Peter Mabbitt (left) and Kai Xun Chan (right) from the Australian National University Research School of Biology.
Scientists from the ANU Research School of Biology made a major breakthrough for world food security while investigating photosynthesis. They discovered that chloroplasts — which convert sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis — can also activate a chemical signal to close stomata on leaves to protect individual plants from losing vital water in drought. By boosting this chloroplast signal in barley plants, the team improved drought survival time by around 50%. The team is exploring ways to boost this chloroplast signal in different crops, through breeding, genetic or agronomic strategies.
More than five million hectares of agricultural land in Australia is hydrophobic, meaning the soil repels water. Global chemical company BASF co-funded research by scientists at Swinburne University, led by chemistry Professor David Mainwaring, with the CRC for Polymers, to develop solutions to help soil accept water. These new soil-wetting agents have increased crop yields. The multidisciplinary team has now patented two polymer surfactants and a soil diagnostic test.
Murdoch University’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems is tackling clean-energy and fresh-water challenges with a cross-disciplinary approach. Researchers in aquatic biology and ecology, marine mammal ecology, fisheries, aquaculture, algal biotechnology, oceanography, human-use and habitat assessments, bioinformatics, economics and spatial sciences are all working together. One recent project tackled challenges around the release of aquaculture-bred fish into the wild environment.
Creating real value
Inspired by plant experiments on the International Space Station, University of Queensland researchers are advancing the technology of ordinary glasshouses with a revolutionary “speed breeding” technique that can cut plant breeding time in half. Dr Lee Hickey and his team developed a ‘desktop breeding cabinet’ that will allow researchers to develop wheat, barley, canola and other crops adapted to drought, changed local soil and climate conditions.
The proverb that “two heads are betterthan one” has been in use since at least medieval times. James Surowiecki’s 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds showed how aggregating the decision of a group of individuals generally leads to better decision-making than any single member of the group. When companies collaborate, they make more money. Governments have recognised this and are encouraging more collaboration in industry and science programs.
One of my standard slides when I’m presenting just says “2 + 2 = 5”. I use it when I’m talking about the power of collaboration to illustrate that whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve got no doubt it is true. But is it always true? Is it possible that collaboration can be taken for granted?
We’ve all been in situations where a ‘team’ is thrown together for a task or project but just doesn’t work that well. Just because better choices can be made through a group doesn’t necessarily mean using a group is always the best way forward. There is growing evidence that when creativity is involved, individuals will often outperform a group.
Professor Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University argues that there are tools and methods to lead to better collaboration. She goes further, providing evidence that creativity is stifled in teams that don’t introduce some formalised methods to collaborate well. For example, Thompson argues that brainwriting, where individuals writing down their own ideas for 10 minutes will yield many more ideas than a similar amount of time of group brainstorming.
Dr Mark Elliott of Melbourne company Collabforge says that collaboration is a way of working that you can learn. His company provides services to teach teams and organisations when and how to collaborate.
When Government offer to pay for collaboration, such as in the CRC Program, they encourage more of it. The financial leverage of requiring industry to match government dollars is a great way to ensure the resulting collaboration has a strong purpose. Just how a sector collaborates to bid and then run a Cooperative Research Centre is largely up to them. We know some do it better than others.
I argue that once a funding round is announced, it is almost too late to concentrate on the quality of collaboration. Deadlines loom; there is a tonne of work to be done. Rounding up resources becomes the priority. That’s why it is so good to see major CRC and CRC-P proposals taking a longer time to really develop the quality of their collaborations well ahead of a funding announcement. The CRC Associationis trying to assist this process by teaming up with Collabforge to run workshops on Collaboration for Industry Impact. We try to provide ways of enhancing the creativity of collaboration, while not forgetting that there are lots of practical issues that must be addressed in a CRC or CRC-P bid.
Whether you can participate in one of our workshops or not, don’t assume that all collaboration is good, all of the time. Taking the time and effort to think through collaboration itself will help increase its ultimate impact.
Featured image above: World record holder Xiaojing Hao with CZTS thin-film cells atop the Tyree Energy Technologies Building at UNSW’s Kensington campus.
Xiaojing Hao couldn’t sleep. Two weeks earlier, the UNSW engineer had sent a thin black tile, barely the size of a fingernail, to the US for testing, and she was waiting anxiously for the results. Her PhD students were equally on edge.
It was midnight when Hao checked her email one more time. It was official: her team had broken a solar cell world efficiency record. “I was full of joy at the achievement,” Hao recalls. “I shared the good news with my team immediately – we made it!”
Hao’s thin black tile had become the newest champion in the solar cell race: one of seven world records UNSW photovoltaics researchers broke in 2016. Efficiency records are not just notches in the scientists’ belts. The more sunlight solar cells can convert, the less manufacturing, transport, installation and wiring is needed to deliver each watt – moving solar energy closer and closer to knocking coal off its perch as the cheapest form of energy.
UNSW photovoltaics researchers, led by Martin Green – often dubbed the ‘father of photovoltaics’– have held world records for efficiencies in solar cells in 30 of the past 33 years. And with its strong track record in research commercialisation, UNSW’s prototype technology is setting the trends for the commercial solar market.
Meanwhile, their focus is on developing the next generation of solar cells – pushing forward to a zero-emission future.
Making a commercially viable product
Hao moved to Sydney in 2004 from China, where the solar industry is booming. A materials engineer by training, Hao was intrigued by the frontline photovoltaic research on thin-film solar cells at UNSW.
These cells have benefits over the more traditional silicon cells. The manufacturing process doesn’t require high temperature steps. They can also be much thinner than bulky wafer silicon, and so could engender new solar applications: imagine solar-powered electric cars,building-integrated solar cells or photovoltaic glazing on windows.
So far, the thin-film uptake in the markets has been sluggish: commercial thin-film cells make up only around 8% of the solar market. The problem is that the commercial products available, cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), are made of toxic or rare materials: cadmium is highly toxic and tellurium is about as abundant as gold.
So Hao decided to go back a step. “We’re trying to make the whole world ‘green’, right?” she says. “So, we should choose materials that are non-toxic and cheap, and that would ensure their deployment in the future – without constraint on raw materials.”
Finding a material worth investigating
Her quest for a greener world began in 2011, after she returned from maternity leave. Hao and her PhD supervisor, Martin Green, knew what they were looking for: a mix of elements that would absorb and conduct energy from sunlight, and are commonly found in nature.
“We worked our way through the periodic table for materials that met those criteria – CZTS was the one that popped out at you as worthy of investigation,” Green explains.
In 2012 CZTS – copper, zinc, tin and sulphide – was recorded for the first time in the solar cell efficiency tables, an internationally curated list of solar cell performance. Inclusion in the tables means a new cell has been independently tested for efficiency by a recognised test centre, and indicates the new cell has features that will be interesting for the photovoltaic community.
Hao began making her own version of the CZTS cell, looking for defects, ironing out the kinks and pushing efficiencies, bit by bit.
At the basic level, all solar cells absorb photons from sunlight and funnel them into an electric current. Hao discovered that tiny holes in her CZTS cells, formed as the components were baked during production, acted like a roadblock for that charge. By adding a microscopic grid layer through the cells, her team stopped these holes from forming, and raised their efficiency to 7.6% in a 1cm2 cell.
That was Hao’s first world record. By changing the buffer that helps the CZTS cell collect charge, the team could further tweak the current flow and voltage output. This buffer netted Hao another world record in September 2016 – a 9.5% efficiency for a 0.24cm2 cell, beating a 9.1% record previously held by Toyota.
“We’re completely leading CZTS solar cell technology at the moment,” Hao says with a smile.
According to Hao, these records have already sparked interest from Chinese, US partners China Guodian Corp – one of the five largest power producers in China – and Baosteel, the giant state-owned iron and steel company based in Shanghai.
Hao is also in talks with thin-film manufacturers MiaSolé of the US, Sweden’sMidsummer and Solar Frontier in Japan. The companies are commercial producers of CIGS cells and their production lines use similar methods; Hao says they could easily adapt them
for CZTS production.
Hao believes efficiencies of above 15% will start moving CZTS to the commercial market. She is already well on her way, aiming to bring her CZTS cells to 13% efficiency by 2018.
Taking on the solar cell market
After four decades in photovoltaics research at UNSW, Martin Green has a healthy scepticism when it comes to marrying new breakthrough technologies with commercial markets. “The solar industry is just so huge that you need enormous resources to introduce a new product to the market – and there’s a huge risk associated with that,” he says.
With a firm grip on 90% of the commercial solar cell market, “the situation with silicon is a bit like that of the internal combustion engine,” Green explains. “That engine is not the best fossil fuel engine, but the huge industry supporting it means it has been very difficult to displace.”
