Can universities do more – or get more help – in commercialising research to drive the economic growth we need post COVID-19? And how can we facilitate more collaboration between university research and business? It might sound like a familiar refrain, after the $1.1 billion NISA (National Innovation and Science Agenda) was announced in December 2015.
“I want to see new ideas on how we can increase collaboration between business and universities and put our research at the heart of our economic recovery,” Minister Tudge said.
“We want our high-quality research to better translate into the breakthrough products, new businesses and ideas we need to grow our economy and improve our society.
“COVID provides a unique opportunity to reassess university business models and better leverage research to grow our economy and generate Australian jobs.
“I will work with any university that is prepared to take a bold approach.”
It’s time to “level up”
Peak body Science & Technology Australia welcomed the initiative and said university science is ready to “level up”, calling for a $2.4 billion Science Future Fund.
“Australian science is ready, willing and able to answer that call,” said Science & Technology Australia Chief Executive Officer Misha Schubert.
ACDS joined the call for funding similar to the long-established Biomedical Research Translation Fund that fed $500m into medical research translation in 2015-2017.
“We strongly support the proposal for a non-medical research translation fund and a comprehensive long-term national plan for science and technology,” they stated in a press release.
“Such a scheme will enable the great work by University science in areas like environmental science, agriculture, chemistry and physics, to contribute to global challenges like food and water security, climate change, renewable energy and smart materials.”
Release the release here, or click here for a direct link to download the consultation paper.
CEO of Science & Technology Australia (STA), Ms Kylie Walker, said two decades of declines in high school maths and science results and enrolments were a significant risk to Australia’s future capability and prosperity.
“Intermediate and advanced maths enrolments are most worrying, with declines from 54 per cent in 1992, to 36 per cent in 2012,” Ms Walker said.
“We already have skilled workforce deficits in some areas of technology, and we know the major growth in future jobs will be in science, technology, engineering and maths: we need to support teachers with the right skills to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow.
“We hope Minister Birmingham’s commitment to developing teacher skills extends to encouraging and incentivising universities to attract more students to undergraduate science and maths degrees.”
Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham, this morning said around 20% of STEM teachers are teaching outside of their area expertise, noting that the Government wanted to ensure that universities are training future secondary teachers in science and mathematics.
“Many of our member organisations have been calling for urgent action to address the decline for some time,” Ms Walker said.
“Unfortunately, though, current caps on funding for undergraduate degrees pose significant challenges to building a STEM-qualified education workforce.
“STEM degrees are important to securing Australia’s prosperity, and though they are costly to deliver, they will pay dividends,” she said.
“The solution is twofold: have skilled teachers inspire students to develop a passion for STEM from an early age, and invest in universities to attract these students to pursue a degree in STEM.”
Autonomous 3D mapping drones are being utilised to improve efficiencies in agtech, a key growth area for Australian businesses.
Tapping into state-of-the-art research at UNSW has helped startup company Agronomeye develop sophisticated drone technology that provides precision monitoring data that can be used in agriculture.
Connecting business with research
Co-founder Stu Adam said that by flying drones across large crop areas, Agronomeye enables farmers to survey large areas of land to analyse crop and livestock health. These metrics greatly assist in agriculture management.
“With some farmers needing to survey around 10,000 hectares, you can imagine how much crop health can vary on one agriculture business,” said Adam, who developed the technology in partnership with UNSW through the TechConnect program.
TechConnect is part of the NSW Government’s $18 million Boosting Business Innovation Program designed to provide small businesses access to research organisations. The program’s objective is to build strong local business communities and stimulate economic growth in metropolitan and regional NSW.
TechConnect enabled Adam to tap into research knowledge, technical skills and world-class facilities to develop sophisticated, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software.
How to partner with a university
A key challenge for Agronomeye was to develop robust systems for monitoring vast amounts of land and creating accessible pixel data. Another was manufacturing lightweight drone technology that could also withstand climate variables and harsh environmental conditions.
