THERE ARE INCREASING signs that Australian R&D investment in smart sectors such as finance and agriculture is reaping benefits overseas. Federal Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb points to a 10.4% rise in annual gross R&D expenditure to $31 billion (by 2012). This is twice the 4.9% per annum average among countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
“Australia is a world-class innovation destination,” Robb says. “This is built on solid foundations of modern infrastructure, strong levels of investment, generous research and development incentives, and strong intellectual property protection.” In the Global Innovation Index 2014, Australia achieved its highest rank for innovation inputs, coming in 10th out of 143 countries and placing 22nd for outputs.
“We have seen a near doubling of patents filed abroad by Australian entities over a 10-year period,” says Ben Mitra-Kahn, Chief Economist at IP Australia, the Federal Government’s intellectual property office. He believes this is an encouraging indication that organisations are taking their innovations to foreign markets.
“Our national scientific research organisation, CSIRO, ranks in the top 1% of the world’s scientific institutions [in 15 of 22 research fields],” adds Robb. He cites Australia’s development of the bionic ear and CSIRO’s pioneering wi-fi work as high-profile examples of Australian innovation.
To that list, IP Australia adds ResMed’s patented sleep apnoea devices as well as Sportwool – a composite superfine Merino wool for endurance clothing, developed by CSIRO and WoolMark and adopted by foreign firms.
There’s also: the 3D-absorbent fabric developed by CSIRO and Textor Technologies, which is being used in the next generation nappy by global brand Huggies; Vision CRC’s ongoing work in contact lens technology worn by millions worldwide; and the Total Channel Control System to rejuvenate outdated irrigation systems. Total Channel Control is now used around the world, and was jointly developed by the former CRC for Sensor Signal and Information Processing, and Rubicon Water.
Relatively speaking, Australia’s weakness is innovation outputs. But efforts by many of the CRCs are building global relationships that will continue to boost the nation’s growth. In 2012, a report by Allen Consulting Group (now ACIL Allen Consulting) predicted that $5.9 billion in direct economic impacts would accrue during the five years to 2017 from CRC-produced technologies, products and processes – on top of the $8.6 billion in direct impacts already accrued since the CRC Program began in 1991.
“No one is more interested in or committed to maximising research impact than CRCs,” says Tony Peacock, CEO of the CRC Association.
An example of successful Australian innovation on a global stage is the European Capital Markets CRC (ECMCRC). Established in early 2013 by the Australian-based Capital Markets CRC (CMCRC) in collaboration with European universities, more than seven universities were involved at the time of writing, with plans for at least another seven by early 2015.
The CMCRC was born out of the Securities Industry Research Centre of Asia-Pacific (SIRCA), set up in the 1990s by current CMCRC CEO Professor Michael Aitken as a model under which universities could collaborate and share knowledge and infrastructure and then jointly apply for research funding.
Like its Asia-Pacific predecessor, the CMCRC enables the finance and business departments of Australian universities to build and share valuable infrastructure.
A large amount of time in financial market research is spent collecting and collating data and the CMCRC has developed programs that expedite this process. These innovations also enable the data to be shared, with the result being a drastic reduction in research time.
One of the CMCRC’s earliest and most successful innovations was the SMARTS market surveillance system, which was sold to the US stock exchange NASDAQ in 2010. The proceeds of that sale allowed further developments, such as the Market Quality Dashboard.
“The Market Quality Dashboard takes all that data and produces basic metrics that everyone needs to use to analyse things like transactions costs and market volatility,” Aitken explains. It means researchers and academics no longer need to develop these metrics from scratch, thereby improving productivity.
In Europe, the ECMCRC will attract new members by providing academics and universities with access to these tools.
“What we’re doing is encouraging the universities to get together – by giving them something they couldn’t hope to achieve in a million years – and once they’re together, we collectively apply for funding from the EU to be matched by industry funding, thus sharing the very successful CRC model with other countries,” Aitken says.
The university PhD students who use the data, and are in industry placements, have the joint role of linking the research to commercial applications because they best understand what companies need.
Aitken says the CMCRC has already built three major pieces of technology and created at least 200 new jobs in Australian spin-offs as a result.