But CZTS does not need to compete with silicon – the two can complement each other. Silicon absorbs red light better than blue, while CZTS absorbs blue wavelengths better. A CZTS layer on top of a silicon cell can catch the wavelengths silicon does not use efficiently. Green says the big silicon manufacturers could trial the new CZTS technology by selling these ‘stacked cells’ as a premium product line.
“Companies that are well established would be interested in exploring that space – it just seems like a natural evolutionary path for photovoltaic technology,” he says.
Collaborating with the competition
Just a few labs down the corridor of the Tyree Energy Technologies Building at UNSW’s Kensington campus, Anita Ho-Baillie is working with Green to put another ‘stackable’ thin-film solar cell through its paces.
In 2009, a material called perovskite arrived on the thin-film solar cell stage with an efficiency of 3.8%. Perovskites have since shot up in efficiency ratings faster than any other solar cell technology.
After Ho-Baillie’s team found a new way to apply perovskite to a surface in an even layer, their solar cells broke three more world records in 2016. Her next step is to make perovskites more durable to match the current lifetime of silicon solar cells – an essential prerequisite for large-scale commercial deployment.
As the leader of the perovskites project in UNSW-based Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP), Ho-Baillie stands at the nexus of Australia’s greatest cluster of scientists pushing thin-film technologies forward.
This alliance consists of six research organisations around Australia: the national research agency, CSIRO; Melbourne’s Monash University and the University of Melbourne; the University of Queensland in Brisbane; the Australian National University in Canberra; and UNSW in Sydney.
ACAP director Martin Green says, “We’ve been able to draw on the expertise of all these groups and come at problems from different angles, so it’s really put us in a good spot internationally”.
Ho-Baillie admits balancing collaboration with competition is tricky in a field where everyone is trying to claim the top spot. “It’s hard, but we find working together really helps,” she says.
Much like CZTS and other thin films, perovskite cells are flexible, making them a perfect candidate for energy-harvesting glazes on building materials, cars or windows. But Ho-Baillie has even greater ambitions: with their low weight-to-power ratio, perovskites would be perfect for supplying precious energy to spacecraft, where every kilo counts.
“Perovskites came from nowhere,” she says. “Now I think they will lead us to something that we never even thought would work.”
Improving the cost of solar energy by 150 fold
Thin films are making their mark, but Green is also working to squeeze more energy from sunlight using silicon, smashing two more world records in 2016. Using specialised mirrors and prisms, Mark Keevers from Green’s team pushed silicon cells to collect concentrated sunlight with 40.6% efficiency, and unconcentrated sunlight at 34.5%.
Although these prototypes are perfect for soaking up photons on solar tower ‘concentrators’ with heavy-duty efficiency, their manufacturing costs are too high to make them viable in the consumer market.
But on the rooftop, silicon is still king. And it’s thanks to plunging costs made possible by a UNSW-led boom in silicon solar cell production in China, which now provides more than half the world’s solar cells.
In 1995, Green and his long-term collaborator Stuart Wenham – along with (then) PhD student Shi Zhengrong – started solar cell company Pacific Solar in Australia.
After six years racking up a wealth of management and manufacturing know-how, Zhengrong returned to his native China and founded the silicon solar manufacturing company Suntech Power in 2001, using technology developed at UNSW to dramatically reduce costs.
By 2005, Zhengrong became the world’s first ‘solar billionaire’, and a wave of Chinese companies hit the market, following Suntech’s recipe. The global solar industry was growing at an average 41% year-on-year. And within a decade, China’s market share of the global photovoltaic industry had grown from near zero to over 55%. Suntech itself delivered more than 13 million solar panels to 80 countries.
Where photovoltaic solar cells used to deliver one watt for US$76.67 in 1977,that’s down to just US49¢ today. That’s a 150-fold improvement in the 40 years Green has been in the field.
“Shi was the right person at the right place and the right time to move in both Chinese and Western cultures,” Green says.
“It’s interesting to ponder what would have happened if UNSW hadn’t kick-started the Chinese industry.”
Breaking through the next barrier of photovoltaic research
With plunging module prices, rising efficiencies and more durable cells, why is the world still relying on coal for the lion’s share of its electricity needs?
Perhaps it’s not the solar technology that we’re waiting for. A fundamental challenge remains: how to store the energy we can now capture from sunlight for later use.
“I think photovoltaics has already reached the tipping point – the efficiency and cost is already able to compete with fossil fuels,” says Wenham. “I think the next breakthrough needs to be in energy storage, to bring down that cost enough to make photovoltaics usable everywhere at any time.”
This doesn’t mean UNSW photovoltaics scientists are calling it a day. Instead, they continue to push silicon to its limits, while new technologies, such as Hao’s record-breaking CZTS tile, are racing to catch up to silicon’s powerhouse.
“Solar technology will continue to be higher-efficiency, lower-cost – and will keep getting better,” says Wenham. “The more we develop photovoltaic technology, the easier the transition will become.”
“We’ve reached a new era where coal is no longer the cheapest way of making electricity – it’s solar,” says Green. “And the exciting thing about that is – I regard solar as still in a very primitive stage of development, so there is plenty more cost reduction to come.”
– Viviane Richter
Photography: Quentin Jones
For more stories at the forefront of engineering research, check out Ingenuity magazine.
Researchers should be aware that collaboration with Company A may restrict you from jumping into bed with Company B, particularly if A and B are competitors. In business as in love, consider whether monogamy suits you before beginning a long-term partnership.
It’s hard to imagine D-I-V-O-R-C-E when you’ve just fallen in love, but any country-and-western singer and I would recommend that, before you make any vows, you should invest in couples counselling and a pre-nuptial agreement. It’s time to…
Manage risk (Step 3)
A company considers spending on research to be an investment in product or service development. Any investment carries risk, but investing in experimentation is high risk: the research may not result in the outcome desired by the industry partner, or it may take longer and cost more than anticipated to achieve that outcome.
An example from my experience at Cochlear was a surgical tool that showed promise in laboratory testing, but trials in a simulated operating theatre revealed that it was impractical for routine surgical use. Unfortunately, this issue could not be resolved, so the project did not proceed further.
The company’s decision-makers will be held accountable for the performance of their investment and so should seek to minimise or mitigate the associated risk. The research partner should share that aim, if they want a long-term relationship with the company, or a good reputation in the industry.
Risk management is hard for early-stage, ground-breaking research where the outcome is unknown and likelihood of failure is high. It’s easier for late-stage research such as product prototyping, especially where the new product’s capabilities can be demonstrated using standard components in simulated conditions. For instance, a low-risk project to develop an augmented-reality surgical training system involved the novel integration of existing software and hardware.
Some of the most useful risk management strategies are:
seeding the project team with people who have the experience and skills to straddle the industry/research divide
nominating a divide-straddling project manager with authority to set and revise the scope, schedule and budget
breaking the work into small chunks with shorter timeframes
clearly defining roles, responsibilities and deliverables
linking the achievement of milestones to payments, and
monitoring progress with regular project reviews and making timely decisions when issues emerge.
Expect and plan for administrative overheads, including legal and reporting costs. Best practice is to establish an umbrella agreement that covers the ‘big picture’ of the partnership, with a series of smaller agreements covering specific projects. The latter should use a project management framework to define each project’s scope, resources, timeframe, deliverables and milestones, and the team members’ roles and responsibilities. If these administrative aspects of collaboration are treated with contempt, stakeholder issues can escalate rapidly, leading to relationship breakdown.
In some industries, such as medical technology and pharmaceuticals, legal compliance is an important consideration in collaboration, requiring additional documentation, such as a formal contract including a detailed scope-of-work. In my experience, the researchers – usually university academics – with whom Cochlear collaborated were often also medical professionals involved in purchase decisions for their practices. A contract and scope-of-work demonstrates that any payments are for legitimate research and not an inducement to do business with the company.
Often it’s legal and commercial issues that are the main hurdles in establishing research-industry collaboration. Companies want to own any intellectual property (IP) generated through the collaboration to give them freedom to operate – for example, to use the research results to support the product claims – and to gain advantage over competitors. A company will not participate in a partnership if the ownership of the relevant IP is complicated, or likely to be contested. Legal assignments or similar agreements can simplify IP ownership.
Once you’ve done all you can to manage risk, feel free to release the doves, scatter the rose petals and process down the aisle. But if you hope to see cobwebs grow on your unused pre-nup, remember that the happiest marriages are those supported by the extended family on both sides. That’s why my next post will be about using your teams to best effect (Step 4). My final post in this series will be about measuring your impact (Step 5), because every marriage has a legacy. Watch this space.
