Thinking beyond the barriers to innovation

July 21, 2020

Two CRCs give their insights into wrapping up research programs with optimal impact.

Two CRCs give their insights into wrapping up research programs with optimal impact. Gregor Ferguson reports. 

Consider commercialisation right from the start and set up your research program quickly. That’s the advice from Dr Sanjay Mazumdar, former CEO of the Data to Decisions (D2D) CRC that shut down in June 2019, after five years. 

The information technology sector evolves rapidly, so Mazumdar focused the D2D CRC on developing flexible intellectual property (IP) commercialisation models that delivered timely results and provided for funding and ongoing development beyond its five-year life. 

“We needed to hit the ground running,” says Mazumdar, who’d previously worked for BAE Systems Australia and Motorola, and has now moved to KPMG. The D2D CRC considered different commercialisation pathways before establishing two ‘spin-in’ companies. These were wholly owned subsidiaries of the CRC, which incubated them and their IP and then spun them out shortly before the CRC closed. 

CRC participants are now part of a trust with equity in these spin-offs; this is one of the takeaways in the D2D Lessons Learned Review Report. This approach made transitioning

IP from the lab to the market much easier, says Mazumdar, and created viable businesses able to develop the CRC’s IP.

Challenges of research-heavy collaboration

Mazumdar’s experience differs from that of David Ball, CEO of the Space Environment Research CRC (SERC), that will shut down later this year after passing a couple of delayed milestones which have extended its five-year funding term.`

Ball understood SERC’s five-year CRC funding agreement might be problematic for a research-intensive CRC extending the leading edge of Space Situational Awareness (SSA).

“We’re not making widgets here,” he says. “It is research and things sometimes take longer to achieve.” SERC’s commercialisation was slowed by several unforeseen problems: damage caused by a US supplier delayed delivery of a crucial mirror assembly by more than four months; a satellite carrying a hosted payload for SERC failed; and then a second payload integrator delayed the launch from New Zealand of a replacement SERC satellite payload until this year. 

SERC’s space experiments using that payload will deliver the final package of IP. The end of those experiments will trigger its final shutdown. Ball says he doesn’t want to leave ‘shelfware’ behind when SERC closes, and there’s a good chance the industry and research participants in the CRC, which include EOS Space Systems and Lockheed Martin, plus universities, will snap up the IP. 

SERC is making a major contribution to SSA technology, especially in adaptive optics, software and high-power lasers. This is a cornerstone of the new Australian Space Agency’s technology agenda. Defence has ongoing projects in these areas, as do some of SERC’s industry participants, but Ball won’t be drawn on their plans to commercialise the CRC’s IP. 

“Our partners are very keen to continue their involvement from an academic and industry point of view,” he says.

Importantly, both D2D CRC and SERC identified and solved some complex, enduring problems. From the outset, they tapped into markets that value their IP sufficiently to create new income streams to continue developing and exploiting their IP after the CRCs shut down. SERC’s five-year funding agreement could have benefitted from an allowance for the technical delays inherent in space research, acknowledges Ball. This would have sped up the development of proven IP and made commercialisation planning smoother. Future CRCs can benefit from looking at the successes and setbacks of both organisations.

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