“We spoke to developers across the globe and no one was able to provide the solution we required and the team at UNSW ended up being a perfect fit,” said Adam.
“Partnering with the university exposed us to the best minds and technology available and has given us the tools we require to create efficiencies across cropping regimes.”
Adam says that by capturing accurate and actionable data for farmers, Agronomeye provides the information for highly targeted testing rather than random sampling. Drones can fly over large swathes of crop and use cameras and sensors to find variability in the planting area.
This allows the farm manager or agronomist to pinpoint possible problem sites and do highly targeted tests such as soil sampling, leaf-tissue testing and better manage their problems through variable rates of inputs such as fertilizer to meet the nutritional requirements of the crop.
“The technology provides massive efficiencies, better management of inputs and increased crop yield as a result,” he added.
UNSW’s Entrepreneur in residence Danielle Neale said that similar engagements between business and researchers are starting to develop long term relationships.
“All of NSW’s universities use the NSW Government’s “Boost” funding in different ways. At UNSW, our strategy is to find industry partners who can work with our researchers to spark new commercialisation journeys,” she said.
“Businesses are asked to make a contribution that is matched by the university through Tech Vouchers.”
UNSW industry partners also gain access to free courses at the Michael Crouch Innovation Centre, from design thinking and lean startup to digital fabrication.
TechConnect provides eligible businesses with up to $15,000 funding through TechVouchers. Businesses can also access other funding programs through the TechConnect initiative that gives start-up entrepreneurs, regional and metropolitan SMEs an ecosystem to innovate the future of technology.
More about Boosting Business Innovation
The $18 million Boosting Business Innovation Program is designed to provide small businesses access to research organisations. Its objective is to foster:
a networked innovation ecosystem across NSW
additional external funding
more small to medium enterprises that can scale up and innovate
more regional start-up sectors
innovation clusters across the state
access to high tech equipment and technical expertise research by SMEs and start-ups through TechVouchers
In the face of disruption and funding scrutiny, Monash University Vice Chancellor and Universities Australia Chair, Professor Margaret Gardner is seeking to re-direct the spotlight to the areas in which university innovation strategy is delivering success.
As the keynote speaker at the 2017 AFR Higher Education Summit in September, Gardner questioned the government’s proposed funding cuts and implored policy makers to examine where university innovation strategy is leading instead of examining ways to improve, bemoaning the present and ignoring the past.
“Reform is a grand word, and there’s always room to challenge the way universities are shaped and operated,” said Gardner. “But good strategy should begin by understanding what we do well.”
Three key strengths of universities as outlined by Professor Gardner
Australian universities are ranked at number 3 over in the world, behind the USA at number one and the UK at number two. Half of all Australian universities are in the top 400, an enviable position for any sector of national endeavour.
International demand for education is driven by reputation and the top 100 rankings. In 2016, higher education was a $22 billion export industry with 350,000 international students choosing Australian universities for their studies. It’s reported that international students spend double in the wider economy than they do in fees so the flow on effect can be felt broadly.
The social and economic benefits of education lead to higher skilled workforce with more resilience. Education supports a nation’s economic development and leads to more people leading healthy lives. Australian levels of attainment are high.
Gardner rejects “…a discussion of presumed inefficiencies instead of acknowledgement of success” as the optimum starting point, but agrees that to survive and succeed, universities must take risks and be entrepreneurial.
“In universities I see graduates with big aspirations, researchers with grand designs,” Gardner continued. “The shaping of this debate is in our hands.” – Karen Taylor-Brown
The trip was a revelation, as I witnessed in a very real and tangible way that a national groundswell towards a knowledge-based economy is possible.
As Avi Hasson, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Economy explained, Israel has accelerated from “oranges, as the largest export 20 years ago, to technology now being a $US50 billion GDP contributor”.
After an inspiring eight days studying the mechanisms of one of the world’s great start-up communities – and particularly the key role that universities play in technology transfer – I believe it is vital that Australian universities capitalise on the new focus on innovation and collaboration if we are to create our own startup nation.