Featured image above: New defence funding announced for multidisciplinary teams of researchers. Credit: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence
The AUSMURI program allocates $25 million to Australian researchers to work across defence projects.
The defence program was launched on the 23 May by the Minister for Defence Industry, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP.
The program will leverage the existing US Multidisciplinary University Initiative (MURI) grant program, which is administered by the US Department of Defense, Minister Pyne said.
Speaking about the program at the Collaborate Innovate conference in Canberra today, Chief Defence Scientist Alex Zelinsky said the intellectual property (IP) of the research will be owned by universities taking part in the program.
The winning bids – which will compete against American colleges seeking funding – will be announced in March 2018.
The defence program will provide grants to support multi-disciplinary teams of Australian university researchers who collaborate with US academic colleagues on high priority projects for future Defence capabilities.
Nine priority areas for defence funding
Dr Zelinsky identified these nine areas today and also spoke about which priority areas will be the focus for Defence Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), which will be based on the existing CRC programme, which has been running since the 1990s and has funded over 200 CRCs across multiple areas.
While CRCs are industry led research collaborations, DCRCs will operate on a ‘top down’ approach, said Zelinsky. Minister Pyne is expected to announce the first three Defence CRCs shortly.
“We believe they will be a vital element in delivering under the Next Generation Technology fund,” Zelinsky told Science Meets Business. The NGT will invest $730 million in “emerging and future technologies” to 2026.
The nine priority areas of the NGT are: space capabilities, integrated intelligence, enhanced human performance, advanced sensors, quantum technologies, multidisciplinary materials science, trusted autonomous systems, medical countermeasure products, and cyber.
“We are sponsoring R&D through the NGT fund and developing this through the Defence Innovation Hub. This requires interaction with the outside world – we’re no longer trying to do everything in house. We want to get the best minds to be applied to our problems,” said Zelinsky.
“We want the best people working on tough problems. That needs significant, deep collaboration. Defence is going to be driven by innovation.”
One of the most marked changes in science and innovation in Australia in recent years is the attitude to collaboration. As we hold Collaborate | Innovate | 2017, there doesn’t seem to be any argument or concern over the importance of collaboration. It’s one of those things that is so well accepted that it seems strange to even remember when the value of collaboration was questioned and even argued against.
A decade ago, it was not uncommon to be virtually shunned in the scientific community for advocating a multidisciplinary approach to a problem or seeing industry as a partner to work with. The image of the lone scientist plugging away at a problem was often raised as the ideal way of doing science – if he or she was just left alone, well-funded, great things would happen.
The turnaround in attitude has been marked. I’ve seen a presentation from a demographer claiming that the fastest growing job in Australia is baristas. But I reckon Pro Vice-Chancellor Engagement, or some variation of that title, couldn’t be far behind. Universities and other research organisations have scrambled hard over the past few years to improve their level of interaction with industry. There doesn’t seem to be any resistance to the argument that Australia must improve its level of collaboration between the academic and industry sectors.
“It is in all our interests to learn more about the process of collaboration itself, so that we can continually improve.”
Winning the argument for more collaboration is only the first step. It doesn’t automatically follow that the resulting collaborations will be optimal, or even productive. Successful collaboration consists of getting a series of things right. Done right, collaboration means the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts. Done poorly, it can be a mess.
That’s why Collaborate | Innovate | 2017 doesn’t just hammer away on the need for collaboration. It concentrates on the skills needed for good, productive collaboration. Collaborators need to be trusted partners and that can take more time and more effort than people anticipate. Collaborators may not be ready at the same time, or there may be a big differential in power or culture. These are speed bumps, not barriers.
The collaboration potential of an individual or organisation is not set in stone. It can, and does, change over time. It can be enhanced with experience, education and culture. Similarly, a dud policy can kill it off. It is in all our interests to learn more about the process of collaboration itself, so that we can continually improve.
The Cooperative Research Centres Programme has more than a quarter of a century of experience in relatively large-scale, complex collaborations. The money is of course vital to enabling great collaborations to deliver brilliant results. But collaboration is much more than an ingredient in seeking funding – it is a key to unlocking great innovation, which will result in much greater rewards than any government funding program. Deciding to collaborate is important; learning to collaborate well is vital.
Collaboration between industry and research is vital. We know that unlocking the commercial value of Australian research will result in world-first, new-to-market innovation and new internationally competitive businesses. Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are an excellent, longstanding example of how industry and researchers can work together to create these growth opportunities.
The CRC Programme supports industry-led collaborations between researchers, industry and the community. It is a proven model for linking researchers with industry to focus research and development efforts on progress towards commercialisation.
Importantly, CRCs also produce graduates with hands-on industry experience to help create a highly skilled workforce. The CRC Programme has been running for more than 25 years and has been extremely successful.
Since it began in 1990, more than $4 billion in funding has been committed to support the establishment of 216 CRCs and 28 CRC Projects. Participants have committed an additional $12.6 billion in cash and in-kind contributions.
CRCs have developed important new technologies, products and services to solve industry problems and improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australian industries. The programme has produced numerous success stories; far too many for me to mention here. A few examples include the development of dressings to deliver adult stem cells to wounds; creating technology to increase the number of greenfields mineral discoveries; and spearheading a world-leading method for cleaning up the potentially toxic chemicals found in fire-fighting foams.
These examples demonstrate not just the breadth of work being done by the CRCs, but also the positive benefits they are delivering.
Collaboration is a simple idea. You can teach it to a child: ask a child to share something and soon enough they will. Although they may initially react by turning away or looking down, given enough impetus they’re soon leaping around enjoying the benefits and challenges of shared play.
Scale it up to groups, organisations, industries, and academia, and it can seem complex. Industry has a commercial imperative; traditionally researchers sought more lofty goals or truths. Both universities and industry want to protect their IP. Working out the details is a legal wrangle; ensuring a shared vision when you don’t share the same location is a constant gamble.
Successful collaborations must have some form of flexibility or adaptability, yet large organisations can be slow in moving together, and in moving forward.
Technology has shifted the pace, as well as the level of expectation in terms of team collaboration. Tech companies have collaboration in their DNA, and cloud technology and automation are driving us faster towards collaborating closely – often with people we have never physically met.
Our level of trust is changing, and is threatened by a jumpy global attitude towards people who are different from us, and the prevalence in our lives of internet connected devices. Yet as the Hon Philip Dalidakis MP points out, cybersecurity is a collaboration opportunity as much as it is a shared risk.
To remain relevant, to keep pace in this shifting landscape – to compete in a global marketplace and as part of the world’s fast-moving network of research that forms the global brains trust – that will not happen unless we dramatically shift our perspective.
Technology has tethered us to the world and taken away the scourge of distance. Suddenly we’re accessible as a country in a way we have never been before.
Collaboration opens up opportunities as well as presenting challenges. It has long been happening at the level of individuals, as people from industry, research, community and government form alliances of interests. Our challenge is now to upscale. And it’s a tough one.
We may not have the same processes and infrastructure as other countries in developing the impetus to push our burden of change, Sisyphus-style, up this mountain. But as these thought leaders demonstrate, we are taking some great strides – and are at least like the reluctant child, now looking up towards the benefits of collaboration.
Collaboration has long been identified as an important requirement for success in business and indeed wider society. As the world changes, however, this requirement is changing too, and in many instances it is not just important, but vital for success.
Those organisations that struggle to make it central to their operations can be at a serious disadvantage. It is a case of collaborate or crumble.
We live in a world that is very complex and getting more so.This means today’s societal challenges are also getting harder to resolve. And as much as we would like simple solutions to complex problems, they usually don’t exist. Sophisticated, multi-faceted solutions are more often the only way to address complex challenges.
At Cochlear we are very familiar with such a challenge: hearing loss. Hearing loss is already a recognised global public health issue, with the World Health Organisation estimating that over 360 million people worldwide suffer from disabling hearing loss.
It is a health issue with significant medical, social and economic impacts. And with populations in many countries getting older, the problems are likely to get amplified.
Addressing the hearing loss challenge requires a sophisticated, multidisciplinary approach. The technology challenge alone involves over 30 different science and engineering specialities required to develop an implantable hearing solution that addresses severe to profound hearing loss.
And that is just the product, which on its own won’t do anything. It needs to be clinically validated for different age segments and approved by more than 20 regulatory bodies around the world. Policy makers and health insurers need to be convinced of the technology’s efficacy in order to improve access and funding. And we need to work with industry organisations, consumer groups, government and media to elevate the importance of hearing loss and the treatments available.
This of course can’t happen by a single person or team – it requires collaboration between numerous disciplines and professionals who contribute to different parts of the problem at different stages.
