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university to business

Bringing business to uni

Prime Minister Turnbull coined the catchphrase “collaborate or crumble” in December 2015 as he launched the $5 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA).

The phrase replaced the longstanding “publish or perish” dictum to engage university researchers with NISA’s ambitious goals. Since then, universities have implemented several of the recommendations from the Watt Review, which was tasked with bringing into force changes to university research funding models to incentivise collaboration with business.

NISA simultaneously introduced financial incentives and initiatives to boost the innovation performance of Australian business.

Some of these opportunities can be leveraged within the framework of the business to business (B2B) model. Considerably more could be leveraged from the still relatively unexploited university to business (U2B) model.

Bringing university to business

A key advantage of the university to business model is that universities aren’t driven by the company bottom line. In principle, this should make cooperation and collaboration significantly easier to manage than in the B2B model.

To take advantage of the NISA incentives and initiatives, however, new U2B collaborations need to be established.

This is a challenge, because university research and Australian business have traditionally existed in parallel universes. One practical strategy is universities opening the doors to their own research hubs.

Established as “knowledge transaction spaces”, similar to industry-led Knowledge Hubs, university research hubs are ideal for university to business interactions because they engage researchers from a broad range of disciplines, with diverse skills sets – a veritable smorgasbord of intellectual resources all in one place.

The Charles Perkins Centre Hub at the University of Sydney, for example, is a melting pot of researchers in metabolic disease, and was established deliberately to be highly interdisciplinary and de-shackled from conventional biomedical research approaches.

Indeed, its approach is strongly aligned with the “convergence” strategy advocated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in their 2016 report, based on an earlier white paper.

The University of Sydney’s newest research hub is the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, part of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. Although STEM-focused, nanoscience and nanotechnology involves diverse disciplines and has broad applications, some of which cannot even be imagined.

While quantum computing is attracting enormous interest from business, some researchers are looking to biology for inspiration to design next-generation nanotechnology devices. Why biology? Because every interaction between molecules in living organisms occurs on nano-scales.

In fact, some proteins are even referred to as “nano-machines” and because they operate so efficiently in such a busy, compact environment, they potentially hold the clue to discovering how to make practical quantum computers work in the real world.

Similarly, bio-inspired nanotechnology devices, designed to emulate brain-like adaptive learning, open up the possibility of neuromorphic “synthetic intelligence” hardware in next-generation autonomous systems.

Such synthetically intelligent robots could be sent to remote, unexplored places, such as the deep ocean or deep space. They could be used in place of real humans without requiring any pre-programming; information processing and critical decision making would occur on the fly, in real time – just as if they were real humans.

Collaborate and accelerate

The benefits of collaboration may seem obvious, but sometimes it is worth stating the obvious from different perspectives. When people interact, they self-organise, forming groups that operate collectively to achieve imperatives as well as unexpected outcomes.

These outcomes would otherwise not be possible at the individual level – the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. We experience this every day now through social media.

In the internet age that we find ourselves in today, it has never been more important to collaborate, simply because of the sheer volume of information we have access to and the increasing rate at which this data is growing.

We cannot feasibly keep up with this as individuals, but as teams, we can.

Knowledge can be gained by individuals much more effectively through interactions with others than by searching the internet or reading a research publication.

That new shared information can be applied more efficiently. This means that through collaboration, researchers and business can accelerate their progress on the path to success, however they each choose to measure it. 

Professor Zdenka Kuncic

Founding Co-Director, Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, The University of Sydney

Read next: Professor Andrew Rohl, Director of the Curtin Institute for Computation, compares academic collaboration with partnerships that involve industry. 

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Innovation and Science on Turnbull agenda

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently announced the creation of a National Innovation and Science Agenda which includes funding, tax incentives and a strong focus on education initiatives to up the ante for Australia in terms of its innovation output.

The policy comes off the back of increased push since the Prime Minister gained office on the need to position Australia more strongly in the global economy and to facilitate a rapid move from traditional income from resources and manufacturing to one based on ‘ideas and entrepreneurship’.

Early announcements include:

  • $8 million in a network of incubators helping start-ups get the resources, knowledge and networks they need to take their ideas to the world
  • New arrangements to encourage collaboration between researchers and industry, including streamlining and refocussing a greater proportion of research block grant funding toward collaboration, with an addition $127 million in funding
  • Over 10 years: $520 million for the Australian Synchrotron, $294 million for the Square Kilometre Array, and $1.5 billion for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS)
  • A $36 million Global Innovation Strategy to support businesses and researchers to collaborate with their global counterparts on research with landing pads established for Australian entrepreneurs and startups in Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley and three other key locations
  • $99 million investment in programmes to boost digital literacy and skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) amongst young Australians
  • $13 million to increasing opportunities for women in research, STEM industries, startups and entrepreneurial firms

The Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Christopher Pyne, said: “The release of the Agenda is just the beginning. The next step will be a national discussion around this new way of thinking and doing, and the importance of innovation and science to our future.

“We will highlight the successes to date and inspire all Australians to be involved in shaping our future and harnessing the potential of our ideas,” Mr Pyne said.

More on this to come.

– Heather Catchpole