‘Collaboration [is] a breath of fresh air between industry and Israel’s universities’
I saw in Israel that a culture formed from 2000 years of overcoming adversity underpins innovation and entrepreneurship there. The startup community’s innovative spirit is also formed in the crucible of military conscription, where lives are at risk and everyone is personally involved and affected.
It is something of the national character that Israelis are alert to possibilities that can make a difference, and willing to take action, quickly!
This culture is not a template Australia can replicate. However, the delegation’s visit to a number of different educational institutions allows an Australian take on the Israeli strategy.
As delegation member Jonathan Marshall, founder of Bondi Labs, put it, we were witness to “mutual collaboration – a breath of fresh air between industry and Israel’s universities”.
In Israel, everyone knows everyone, and this promotes positive channels between governments, academia and industry. For universities, the key is to find researchers who are early adopters of industry collaboration, and to experiment with small initiatives.
Demonstrating small wins in a risk-averse environment like Australia will assist in propagating advocates, and will generate incentives to commercialise technology developed by our institutions.
Technion, a science and technology research university based in Haifa, north of Tel Aviv, has a strong mechanism to engage entrepreneurs: every student enrolled has to take a mandatory Minor in Entrepreneurship.
This particularly resonated with Adrian Turner, CEO of Data61, CSIRO’s commercialisation vehicle. He says it reminded him of the 18 years he spent in the US’s startup nation Silicon Valley. “The system seems to be very focused on encouraging students to pursue the entrepreneurial path,” he says. The result? Technion transfers into the economy 100 student-led businesses a year, with revenues that exceed $US32 million.
‘The system seems to be very focused on encouraging students to pursue the entrepreneurial path’
Building a startup nation
At the other tech transfer leader, Hebrew University, researchers are strongly encouraged to engage with industry.
Liaising with professionals with real-life challenges and opportunities influences academic research outcomes, in turn solving unmet market needs. Products based on the university’s tech transfer developments generate more than $US2 billion in annual sales.
Both business models are successful. As Sarah Pearson, CEO and Founder of Canberra-based CBR Innovation Network explains, “Science and innovation education permeate the culture of Israel, beginning by engaging three-year-olds in science. Parents value entrepreneurship as a career, universities foster a culture of impact and commercial outcomes, and the government supports this in a strategic and holistic way.”
A lot has been said about the need for Australian schools to provide more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. In Israel, Jon Medved, CEO ofOurCrowd, the world’s biggest equity crowd funding platform, told us Israel is “running out of geeks”.
So, visiting the science and technology education centre Technoda was humbling. Technoda attracts more than 30,000 children a year to science enrichment classes, from every ethnic group, religion and lifestyle.
With the recent opening of a second campus, just 10 kilometres north of Gaza, it is clear STEM education can and must be accessible to everyone.
From a university perspective, Australia needs to worry about the brain drain as well. Some 8000 IT students graduate from Australian universities and return to homes overseas each year.
Until the throughput of social ventures such as Code Club Australia start to drive new, local STEM talent into the Australian workforce, we must do much more to encourage this demographic of international graduates to stay and help build our tech startup community.
Universities have a major part to play in guiding future talent into an innovative environment where government, industry and academia collaborate.
We can promote this now with students playing a central role. Students must be able to access entrepreneurial education programs and easier ways to commercialise university technologies.
Israel is leading the way. It’s time for Australia to take the next step. – Stephen Rutter
Stephen Rutter is Manager of UTS Business School’s Business Practice Unit. Among other things the unit facilitates engagement between faculty, industry and the entrepreneurial community. He was previously an Executive in Residence at Flinders University, where he was involved in starting up its New Venture Institute.
See the federal government’s Innovation Statement here, and the Innovation Inquiry Report here, including the Expert Report by the Dean of UTS Business School, Professor Roy Green.
UTS Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs talks about university and industry working together here.