As we work to address more complex problems, we are also facing a paradox: on the one hand we need deeper and deeper expertise in specific areas because breakthroughs in one specialty area can have huge impacts on the total solution. And on the other hand we need some breadth too – specialists who can reach out from their niche to the broader teams that they are working with, both locally and globally, to understand the big picture problem and to help construct the end-to-end solution. Collaboration and being able to connect the dots are critical skills as they allow the solution to work in the real world.
Collaboration is vital in today’s world. It enables problem solvers to work together, extract value from diverse speciality areas and focus on large, important challenges. Without it we would crumble, but with it we can build a better future.
As science and technology researchers, practitioners and enthusiasts, we feel very strongly that our community should think analytically and use scientific information to inform their decisions, as individuals and as a nation.
We hope our leaders in politics, business and in the media incorporate the lessons and findings of science and technology into their decision-making about health, energy, transport, land and marine use – and recognise the benefits of investing in great scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions.
But how do we ensure critical thinking is applied in decision-making? How do we incorporate and apply scientific findings and analysis in the formulation of policy, and encourage strong, strategic investment in research?
The only way is to become vocal and proactive advocates for STEM.
Scientists and technologists must see ourselves as not only experts in our field, but also as educators and ambassadors for our sector. Scientists are explicitly taught that our profession is based on logic; that it’s our job to present evidence and leave somebody else to apply it.
For people who’ve made a career of objectivity, stepping out of that mindset and into the murky world of politics and policy can be a challenge, but it’s a necessary one.
The planet is heading towards crises that can be solved by science – food and water security, climate change, health challenges, extreme weather events. It’s arguably never been more important for scientists and technologists to step outside our comfort zone and build relationships with the media, investors, and political leaders. We need to tell the stories of science and technology to solve the species-shaking challenges of our time.
A plethora of opportunities exist for STEM researchers and practitioners to improve and use their skills in communication, influence, marketing, business, and advocacy. As the peak body representing scientists and technologists, Science & Technology Australia hosts a variety of events to equip STEM professionals with the skills they need, while connecting them with the movers and shakers in those worlds.
Science meets Parliament is one of these valuable opportunities, and has been bringing people of STEM together with federal parliamentarians for 18 years. Others include Science meets Business and Science meets Policymakers.
We can provide the forum, but it’s up to STEM professionals to seize the opportunity by forging relationships with our nation’s leaders in politics, business and the media. We must ensure the voice of science is heard and heeded – not just on the day of an event, but every day.
Currently STEM enjoys rare bilateral political support; a National Innovation and Science Agenda; and a new Industry, Innovation and Science Minister, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, who has indicated his intention to continue to roll it out.
As we encounter our fourth science minister in three years, however, we cannot rest on our laurels and allow science and technology to slide down the list of priorities. Bigger challenges are also mounting, with the profession of science correspondent virtually dead in Australia and the international political culture favouring opinion and rhetoric over established fact and credibility.
Scientists and technologists must resist their natural tendency to humility, and proactively sort the nuggets of truth from the pan of silty half-truth. We must actively work to influence public debate by pushing evidence-based arguments into the media, and into the political discourse.
When our society starts assuming that we should make substantial and long-term investment in research; when the methods and findings of science and technology are routinely incorporated into shaping policy and making important decisions for the nation – we’ll consider our job to be well done.
Read next:Dr Maggie Evans-Galea, Executive Director of ATSE’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEM, paints a picture of Australia’s science and innovation future – one that requires a major cultural shift.
Spread the word:Help Australia become a collaborative nation! Share this piece on science and technology using the social media buttons below.
More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Digital Disruption Thought Leadership Series here.
Collaboration is a term frequently used in business and across many industries. It’s one I have come to hear often across my Small Business, Innovation and Trade portfolios, and it is also a term that causes much confusion – what exactly is collaboration?
I am regularly asked this when I talk about collaboration and why I think it’s important. I concede that it can sometimes be thrown around so much that it starts to look like a meaningless buzzword, and has perhaps become something of a cliché used by people when they want to look like they’re solving problems or pursuing innovation.
That being said, I genuinely believe in the importance of collaboration. It’s important that we work with others, that we share our knowledge and our resources to get better outcomes to the challenges we are facing.
With the world becoming increasingly digitised, it has never been more important for collaboration to occur across all sectors of our own economy, and across global economies.
The online world knows no geographical boundaries. So we have no choice but to collaborate. We need to work with our industry bodies, with global organisations and other governments to ensure we have the best capabilities to deal with whatever comes our way.
The challenge of cyber crime
The ever growing cybersecurity industry is the perfect example of why we need global collaboration. Cybersecurity not only safeguards the digital economy so that it can continue to grow, generate jobs and create a resilient economy into the future, it also ensures our online privacy and prevents cyber crime.
The Internet of Things (IoT), along with other technologies, is creating an almost totally connected world – gone are the days when we only needed to worry about protecting our personal computers. Instead we now need to protect vast networks of devices that span our offices, building sites, shopping centres, public transport systems and homes.
In 2016, the average Australian household had nine internet connected devices. While this may seem like quite a substantial number, it is expected to more than triple to 29 by 2020 and will also include devices such as fridges, televisions and indeed entire households that will run remotely.
Predicting patterns of cyber crime
While the IoT offers exciting opportunities to enhance our lives, it also offers opportunities for hackers to commit cyber attacks. Unlike traditional forms of crime, these attacks don’t just come from people living in your neighbourhood, state or country, they can come from anywhere in the world at any time of the day and from any device.
The only way we can ensure that we are best prepared to deal with these attacks is if we can predict patterns of cyber crime and learn how to mitigate it – this is where collaboration becomes crucial.
Shared knowledge is not just a good way to combat cyber crime, it is in fact the only way we will be able to succeed against it. The biggest problem with combating cyber crime is the speed at which technology advances – meaning it is vital that various agencies and organisations around the world are working together and sharing their knowledge and experience concurrently.
While the benefits of working together to combat the world’s biggest form of crime has its benefits, collaboration across the cybersecurity industry is itself is very valuable with the potential to create huge economic benefits for those in the game. Currently, cybersecurity industry’s estimated worth is over US$71 billion globally. This value is expected to double by 2020.
This industry has the potential to be a huge driver for Australian jobs and the economy, which is why Victoria is investing heavily in collaboration and collocation of allied interests.
In the past two years we have created Australia’s biggest cybersecurity cluster right in the heart of Melbourne. This hub includes Data61, the digital research arm of the CSIRO and Australia’s leading digital research agency; and the Oceania Cyber Security Centre, which brings together eight Victorian universities and major private sector partners.
Collocating at the Goods Shed in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct, the Oceania Cyber Security Centre will also work in partnership with Oxford University’s world-leading Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre, Israel’s Tel Aviv University, and the State of Virginia, the largest defence state in the USA.
These organisations and initiatives are undoubtedly reputable and capable of doing great things. Combining their knowledge and resources in a collaborative way creates an internationally connected cybersecurity powerhouse.
In Victoria, we are now leading Australia’s cybersecurity industry and emerging as a dominant player in the Asia Pacific but we cannot do it alone – we have acknowledged that, we have made moves to change that. In doing so we are increasing our cybersecurity capabilities and helping our allies to increase theirs.
While cybersecurity is a great example of how collaboration is currently working to secure the future of our digital economy, in many jobs and across many industries the situation is the same. In truth, it is simple – if you don’t work with others and learn from their mistakes or value their skills, you are sure to fail.
Australia’s future health and economy is a vibrant, interactive ecosystem with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at its core. STEM is central – and essential – to Australia’s ongoing success in the next 50 years. Australia is considered an incredible place to do cutting-edge research, pursue blue-sky ideas and commercialise innovative products. Pioneering discoveries fuel the innovation process. Students cannot wait to enrol in science and maths. Policies are developed using peer-reviewed evidence and broad consultation. Aspirational goals are backed by practical solutions and half of our STEM leaders are women – it’s the norm.
Sounds good doesn’t it?
To excel in science and innovation, however, Australia needs a major culture shift. We can all ‘talk the talk’, but as OECD figures demonstrate, we cannot ‘walk the walk’. Australia rates lowest compared to other OECD countries when it comes to business-research collaborations – not just large businesses, but small to medium-sized enterprises as well.
Academia blames industry. Industry blames academia. Everyone blames the government. It’s time to turn the pointing finger into a welcoming handshake and engage across sectors to actually make innovation happen.
Literally thousands of researchers in this country want to see our academic and industry leaders reach across the divide and make change happen. With every decision made, their future is impacted.
Paradigm-shifting science and innovation takes time and requires a diverse workforce of highly-skilled researchers and professionals that specialise in these fields.
