‘It’s not me, it’s you’, is the message from universities to industry in terms of success in partnering and commercialisation of research and development.
Dr Leanna Read, Chief Scientist of South Australia and the founder and former CEO of TGR BioSciences, says universities are unfairly “bagged” for not pulling their weight in collaborating with industry and in fostering the development of research commercialisation partnerships.
“Our surveys have shown there is a strong interest in commercialisation and a willingness [in university research] to engage with industry,” she told the Australian Financial Review’s Innovation Summit in Sydney today.
“One of the issues is the nature of our industry sector. We are dominated by small to medium enterprises and we tend to be low in the level of innovation happening at this level. We have a problem here where research has all the will in the world to knock on doors of industry – the trouble is they’re not going to get a terribly good reception,” she says.
“We need to grow an innovative culture in these companies.”
TGR BioSciences focuses on drug discovery assay technologies and applies its core skills in cell biology to the development of new biodetection technologies.
Universities willing to engage
Emeritus Professor Jim Piper AM, President of Science and Technology Australia, and previously from Macquarie University, says there is a “high awareness” in universities to “encourage commercialisation”.
“There are impediments, however.
“One of the issues is the silo-isation of research which has been aided and abetted by the funding mechanism of universities.”
Many people forget that the university system is a service industry driven by international reputation, Piper points out. International students choose universities based on their impact factor and international reputation, and Australian universities rely heavily on liquidity from international students.
Shifting to a focus towards research commercialisation-based funding, or key performance indicators based on partnership success, the so-called ‘partner or perish’ is a massive shift in this context, he says – but one that universities are willing to make.
“One thing you can say about university researchers is they really chase the money. If that is in collaboration, then that is where they will chase it.
“One of the issues with unis is that, in most cases, commercialisation officers don’t have critical mass and there are challenges.”
For example, there are challenges in sharing and applying intellectual property (IP), he says.
“At Macquarie University, students at the start are invited to assign their intellectual property rights to the university so the uni can negotiate on their part. Often [in other universities] students keep their IP and this can be very complicated,” he told the summit.
Practice makes perfect
The problem may lie in experience in negotiations, says Professor Ian Frazer AC, Chair of the Medical Research Future Fund and inventor of the cervical cancer vaccine.
“We probably aren’t experienced enough at this negotiation [between academia and industry],” says Frazer. “There are excellent examples of industry-uni partnerships working, but there needs to be a lot of talk to make this happen.
“We’ve got to change both sides of the equation, for industries and universities. For example, the health sector relies on unis to provide input to research. We need to ensure that there is engagement between health researchers and industry, but industry needs to realise that research is critical to what it does,” he says.
Dr Steve Jones, global head of research and development at Australian R&D spin off cancer company Sirtex – a medical device company providing a radioactive treatment for inoperable liver cancer – agrees that universities have “had a rough ride” to make dramatic changes to the way they incentivise research to promote collaboration and research commercialisation.
Sirtex has approached universities to work on research but found that it worked best when they had an identifiable problem to take to the researchers, he told Science Meets Business.
Unis have work to do too
Read acknowledges that universities also have work to do, with funding for projects traditionally focussed on research project grants rather than looking to the issues faced by customers, the business approach controversially emphasised by CSIRO CEO Dr Larry Marshall, who also spoke at the summit.
“We need more of a ‘what is the problem and how do I solve it’ approach – this is what Cooperative Research Centres do well and we need more of that kind of research,” says Read.
More pull less push towards research commercialisation
Chief Defence Scientist Dr Alex Zelinksy says any successful negotiation “needs to be win-win” for both university and industry.
“There is a push and a pull element. There is a pioneering spirit (do it yourself) rather than an entrepreneurial spirit in terms of business and commercialisation of research. We need everyone to come together.”
He agrees that one of the barrier is around intellectual property. “Access to IP needs to be on fair and commercial terms.”
– Heather Catchpole
Read more: Collaborate or Crumble