“We hope that we will do the same in Europe but we need to get the universities together first,” he says. “By focusing on industry engagement first and foremost, we will build interesting technology for businesses. This will build up ‘brownie points’ with industry partners who will provide access to their unique data, which will in turn foster scholarship.”
CMCRC’s predecessor, SIRCA, has 39 member universities from across the region, and Aitken says there are already plans in place for a capital markets research centre in North America in the next five years.
The area of agriculture and agribusiness is one of Australia’s five key strengths, points out Robb, and agricultural CRCs have also been very proactive when it comes to international cooperation. Two years ago, the Dairy Futures CRC launched a global research project to create the world’s biggest collection of DNA sequence data for dairy herd bulls.
The aim of the 1000 Bulls Genome Project was to build a database of DNA sequences to be used for breeding Australia’s dairy herds. From that data, mutations that affect animal health, welfare and productivity could also be identified.
A scientific paper analysing the genomes of 234 bulls from three dairy cattle breeds – Jersey, Holstein-Friesian and Fleckvieh – was published in the international journal Nature Genetics in July 2014. It explains that the research team identified 28.3 million genetic variants and was able to use the database to identify a recessive mutation linked to embryonic death in dairy cattle. The researchers also identified a dominant mutation linked to chondrodysplasia, a type of bone disease.
“There’s a real opportunity here if we can find the genes affecting traits that are important to dairy farmers, like fertility, milk production and disease resistance,” the project’s leader, Dr Ben Hayes, recently told the ABC’s Country Hour. “We’re combining the DNA information with the herd records that farmers have kept over a large number of years… to sort through those 28 million variants and come down to a few thousand that really do predict milk production, fertility and disease resistance.”
The project involves 20 international research partners from Australia, France, Germany, Canada, Denmark and the USA. Hayes is based at the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries and leads the Dairy Futures CRC’s animal improvement research program – a partnership between dairy farmers, pasture and cattle breeding companies, government and researchers.
Hayes explains that identifying a gene mutation that causes embryonic loss in cows can help farmers build a healthy, more productive dairy herd. “We know that this particular mutation is already present at low frequency in Australian dairy herds. Locating the mutation means we can test for it and avoid matings between animals that both carry the mutation, to keep it from becoming a problem in the future.”
The CRC is also using the project’s genetic sequence data to design improvements in the routine use of DNA to predict the genetic merits of dairy cows.
“The ultimate challenge in making genomic selection more robust is to find the variants that are considered to be causative – the small fraction of all known variants that are responsible for major changes to the function of important genes,” Hayes says.
“We now have data for the entire DNA sequences, including mutations affecting the traits dairy farmers are most interested in. We are tracking down the causative genes for fertility, longevity and meat production, to equip farmers to make more informed breeding decisions and boost the quality of their herds.”
THE PORK CRC is another good example of global collaboration. The CRC has strong links with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) on genetic research around disease resistance and environmental resilience in pigs. Pork CRC Chief Executive Officer, Dr Roger Campbell, credits the collaboration to the reputation and efforts of their geneticist Dr Susanne Hermesch, an Associate Professor at the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit, based at the University of New England in NSW. Hermesch says international collaboration is particularly important in her field of pig genetics.
“It’s a small, very specialised field, and you really need to look for collaboration to get the people you want,” she says. Hermesch also has collaborative arrangements with researchers at organisations in New Zealand, Scotland and the Netherlands.
Pork CRC’s attitude towards commercialisation of research at a national level also means that any collaborative international research is quickly adopted in the field.
“Research is part of the adoption process,” says Hermesch. “We are recording information and data on farms in the commercial setting.”
Australian breeding companies collaborate in research, which means they must have faith that the research outcomes will result in commercial benefits for their business.
“This international collaboration is valuable,” adds Hermesch. “I’m pulling people from all over the world into my extended research team with links to the Australian pig industry.”
Campbell expects there to be global advantages from the current genetic research because of these ties.
“The pig industry globally is not all that different,” he says. “I would expect that all geneticists, and therefore all breeding companies, are likely to benefit.”