The lack of a skilled workforce and poor collaboration are significant barriers to innovation. As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the industry engagement and impact assessment aims to incentivise greater collaboration between industry and academia by examining how universities are translating their research into social and economic benefits.
Australian academic institutions have begun to break down silos within their own research organisations with some success. In medical research for example, the breadth and scale of interdisciplinary collaborative projects has expanded exponentially – spanning international borders, requiring a range of skills and expertise, terabytes of data, and years of research.
Research teams have become small companies with synergistic subsidiaries – diagnostic, basic, translational and clinical teams – working toward a common goal.
Yet their engagement with industry is low. Industry struggles to navigate the ever-changing complex leadership structures in higher education and research. When you speak one-on-one with researchers and industry leaders, however, they seem almost desperate to cross the divide and connect! It’s a detrimental dichotomy.
How can we harness the full potential of our research workforce?
We can energise innovation by fostering a culture that values basic research as well as translation of discoveries to product, practice and policy. A culture that opens the ivory tower and is not so sceptical of industry-academia engagement. That responds to failure with resilience and determination rather than deflating, harsh judgement. That sees the potential of our young researchers.
We need to lose the tall poppy syndrome and openly celebrate the success and achievement of others. We must hold ourselves to higher standards and in particular, women must be equally recognised and rewarded for their leadership.
As a nation, we must ensure we are prepared and resourced for the challenges ahead. Not only do we need the best equipment and technologies, but we also need a readily adaptable workforce that is highly-skilled to address these issues.
To facilitate a culture shift and increase engagement with business and industry, we need to provide researchers the skills and know-how, as well as opportunities to hone these skills. Young researchers are ready to engage and hungry to learn; and they must be encouraged to do so without penalty.
They then need to be connected with industry leaders to identify the qualities and expertise they need to strengthen, and to extend their network.
We can change this now. The solution is not expensive. It is simply about letting down our guard and providing real opportunities to meet, to connect, to network, to exchange ideas and expertise – and to share that welcoming handshake.
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.
While it may not be immediately obvious, universities and industry have a shared purpose: universities focus on educating people and creating new knowledge; industry seeks to be more innovative, productive and diverse. Our shared purpose is in delivering solutions to help tackle social challenges and drive economic growth.
We’re in the midst of a global knowledge economy and universities are a vital centre of competence for end-users such as industry. Industry and the professions get the benefit of universities’ research and intellectual capacities. Universities get access to stimulating questions, new challenges and opportunities for our students.
Collaboration works when you have something the other party wants. Being open to collaboration begets other collaboration and it leads on from there.
That being said, universities are a business like any other. We may not be commercial organisations but we’re pro-commercial. And in business you have to supply what the market wants.
The European universities where I began my career are active collaborative institutions and I saw an opportunity to bring this ethos to the University of South Australia, an institution that has a history of working with industry and the professions.
In the four years that I have been Vice Chancellor of the institution I have seen the growth of more than 2500 partnerships that range from guest lectureships to program advisory boards to co-creators of program content.
One great example of collaboration is the one we have with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). We co-developed a 4-year Honours degree, the Bachelor of Information Technology (Honours) (Enterprise Business Solutions) which offers 12 month paid internships for students. HPE has also become an Anchor Industry Partner in our Innovation and Collaboration Centre for students and start-ups and they’re a Foundation Partner in our new Museum of Discovery that’s due to open in 2018.
I have also seen the breaking down of silos within my own institution as we plan our new education precinct, which will be a focal point of educational innovation and enterprise.
The first partnership is with the State government, the schooling sector and the university. This was followed by partnerships between our engineering people, our environmental management experts, our architects and interior designers to build a precinct that will ultimately accommodate all facets of education.
We’re extending transdisciplinary approaches to education by engaging social work, psychology and other areas to contribute to the learning and holistic development of young people.
Having sat on both sides of the table I have seen collaboration work, and not work. It works when you have a shared vision of the project and you can see what each party stands to gain. You also need to know to walk away early if you know something is not going to work.
Ultimately collaboration allows you to do what you do even better.
I don’t know if the question is ‘Collaborate or crumble’. Collaborate or become increasingly irrelevant might be more apposite.
Australia produces great research. But despite this, we somehow still manage to rank last in the OECD for collaboration between research and business.
It’s a disconnect that is well documented: a 2014 Department of Education report noted a low proportion of researchers working in business and academic industry research publications. A report by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering revealed a distinct lack of university research collaboration with industry and other end users. And the recently released Innovation and Science Australia report declared Australian industry unable to commercialise research.
Though the naysayers may abound, all hope is certainly not lost. There are steps that Australian research institutions and the startups that represent the future of business can take to overcome the disconnect and engage in effective research collaboration.
1. Establish a direct link between research institutions and startups
Working in research and industry silos will always present a challenge to collaboration. So, the first step to bridging the research collaboration gap is to create a direct line of access between universities and startups.
The easiest way to reach the largest number of startups is to create direct lines to innovation hubs, such as technology-focused incubators that work with startups and scale-ups that could benefit from accessing the research capabilities that are nurtured within Australian universities.
This could take the form of a mutually-beneficial partnership, such as an industry secondment program for PhD students. Students would benefit from industry experience, while industry gains access to cutting-edge research capabilities and a potential talent pool for recruitment.
Whatever the partnership might look like in practice, by finding mutually beneficial solutions and cementing them within a concrete program, collaboration will likely be a natural outcome.
2. Understand and account for your differences
In any collaboration, working together requires working around the limitations of the other party.
As an example, the open nature of academic science can at times conflict with industry needs to protect the technologies they use. Academic research often moves more slowly due to its long-term focus, compared to industrial R&D that is driven by commercial deadlines and time-sensitive product development.
Understanding these differences upfront will allow collaborative measures and hedges to be set in place when forming a research collaboration to ensure neither party’s prerogatives are being infringed upon.
3. Identify and work towards common ground in your research collaboration
Once links have been created and differences understood and catered for, common ground can be identified, interests aligned and goals established.
Research could listen to the pain points of industry and formulate research that addresses the pain points, rather than trying to pitch a predefined project.
Conversely, industry might consider involving university research throughout the lifecycle of a project, rather than in an ad hoc fashion, to create a long-term culture of interdisciplinary collaboration and give greater meaning to research projects.
Regular interaction in the form of formal and informal meetings will ensure the research collaboration stays on track to meeting the objectives of both parties – particularly as they are likely to evolve.
By implementing all the above, our startups may have some chance of tapping into the brains of our prized research institutions to achieve sustainable and accelerated growth in the future.
Most of us recognise that in specific situations, collaboration is the ideal mode of delivery. We are also getting instinctively better at understanding when it is needed.
For example, we know we need to collaborate if achieving our aims requires a creative solution developed in a complex environment, breadth of expertise, or buy-in and shared ownership from stakeholders. Interestingly, these are often the higher impact challenges or issues we face.
We also know that working collaboratively is almost always challenging. Collaborative efforts are prone to failure and often don’t quite deliver on our expectations.
Knowing all these things increases the importance of being able to collaborate well when it is required. But this requires diagnosing why it so often goes awry.
Through some 400 collaborative projects over the last decade at Collabforge, we’ve learned a great deal about working collaboratively. We’ve found that understanding the challenges provides valuable cues for setting yourself up for success.
1. Missing “chair”
You and I know what collaboration means, but as a society, we don’t.
There is a gap in our shared understanding. Because collaboration is in our DNA, we get fooled into thinking that we have a common reference point we can rely on – a “chair” we can sit in when needed.
But when it comes to working collaboratively, there are no broadly accepted definitions or methodologies that we can take for granted like there are with project management. So often we fall on our bums when we try to sit in this missing chair.
2. Missing “team”
Collaboration is a team sport.
All great teams need to build their collective capability together. No one would ever expect a team to win a match without first practicing as a team.
Yet organisations regularly form new teams to tackle new challenges, without resourcing the teams to build collaborative capability prior to being expected to deliver.
We expect professionals to be competent collaborators straight out of the gate, in whatever situation we throw them at. However, we’ve likely all had the experience of feeling we are great at working collaboratively, only to discover that in certain situations and with certain people, we aren’t so great after all.
3. Missing “elephant”
When collaborating with other organisations, an implicit question is always, “will we ride your elephant or mine?”
To get their work done, collaboratively or otherwise, organisations rely upon a large and complex integration of culture, processes and tools – an “elephant” their staff members ride.
No one is excited to get down off their elephant and climb onto another unknown and likely cantankerous beast. And frankly, this isn’t a very collaborative undertaking.
