Universities: incubators of invention

April 17, 2023

For innovation, overnight success is often decades in the making: a keystone of which almost always comes from basic science at universities.

Just about every technology that becomes a global success, triggering disruptive changes in industry and society, began in a university and took years to ripen. Often, the bigger the success, the longer it may have gestated.

Take the internet: first established between universities in the late 1960s, but not widely adopted by industry and consumers until the 1990s. Artificial intelligence is today a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut burrowing into every nook and cranny of modern life, and it began with basic research at universities in the 1950s.

“Most of the big Australian science blockbusters — like the HPV vaccine or the Cochlear implant — are firmly rooted in university research,” said Tony Peacock, former long-time CEO of the Cooperative Research Centres Association. An Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra, he now chairs the boards of two biomedical companies.

“And the big CSIRO winners, like Wi-Fi and the polymer contact lens, relied on deep collaboration with Macquarie University and UNSW.”

It’s not just in Australia. “History is filled with examples of fundamental research undertaken in universities, driven by the curiosity of researchers, finding significant applications that could never have been imagined,” said Prof Kate Smith-Miles, a professor of mathematics and statistics, and Associate Dean (Enterprise & Innovation) for the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne. It took mathematical breakthroughs to make the internet and MRI scans possible, and “fundamental understanding of DNA led to modern techniques of DNA sequencing and genetic engineering.”

Building a value chain

Successful innovation requires disparate players to become fellow travellers and find ways to connect and collaborate to create a value chain, said Prof Caroline McMillen, the Chief Scientist for South Australia, and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Newcastle.

She cited the example of ‘rust belt’ cities — such as Albany, New York, or Eindhoven in The Netherlands — where a combination of visionary thinkers, local universities, government initiatives and start-ups transformed old industries into smart new products by integrating information technology, sensors, big data, new materials, and automation.

“These communities went through remarkable economic and social transitions when traditional manufacturing moved offshore,” McMillen said. “That seismic shift also created a burning need for new ideas, and they focused on universities in ways they hadn’t before. New industries arose, based on some existing skills or the manufacturing base. But that needed active partnerships, especially between research and businesses.”

Take Akron, Ohio, once the tyre-making capital of the world — home of Goodyear, Firestone and others; “Polymers were their core expertise,” she said. “What else could they do with plastics and rubber?” From the depths of the 1990s doldrums, Akron is now one of the world’s leading polymer centres with more than 400 companies manufacturing polymer-based materials for everything from lipstick to medical devices.

Successes like these have been slower in Australia — partly because businesses are hesitant and unfamiliar with universities, and partly because universities were in the past less entrepreneurial and more interested in advancing their research agenda. That’s changing.

“Things like intellectual property management at universities and contracting out are still slower here than overseas,” said Peacock. “But researchers are getting more skilled at working with business. Not seeing companies as simply a funding source for a project is a big change in mindset. And more companies are learning their way around universities.”

While universities are an important link in the value chain of innovation, that’s not how many Australian companies see them. “But I think there’s growing recognition of the value universities can offer. Very often, things might start with a simple job they need help with, and then a relationship develops,” he added.

“There’s no one way to do collaboration,” said McMillen. “But it all starts with a conversation.”

Written by Wilson da Silva

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