Researchers urged to stop hoarding knowledge

October 19, 2017

Australia’s most successful startup has warned researchers that open sourcing knowledge is a must in order to develop R&D spin off success.

Spark festival

Dom Price, futurist and head of R&D at Australia’s most successful startup tech firm Atlassian has an impassioned and personal plea for academic researchers: stop hoarding, let go and act now!

Speaking to science and technology researchers, business owners who’ve commercialised research and fledgling research-based startups, Price stressed that perfection is the enemy of progress.

“You need to have progress and a little bit of perfection. ‘Scrappiness’ should be part of innovation!” he said.

Price’s view on how to get scientists to focus on progress is to start by sharing unfinished research early.

His opening address to Inspiring Australia’s Commercialising Research forum held at Sydney School of Entrepreneurship Monday as part of the Spark Festival warned that if scientists continued to hoard knowledge in a quest to attain perfection, they will certainly miss opportunities to scale up and translate their research into useful, global solutions.

Research is a skill not a job

Adding to this provocation, Price referred to research as a skill – one among many other skills required to scale up knowledge and build large-scale businesses that are capable of global reach. While he appealed to businesses to give researchers the freedom and time to “do the scary stuff,” Price argued that maintaining a sense of urgency was critical in order for Australian scientists to be able to take advantage of commercial opportunities as they arose.

Speakers and delegates participating in the half-day Commercialising Research forum challenged traditional research-business stereotypes and looked at the culture and collaborations necessary to achieve translational opportunities in building Australia’s most successful startups. How do you turn pure research into something that works for the commercial sector and society as a whole?

The initial panel pondered whether academics are insular and business short-sighted. Chaired by Refraction Media’s Heather Catchpole, they considered the need for researchers  to “go and knock on industry doors” and “… even annoy them a bit”.

UNSW’s Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla, director of Sustainable Materials Research & Technology, stressed not only the importance of leveraging research funding, but the importance of businesses to leverage research. Sahajwalla also urged researchers to share their vision in order to seek investment.

Investor Martin Duursma from Main Sequence Ventures echoed her call for researchers to talk themselves up. There was also a plea to researchers from Tim Allison, the CEO of TechFit, a company currently partnering with four universities, to please stay in Australia.

New frameworks for graduates

A recurring theme throughout the forum was for stronger engagement with the industry and business sectors so that research driven start-ups can work. Many participants called for new frameworks to involve PhD students in industry settings early in their studies and better mechanisms to assist early career researchers to develop industry networks. 

An exciting element of the forum was listening to researchers discuss their commercialisation journeys and hearing from business owners who are successfully breaking the mould.

A highlight was a commercialisation masterclass during which Dr Noushin Nasiri was coached by patent attorney Dr Gavin Recchia, entrepreneur Natasha Rawlings and business advisor Dr Julie Wheway, who has specialist expertise in research commercialisation.

The young UTS post-doctorate researcher has invented nanoscale breath sensing technology that has attracted much interest from industry. A skilled science communicator, Nasiri has spoken publicly about her work, including at FameLab and TedX Sydney. She enjoys the contrast science communication offers to remaining isolated in the laboratory and on the publishing trail.

Nasiri’s communication efforts have paid off handsomely with offers now coming her way. But she needs support to navigate her future. The expert panel advised her on the next steps, raising issues like IP, future goals, teams and support.

Echoing Prof Sahajwalla from the first session, Nasiri’s message to other researchers is to embrace science communication through any and every forum available so as to present research findings to a wider audience.  You never know where this may lead.

Yes, you can fail in research

Another speaker was Dr Dharmica Mistry from BCAL Diagnostics who is developing a novel blood test for breast cancer. Her message was that failure is okay – but you need to learn and move on quickly.

“You need to feel safe enough to have a go,” she said, adding that she found the hardest part of setting up a business to be managing expectations, timelines and shareholder demands. Learning on-the-job was the most important part of the journey.

For Prof Michael Whithford, founder of Modular Photonics and Director of the OptoFab Node, the hardest part of the commercial journey was managing human dynamics, personalities and skill sets. Other challenges have been working out the best rate of growth for his company. Whithford believes that to fully develop research talent, “… you need to push researchers in their natural direction and support cultivation”.

Spark Festival continues throughout the week, with many more forums on offer.  

Follow the new Research Futures channel to explore how academia, government and business can find better ways to ensure effective transition from research knowledge to scalable, global commercial outcomes.

The Commercialising Research forum held at Sydney School of Entrepreneurship was convened by Jackie Randles, Manager Inspiring Australia (NSW) as part of the 2017 Spark Festival. Join the conversation at #researchfutures #sparkfest

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