However, taking a more collaborative approach and creating a new shared set of culture, tools and processes is often expensive, time intensive and risky. This amounts to launching and managing an elephant breeding program.
Even the task of deciding who will take on these risks, costs and energy can kill a collaboration before it begins.
Preparing to succeed when working collaboratively
1. Invest in building collaboration capability proportionately to the impact you expect it to deliver.
If the outcomes from an initiative are 80% dependent upon great collaboration, then use this percentage as an indicator of the level of resourcing you should commit to building and supporting collaborative capability.
2. Invest time upfront to establish common ground.
Whenever collaboration is an important part of the mix, you’ll get the most out of thinking and talking about it early in the process. Discuss key terms, concepts and assumptions about processes, tools, and, of course, the expected outcomes and impact of your collaboration.
3. Practice working collaborating as a team, separately from the responsibility of delivery.
Ideally from the outset, create opportunities for collaboration that are fun, engaging and decoupled from delivery. For example, ask the group to build a prototype of the imagined outcome in Lego.
4. Facilitate a regular rhythm of collaborative interactions.
The biggest risk to collaborative initiatives is flagging momentum and dropping balls in handovers between organisations. Having a regular and facilitated rhythm of interaction is key to maintaining momentum, continuity and building collective capability.
5. Design for growth while welcoming tension.
Collaborations generate value through the process of resolving tensions within groups. For example, every new participant will necessarily introduce tension and challenges as they are brought up to speed.
Without the challenge of diverse ideas and approaches, groupthink reigns, with peer pressure and conformity shutting down the “hard conversations”. When this happens, the fitness and value of the group’s output drops dramatically.
Therefore, it’s essential to enter collaborations expecting diversity and the challenge of ideas, but to also design processes for resolving these tensions before progressing to the next stage.
While collaboration still largely inhabits the realm of “art”, the likelihood of success is dramatically increased by practice that is supported by theory and method. The first step in working collaboratively is to build shared understanding of the inherent barriers so that we can align better together to overcome them.
When we speak of innovation we increasingly couple it with collaboration. Collaboration is regularly promoted as a positive attribute and a productive means to an end.
In my own research, I promote collaboration as a mechanism for including more women in scientific teams in male-dominated fields, and as a mechanism to sustain research when individuals are juggling the competing demands of life and family.
In this context, at one end of the spectrum we might be speaking of the collaboration that characterises teamwork within an organisation, while at the other end of the spectrum we might be speaking of international scientific collaboration that draws geographically dispersed networks together.
My research over the past decade on women in the academy and women in science has heightened my interest in the art of collaboration and how it might encapsulate ‘the way we do things around here’ – our organisational culture.
I am particularly interested in the way in which men are sponsored and socialised into strategic relationships, particularly with business and industry – an opportunity not readily available to most women.
Yet we know little about the social processes that sit behind the scientific production of knowledge, and most of our recognition and reward systems focus on the outstanding individual.
The myth of individual creative genius is a myth that my colleagues who work with remote Indigenous communities – just like those in large international scientific research teams – know is culturally and historically specific.
Those who are privileged to work with Indigenous communities know that collaboration based on deep respect of different ‘ways of seeing,’ encoded in art, language and religion and formulated over extremely long periods of time, is central to sustaining collaborative relationships. Longevity of relationship is particularly highly valued, and the time taken to build respectful collaborative relationships and trust is a critical part of this sustained engagement.
They also know that while knowledgeable individuals are involved, the knowledge is collectively owned and accessible only through well-established protocols.
The art of collaboration is far more than a set of pragmatic, instrumental practices. With a degree of candour, I should state that I am not always a great collaborative partner. I put this down to my academic identity being formed in the discipline of anthropology where the ‘rite de passage’ was years of field research alone in a remote village.
This prepares the aspiring researcher for collaboration from a position of heightened ignorance but not necessarily with academic peers with a common knowledge base. I also evidence deficiencies in two attributes essential to collaboration: time and discomfort with failure.
Innovation demands the time to build teams, network, establish cross-sectoral collaborative relationships, generate and test ideas, fail, learn and start again, and to translate research findings and disseminate these to a range of audiences. It also requires the time for reflection and exercise of the imagination.
Collaboration at its best generates this time and, at its best, offers a safe space to fail.
Contrary to popular belief university researchers are good at collaborating, but often this is limited to collaborations with other university researchers. In fact, the Nature Index, one of the many university ranking systems, produces multiple rankings of world universities – one of which is based solely on successful collaboration with other universities.
So, what are the prerequisites for successful collaboration?
I believe there are three key ingredients:
Awareness of the drivers of each institution in the collaboration
A shared understanding of the problem the collaboration is trying to solve
Trust between the people collaborating
The most recent Nature Index list of the Top 100 bilateral collaborators provides some interesting insights into the collaboration process. Almost all collaborations in this list are between institutions in the same country, and often within the same city.
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology top the list with most collaborations, while the only entry that includes Australian institutions is one involving Curtin University and The University of Western Australia. In both cases, the collaborating institutions are strong rivals.
What does this data suggest about why there is so much collaboration occurring between university researchers?
The first prerequisite is a given because at the highest level the drivers for all universities are essentially the same. The shared understanding often comes quite quickly as the collaborators are often experts in the field they are working in, and therefore start with a common vocabulary.
Building trust is the most time-consuming part of collaborating, but as the bilateral data above shows, close physical proximity helps and trust can be built between researchers – even when their institutions are in competition.
What about collaborations with industry?
In Australia, there is a lack of appreciation in universities of industry drivers and vice versa.
In the Cisco IoE Innovation Centre, located on the Curtin University campus, Cisco, Woodside and Curtin have developed an innovation centre and workplace for customers, partners, start-ups, universities and open communities. One significant outcome of the first year of operation is an understanding within the three founding members of their drivers and differing corporate cultures, which has proven to be a relatively time-consuming process.
A shared understanding of the problem is often also a challenge, as a different vocabulary is spoken by the collaborating parties. In the past, the model was often that the industry partner provided money and left the university researchers to solve the problem, contributing little input into the process. This often led to a suboptimal solution or a solution to another problem than what was intended.
In our projects at the Cisco IoE Innovation Centre, we meet as a joint industry and academic team on a weekly or fortnightly basis, which allows us to develop a shared understanding of the problem and evolving solution. Finally, building trust is always an involved process, which can be made easier between industry and academia because of the absence of competition between the collaborating organisations.
In summary, the secret to successful collaboration between academia and industry is no different to one within academia, provided additional attention is paid by both parties to cultural differences and the development of a lingua franca.
Featured image above: Robin Knight (right) and Patrick Speedie (left) are cofounders of university-industry collaboration platform IN-PART. Credit: IN-PART
Robin, you’re four years into the IN-PART journey, and you’re already connecting 70% of your university opportunities with potential partners. Can you take us back to the start, and tell us how you first came to be interested in university-industry collaboration?
Prior to setting up IN-PART I was in academic research at King’s College London. I was always interested in collaborating with industry partners, especially when working in an area with potentially translatable outputs.
While undertaking my PhD I started working on an academic-to-academic platform with a couple of colleagues, and during that time I had a conversation with my now co-founder and long-time friend, Patrick Speedie, who was working in IP management and publishing. Our shared experiences and discovery of the need to better connect the two worlds of academia and industry motivated us to form university-industry collaboration platform IN-PART.
Tell us a bit more about IN-PART and how it gained traction?
At its core, IN-PART a tool to help Tech Transfer teams (and by extension researchers) find external partners interested in their research. The translation of academic research into impactful outputs is key to the advancement of society, and we wanted to be a key part in increasing those outputs.
So we began by building a network of individuals in industry who were both capable and motivated to interact with universities about research. Then we had to figure out the best and most efficient way to showcase opportunities to them.
After piloting a minimum viable version of IN-PART with six UK universities in 2013, we managed to find 25% of provided opportunities with potential industry partners in just two months. Three years and two investment rounds later, we now provide over 70% of each university’s content with potential partners.
IN-PART is all about university-industry collaboration. Why did you choose to focus on universities in particular?
We use the broader term of universities to represent publicly-funded research. Amongst these we will also include research institutions, and notably we recently welcomed Public Health England to IN-PART. They are a very interesting case as the outputs from a government lab differ from those of a traditional research institute, owing to the more hazardous bio-projects they undertake and different potential technologies that result.
Our industry audience are often seeking to access the academic behind available IP, especially if considering a license. It’s rare that a company would be able to take a technology and have it fit directly into their research pipeline – expertise is required for guiding that fit and this makes universities and research institutions such an attractive resource.
