and started making the device he’d invented. As it sold, he hired staff and it was soon a going concern, based in San Francisco but managed from Melbourne. The Finkels lived in San Francisco for five years to oversee the business before returning to Melbourne in 1987 for family reasons.

Faced with the choice of transferring the business to Melbourne or operating it at a long distance, he chose the latter.

“I became the world’s longest-distance commuter,” he says. “I always knew it was what I had to do to achieve my greater goal. Luckily, I can sleep and work on airplanes. I got used to the travel: it just became part of my routine.”

Axon grew strongly, eventually satisfying 60 per cent of the global scientific world’s demand and employing 150 people.

The company was listed in 2000 and became one of the most lucrative Australian Stock Exchange floats for investors. The Finkels’ 43 per cent holding spiked to an unsustainable value of more than $330 million when Axon made its debut at the height of the tech boom.

In 2002, the Finkels appeared in BRW’s Rich List with a reported $215 million fortune.

In 2004, Finkel believed the company was at the crossroads - the choice was to expand alone or within a larger operation. He and his board decided to sell Axon to Molecular Devices, a US-based Nasdaq-listed company, realising a total of $187 million for the Finkels and other company shareholders.

Finkel left the company in December last year after 18 months as senior vice-president for global engineering. Two decades of running your own business was not without personal cost.

“Being a CEO of a company was like beating your head against a brick wall. I loved (it), but there’s a lot of stress involved and you never get away from it - weekends, evenings.”

At 53, Finkel says he felt young and energetic enough to start a second career and niche publishing was it. “You don’t often get the opportunity to change careers,” he says.

The two magazines came about after an approach by science journalist Wilson da Silva. In 1996, at an awards dinner, Finkel had met da Silva, whose work on the science magazine Newton he had admired.

When Newton folded, da Silva and his partner, Kylie Ahern, approached Finkel to bankroll a new venture, and, in 2005, Cosmos was born, with da Silva as editor.

It’s been a happy arrangement. Cosmos recently scored eight prizes, including magazine of the year, at an awards ceremony for niche publications. Da Silva is also editor-in-chief of G.

No one could accuse Finkel of not looking after his senior staff. In what one writer described as “the last word in Christmas bonuses”, Finkel has bought for $US200,000 ($256,000) each a seat for da Silva and one for himself on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic passenger flight into space scheduled for 2009.

“I think it’s very appropriate for the editor of a science magazine to fly into space, especially a magazine called Cosmos,” Finkel says.

Finkel spoke then of the excitement of being involved in a fledgling project.

“I love that the Cosmos office has a start-up feel. I love it even more that it’s them and not me. I’ve been there, done that and I can get vicarious pleasure from watching them do it,” he says.

Dr Alan Finkel

Married in 1982, wife Elizabeth

Two sons, Victor, 19, Alex, 17

Education: Mount Scopus Memorial College (school captain), Bachelor Electrical Engineering (Monash University), PhD Electrical Engineering (Monash)

1983: Moves to San Francisco and starts Axon Instruments

2000: Floats Axon on Australian Stock Exchange

2004: Sells Axon to US-based Molecular Devices

2005: Wins Clunies Ross science medal, launches Cosmos magazine

2006: Made Member of the Order of Australia for contributions to science and education, launches G Magazine

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