How Australia can unlock the hidden potential of its universities

Sponsored by the French Australian Chamber of Commerce, after the 2016 Co-innovation Excellence Forum: ‘A Proven Path to Future Growth’
Picture: Getty Images

A central part of the government’s project to spur Australian innovation is to unlock the potential of Australian universities, granting access to the wealth of research and knowledge that’s been built up, which companies could exploit.

But there is still a long way to go in the commercialisation of research and know-how.

Australia ranks among the highest in the world for quality of university research, and the government has created a website for entrepreneurs to source IP held by researchers in the public sector. Both the government and the opposition have released plans to do more, fast tracking and incentivising more research of value to entrepreneurs, fostering more links between universities and the entrepreneurial community.

How Australia compares with France on innovation and R&D

Talks at the French Australia Co Innovation forum reveal there is much more that can be done, a lot more that can be learnt from other countries. France, for example, has recently enacted a number of measures to encourage more research and development, more cooperation between researchers and industry.

But fostering more collaboration between academia and entrepreneurs is about more than opening up patents and other IP for commercial exploitation. A lot of the value locked up in our universities is locked up in the people. Partnerships between universities and industry could and should include the transfer of people, says Dr Kevin Cullen, CEO of UNSW Innovations.

Queensland is currently trialing something like this with its $180 million Advance Queensland program. Under the program, companies partner with universities to take on students, to augment curricular with real-world experience, and drive the attainment of the skills they need. The students keep in touch with a mentor at the university, providing both sides with a direct insight into best practice and theory.

“What we need to do is to get a better understanding happening between companies and universities generally. There is a tendency for them to operate in their own isolated worlds,” Dr Cullen said at the French Australian co-innovation forum.

Dr Kevin Cullen, CEO of UNSW Innovations, speaking at the French Australian Co Innovation forum

“There are so many benefits that companies could receive from working with universities, and they tend to be things like student interns, access to expertise, access to facilities, access to know how,” says Cullen.

“We have a tendency to talk about big research collaborations or intellectual property, but in actual fact it’s the people-based knowledge flow that is the most important basis for a relationship. Once a company and a university have formed a relationship then all other fantastic opportunities can happen.”

Cullen cites Chris Jenkins as an example. Jenkins is the Australian CEO for the French defence contractor Thales, but retains a connection to UNSW. Jenkins and a team of engineers at Thales mentored UNSW students involved in the 2012 Sunswift competition.

“Our senior guys were working with the students to share that experience – to ensure it’s going to work consistently, reliably. The excitement in the Sunswift team ­– you could feel it, and there was a benefit for my company to be involved, because for many of the engineers this is another cool thing to be involved with,” says Jenkins.

It’s this kind of direct involvement — not just commercialising big research projects – that Cullen favours. But there is also a place for companies to get involved with research. Jenkins points out that there is a lot of value in companies partnering with academia, to help researchers know exactly what industry needs.

He uses the example of the $50 billion Australian submarine program, where there is a lot of potential in researchers knowing exactly the kind of tools and material that could be useful in this endeavour.

“The best research that I see is what I would call industry involved research,” says Jenkins. “If industry can help to inform the question, if industry can add texture and richness to the research project being studied, I think that improves the quality for everyone.”

Although Jenkins is quick to note that the research must remain independent — it is the question that is valuable, not control.

“Having someone from the submarine project saying ‘the qualities we are most interested in are acoustic or thermal or conductive or whatever’, informs the research,” Jenkins says.

“This is what I mean about industry informed, where the knowledge from the lab goes into the company which informs the next question.”

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