An important element of what we do is making sure all the content we have is ‘available’. This means we do not ‘scrape’ websites for technology nor trawl the internet, which turns up expired patents and technology where the academic is no longer associated. Instead we keep in close communication with university teams to make sure everything we have is relevant and up to date.
We do not work with company or industry generated IP seeking licensees. We also never want to be in the industry of trading IP for the sake of litigation, which from my personal point of view seems to counter our progression as a species.
I’ve noticed that at IN-PART, you restrict your platform to particular industry professionals. Have you found this to be important to the success of your collaboration model?
Yes, very important. When we first piloted IN-PART in the UK under a beta-test with six universities, it was clear that we wanted to only provide introductions to end-users in industry. By restricting our audience in this manner it meant that every contact we passed along was meaningful and high-value. What we didn’t want to do was pass on opportunities to work with consultants. That being said, consultants provide a valuable component within the ecosystem and we’re currently exploring how they can be included within our community.
To hear more from Dr Robin Knight about the key drivers behind successful commercialisation and collaboration, click here.
Dr Robin Knight is Co-founder and Director of UK-based university-industry collaboration platform IN-PART.
Click here to find out more about opportunities with IN-PART. To find more industry-ready technology from Australian universities, visit Source IP.
Featured image above: Robin’s team driving successful commercialisation and university-industry collaboration at IN-PART. Credit: Jennifer Wallis, Ministry of Startups
Robin, it’s great to have you with us to share your insights into successful research-industry partnerships. Let’s start with universities. In your experience, what factors make a university’s research most ripe for application by industry?
That’s a good question, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer! It’s entirely dependent upon the sector, the company, and what they’re seeking from a university. We’ve never pigeonholed ourselves as being a ‘commercialisation platform’ per se, as we believe that university-industry collaboration in all forms can lead to great outcomes.
Some of the best instances of successful commercialisation have occurred alongside goals for longer-term strategic partnership with a research program. End results in this instance include funding for studentships, secondments, and research commercialisation on a large scale. By virtue of this, the earlier relationships can be established the better.
I’m a complete believer in ‘research for research’s sake’, but for programs designed to have societal impact, the best way of achieving it is with a commercial partner in mind from the beginning.
What have you found universities who’ve achieved successful commercialisation do better than others?
University tech-transfer teams have numerous roles to fulfil, and one of those is to manage two often very different mindsets and expectations when it comes to their academics and potential partners in industry. Their role is a crucial one, and being a steadfast, efficient liaison is key. That means being responsive, knowledgeable and more often than not, flexible to both the needs of the academic and industry partner.
In the first instance people need to speak, and if there are prohibitory conditions and pensive overseers during initial dialogues, it can sully a relationship from the beginning, which at its core relies upon growing and nurturing trust between parties. That being said, it’s a tough line to walk, but the best are those most willing to participate in the first instance.
What factors have you found to be vital to both forming and maintaining successful collaborations between research and industry?
Technology transfer in the university sector benefits from great membership networks, with KCA in Australia, Praxis in the UK, ASTP-Proton in mainland Europe, and AUTM in the US. These networks promote best practice amongst the community, and it’s always great to hear people sharing experiences whilst networking.
Owing to this openness within the community there’s been a rapid evolution for adopting new tech-transfer techniques (that work). From our experience it is those people who are most amenable to engage with new initiatives and alter how they interact, who work best. That means making the most of existing networks and proactively expanding them at conferences, on the phone, through Linkedin, and of course, through IN-PART.
Additionally, feedback from industry tells us that university websites are labyrinthine, and the sites that work best do not showcase the internal complexities of organisations, but have key individuals for contact regarding broad academic sectors. These people provide triage on inbound inquiries, directing them through the most efficient channel; essentially taking the work off potential partners who might struggle to identify who it is they should speak with in the first instance.
To hear more from Dr Robin Knight about breaking down barriers to university-industry collaboration, and emerging trends in university-industry partnerships, click here.
Dr Robin Knight is Co-founder and Director of UK-based university-industry collaboration platform IN-PART.
Click here to find out more about opportunities with IN-PART. To find more industry-ready technology from Australian universities, visit Source IP.
Featured image above: global collaboration. Credit Eric Fischer, Flickr
Robin, having been in this space for several years, can you tell us what is different about university-industry collaboration now, compared with 5 or 10 years ago? Have you noticed any trends emerging that we might see driving partnerships in the future?
We’ve been in the space for around four years, and in this short period of time we’ve seen a shift towards greater openness between universities and industry. Local governments, especially in countries where the knowledge-economy is becoming more important as manufacturing starts to wind down, have in part aided this change. Education throughout the industry community through shared membership bodies has also been key to improving relationships.
There’s a highly cited statistic from the UK government commissioned Dowling Review, that only 2% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would think to consult their local university if they came upon a technological challenge. This is something that needs to change. It’s crucial that governments continue to engage in improving university-industry collaboration, bringing down financial barriers which hinder interactions for smaller companies. Grants for joint projects help do this, and private grant-writing companies within the space also play a role for companies wanting to access money but unsure how to go about it.
In the UK the Impact Agenda, which formed part of the government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) for 2014, was party to much scepticism. Universities were required to submit case studies regarding the Impact of their research on industry, governmental policy and direct public impact. The level of funding for universities was affected by the impact of these case studies which were each given a score. It meant quite a culture shift took place in UK universities, especially for academics whose funding is now directly linked to external engagement (at least partially).
IP and ownership concerns are considered by many in Australia as one of the most difficult barriers to university-industry collaboration. How can organisations do better at addressing IP?
It’s good timing for this question, as recently our Head of Growth, Owen Nicholson, was part of the group developing the UK government’s Lambert Toolkit. It was launched last week and comprises a set of contracts for use by university and industry undergoing partnership discussions. The Lambert Toolkit contracts are not set in stone, but provide a great starting place and will certainly speed up that initial discussion when it comes to IP rights. I could see these types of blueprints being used globally. Owen’s insights on the Lambert Toolkit can be found here.
The valuation of early-stage research is, to my mind, an incredibly difficult process. In some sense, this does give a potential industry partner a better stake in negotiations, but they take on larger amounts of risk in doing so. With all things contractual, it’s about negotiation and making sure both parties are comfortable with the arrangement.
Can you share with us any insights into other major global collaboration barriers?
We’re currently working on removing some other barriers, one of which is how companies access worldwide university expertise easily. Currently all I can say is ‘watch this space’, but lest to say we’re looking to further our vision of helping unlock university knowledge.
In your opinion, is there scope for better university-industry partnerships between Australia and the UK?
In our experience there should be no barriers to global collaboration and partnership, however some universities in certain locations have evolved research specialisms in line with their economy, providing cutting-edge developments within particular areas (e.g. renewable energy technology in coastal areas, or agricultural developments in areas surrounded by farmland).
Australia has a great diversity of research, developed by world-leading scientists, and our excitement at working with universities in the country is causative of our audience. Our industry users are forever keen for us to widen our breadth of technology and research available in new territories they’ve previously had little access to. For many in Europe and the U.S., especially SMEs, Australia represents such a territory.
To hear more from Dr Robin Knight about the blueprints to a global collaboration boom, click here.
Dr Robin Knight is Co-founder and Director of UK-based university-industry collaboration platform IN-PART.
Click here to find out more about global collaboration opportunities with IN-PART. To find more industry-ready technology from Australian universities, visit Source IP.
All of these international innovations seek collaboration with businesses for co-development and knowledge transfer. Find out more on the university technology collaboration platform, IN-PART. To find industry-ready technology from Australian universities, visit Source IP.
Interacting with Virtual Reality
What is it?
A technology that allows users to interact with and control 3-dimensional virtual images through natural hand gestures.
What are the benefits of this university technology?
This new concept offers an immersive, engaging and responsive experience for users. Using positional trackers a touchless interface can register hand movements to move a 3D visualisation generated through stereoscopy – a technique that creates the illusion of depth in an image. This technology, developed by university researchers from the UK, can be applied in high and low cost applications including mobiles phones, video games, teaching aids, and also visual interfaces for medical purposes. What’s more, depending on the specific technology, the user may not even need to wear a head set!
A Gene Therapy for Major Depression
What is it?
A method that can change the genetic expression of a protein (p11) responsible for regulating the response of serotonin receptors – the chemical messenger related to mood, appetite and sleep.
Why is this innovative?
Using a virus-mediated gene transfer to alter the protein’s expression, researchers at an Ivy League US university have been able to normalise depression-like behaviour. The advantage of using gene therapy in patients with depression is, that unlike antidepressants or talking therapy – which may not always be effective in the long-term – this innovation provides durable relief from major depressive disorders and treatment-resistant depression.
Solar Power for a Changing Climate
What is it?
