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Australian research commercialisation

Australian research commercialisation on the up worldwide

Released on 25 January 2019, the 2018 Snapshot measures Australian research commercialisation and industry engagement based on surveys of universities, medical research institutes (such as QIMR Berghofer and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research) and publicly funded research agencies.

Performance data collected covers two areas: investment and commercialisation pathways. Investment can be directed into R&D, commercialisation staff and training, while Australian research commercialisation pathways are quantified in terms of metrics such as numbers of patents and licenses produced and industry-research collaborations.

Australian research commercialisation

The data reveals that a notable increase in average R&D expenditure across the surveyed organisations. The extra investment is seen to be paying off: there were more than 18,000 research contracts and collaborations in 2016, generating income of over $1.9 billion. Survey results from 2004 to 2016 show a positive trend in the average number of start-ups created per organisation, the number of provisional applications to apply for patents and the average number of patents granted.

Organisations are also investing in their human potential, with a 35% increase in researchers and students participating in industry training. The industry uptake of postgraduate students is also on the rise.

The top three organisations for producing consultancies, contracts and collaborations with end users were CSIRO, University of Queensland and Monash University. Meanwhile, the top three organisations in terms of Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications, which signal intents to file patents, were CSIRO, The University of Sydney and Monash University. CSIRO came out on top again in terms of Australian research commercialisation staff, ahead of the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne.

Dr Erin Rayment, Chair of KnowledgeCommercialisation Australasia (KCA), a non-profit which leads best practice for public research organisations committed to industry engagement, says that Australia is continuing its trajectory as a world player in the research commercialisation space. “It’s great to see a continued increase in start-up growth and licensing deals, signalling an active technology transfer environment,” she said.

“These results tell a story of our world class research organisations working alongside industry to translate great ideas into real world outcomes and create more Australian jobs,” remarked Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews.

The NSRC data is available via the departmental website.

research collaboration

Research collaboration in the startup scene

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.

Petra Andrén

CEO of Cicada Innovations

Read next: Professor Sharon Bell, board member of Ninti One, examines different approaches to collaboration and debunks the myth of individual creative genius.

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