An all-weather combined photovoltaic-thermoelectric solar cell, designed to perform under extreme and varying conditions.
What makes this tech so special?
This hybrid solar cell, invented by academics from the Sunshine State, is adaptive and smart. By efficiently transforming excess heat uncaptured by the photovoltaic process, it generates surplus energy and avoids the increased resistance that traditional solar cells face under high temperatures. In snowy situations it can call upon this thermoelectric energy to keep ice-free, and during extreme heat it minimises operation to ensure a prolonged lifetime. All these are vital functions for a solar cell in a climate tending towards extremes.
Harvesting Energy from Vibrating Skyscrapers
What is it?
A system that can transform earthquake and wind-induced oscillations in high-rise buildings into electricity.
Why is it cool?
With the transition to a sustainable energy economy it’s imperative that every spare vibration is captured. This unique system, developed by researchers at a London university, offers simultaneous vibration suppression and energy harvesting from dynamically excited structures, aka – skyscrapers! The system can be tuned to weather forecasts and early-warning earthquake systems. And to the pleasure of office workers, it’s an on/off system; oscillation dampener by day, renewable energy capture by night.
Wearable Tech to Ward Off Deadly Pests
What is it?
A wearable device that releases micro-doses of scents (such as insect repellent) in response to the sound of a mosquito buzzing.
How might this change lives?
Preventing the transmission of mosquito-borne disease such as the Zika virus, malaria and the West Nile virus is an ongoing global health priority. This technology is being developed by researchers at a prestigious UK university to detect the sound of buzzing mosquitoes within a certain range, and then release repellent within that range to deter the offending pests. The device – which will be able to recognize the sounds of over 2500 breeds of mosquito! – can be easily embedded into an item of jewellery, piece of clothing, or even camping equipment and furniture.
Tunable Manipulation of Advanced Materials
What is it?
A micro-scale composite structure, designed so that its surface adhesion can be controlled by the application of a shear force.
Why is it needed?
As our ability to make increasingly delicate and complex materials rapidly grows, so does our need to be able to manipulate and work with these materials in manufacturing processes. In some cases, advanced materials cannot be suitably handled using vacuum or mechanical handling, and glue residues from traditional adhesives are unacceptable. This scalable composite, developed by researchers at an Ivy League university, could be used to manipulate thin layers of delicate materials without damage – simply by applying or removing a force on the composite.
The innovations in this article are hosted on the IN-PART university technology repository, based in the UK. All actively seek engagement and partnerships with businesses. Register to the platform for free to learn more and connect with the researchers.
To view industry-ready technology from Australian universities seeking partnerships, visit Source IP.
This article on disruptive university technology was first shared by IN-PART on 12 July 2016. Read the original article here.
Featured image above: Industry engagement expert Natalie Chapman and the Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer (SIMS) at ANSTO
The Australian Government is making changes to universities’ funding that will compel researchers to cross the border from Academia into Industryland, to meet and trade with the natives, under the banner of ‘industry engagement’. This is inspiring for some researchers, but nerve-wracking for others.
I empathise with those who feel nervous, because when I was a new researcher, I was sent on a commercialisation mission into Industryland.
Fifteen years ago, I started in a role at ANSTO where I was tasked with operating a SIMS surface science instrument (Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer) on behalf of clients (researchers from around Australia) and conducting research, as well as being expected to create a spin-off business by finding new clients from research and industry.
This was an ambitious and daunting project. Not only did I have to learn how to operate an extremely complex piece of scientific equipment (it took me six months to achieve competency), but I also had to provide a highly reliable service to existing clients, while finding enough new customers to support the annual operating expenditure.
I had no background in semiconductors (the field of R&D for which the instrument was ideally suited), no knowledge of which research groups or companies (Australian or international) were strong in this field, and no clue how to create a commercial relationship with them. It was a tad overwhelming.
But my scientific training had at least equipped me with problem solving skills, so I took a deep breath and mapped a logical sequence of steps to take to make the task manageable.
Seven key steps towards industry engagement
1. Use the Internet to identify key locals and learn their language
First, I found out how semiconductors worked. Next, I found relevant conferences in Australia and Singapore (the semiconductor capital of South-East Asia). Before attending the conferences, I searched the programs for both research and industry contacts and analysed their use of semiconductors, to make a ‘hit list’ of useful people to connect with.
2. Attend conferencesand network as if your funding depends on it
I attended semiconductor and advanced materials workshops and conferences to learn more about these fields and to meet people. I asked lots of questions of everyone I met and explained the capabilities of ANSTO’s instrument to them.
3. Create some industry friendly marketing material
I wrote some simple information which addressed the problems experienced by potential customers and explained how the SIMS could help them. It’s a long walk from authoring a scientific paper to wordsmithing a marketing flier, so if you’re not up for it, use a professional writer. These days everything is visual so if you can use photos, video or animation to help describe complex concepts you’ll have better engagement.
4. Make some cold calls to relevant locals and ask for meetings
I found a semiconductor company (the only one in Australia) located in Homebush and arranged to meet with them. Then I discovered a solar cell manufacturer two doors down and introduced myself to them as well. I contacted wafer fabrication manufacturers in Singapore to learn about that market, what their needs were and how we could assist them.
5. Follow up meetings by sending your marketing materials and invite them to free trial the service
Using the SIMS instrument, I ran free test samples for potential customers so they could see the type of information it was possible to garner from their own samples and lowered the barrier to them buying.
6. Collaborate and cross-promote
I partnered my project with other ANSTO capabilities and experts to offer a packaged solution to clients. This was better value and of interest to clients rather than a small, isolated piece of analysis, which didn’t solve their problem or provide them with advice on how to fix it.
7. Approach the competition and propose a mutually beneficial relationship
After a bit of background research on the competition I approached the largest competitor Evans Analytical Labs (a US based company), to discuss the possibility of partnering with them as their South-east Asian hub, providing services to Singapore and the region.
Did I succeed in establishing an ANSTO colony in Industryland?
Sort of. I certainly found new customers for ANSTO. But the proposed spin-off company was not viable, because the Australian market was simply too small, and to succeed in South-east Asia, we needed a back-up instrument to offer 100% reliable service.
Nonetheless, I returned from my expedition with a new mindset, a new industry engagement skill set and new confidence in my ability to engage with the inhabitants of Industryland, while remaining true to my values and my first love, Science.
Schools have a major role in promoting female participation in the STEM workforce. The challenge for schools and educators is to help female students understand this new environment and evolve the skills and resilience to operate in the future STEM landscape.
So how can we support female students to pursue STEM careers?
A major challenge for schools exists around resourcing and updating teacher knowledge. The Victorian Department of Education established six specialist science and mathematics centres to help schools inspire students in STEM through student programs and teacher professional learning.
These specialist centres collaborate with research institutes and industry to showcase Victorian innovation and entrepreneurial pursuits in STEM. Providing access to research-grade technologies and expertise immerses teachers and students in contemporary science investigations. It helps girls visualise new STEM pathways and ignites their interest in pursuing studies in science.
“Industry and research institutions can play a pivotal role in supporting schools to bridge the divide between STEM in practice, and STEM in the classroom.”
What motivates a female student to engage with STEM? At the very core our answer should include interest and relevance. Relevance showcases how skills and knowledge apply to the world around us. Interest is maintained when students understand and can actively use new skills and knowledge to analyse results, solve problems and discuss issues.
A student will quickly disengage if they do not experience success. A series of sequenced challenges designed to activate thinking and the linking of ideas to create new knowledge supports students to take risks and develop and test theories.
Promote dialogue and skills of negotiation
Girls enjoy learning as a social and collaborative exercise. In this way they can hold meaningful discourse as they interrogate ideas. Providing learning spaces that promote social interaction around artefacts provides a non-threatening method of testing ideas and refining knowledge.
Industries want to increase female participation in the workforce as this promotes diversity and has been shown to improve outcomes. Cited barriers to hiring and promoting women include unconscious bias in managers and women’s low confidence and aspirations.
We all harbour learned stereotypes that are encultured in us and affect decisions. Meeting and collaborating with early and established female career scientists has a positive impact on women’s aspirations. It helps to break down misconceptions surrounding the role of scientists by highlighting the convergence of STEM where collaboration – rather than competition – is key.
Industry and research institutions can play a pivotal role in supporting schools to bridge the divide between STEM in practice, and STEM in the classroom. By partnering with schools to develop meaningful and relevant learning experiences for students, enriched by access to facilities, resources, technologies and expertise, students realise how exciting and diverse a career in STEM can be.
By communicating the need for gender diversity and nurturing STEM skills that will be most valued in the workforce, we can help raise female aspirations as they reflect on subject choice in their senior years.