The university research commercialisation pipeline is broken, education experts say. Here’s how it could power Australia’s economic recovery.

  • Australia is missing out on innovation opportunities because of a lack of direct investment in links between university research bodies and the private sector, according to Universities Australia.
  • The return on investment to industry of university research and development has been estimated at $4.50 for every $1 invested.
  • “We think we can improve performance dramatically” through direct investment by government, chief executive at Universities Australia Catriona Jackson said.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Australia needs to dramatically upscale its investment in the pipeline from university research to the private sector, according to experts at Universities Australia.

The peak body advocating for Australia’s university sector said in a statement released today that boosting support to “make the most of university research” will lead to new jobs, products and companies — as well as support Australia’s economic recovery post-pandemic.

The statement comes following the University Research Commercialisation consultation paper, released in February, which sought to better understand models for university research commercialisation, as well as ways to incentivise and increase partnerships between businesses and universities.

Chief executive at Universities Australia Catriona Jackson told Business Insider Australia that the Australian model, which relies on indirect incentives for businesses to reach out to the university sector, is hurting our ability to innovate and siloing research that could be fuelling business growth.

The return on investment to industry of university research and development has been estimated at $4.50 for every $1 invested, according to research from Universities Australia, amounting to $12.8 billion in 2018-19.

Direct incentives financed by the Australian government would allow small and medium businesses to gain direct access to universities and research organisations; “businesses need direct support to lower risks and overcome upfront costs,” Jackson said.

Currently 86% of Australia’s research support efforts were indirect incentives, such as the R&D Tax Incentive, compared to 38% for the US. And this discrepancy is costing Australian industry.

“You need relationships between universities to be deep and close,” she said. “They need to speak the same language and have mutual aims.”

“We argue very strongly in this submission with some direct incentive assistance from government is the point where you’re getting much closer to that commercialisation.”

Getting research to the point where it can be leveraged by the private sector “can take decades” Jackson said, which is why these connections need to be strengthened to identify and optimise opportunities when they arrive.

Australia has tended to favour indirect incentives, Jackson said, but looking at the rest of the world, particularly the US, shows that direct government investment makes a measurable difference to commercial outcomes.

What we know from overseas is that scale and consistency are key to driving innovation that leads to new companies and jobs.

“Around the world we’ve seen how this sort of direct government support leads to real research partnerships and real breakthrough products – from the highly successful US genetic start-up 23andMe to CPR technology that saves lives,” she said.

“We think we can improve performance dramatically if we have the right kinds of incentives in place to help businesses reach out in a more targeted way and get connected up with the right research.”

In its statement Universities Australia recommended a new, national approach, leveraging successful research programs like the NSW TechVouchers scheme, which awards vouchers of up to $15,000 in cash to small to medium businesses to enable them to undertake innovative joint research projects with experts in a relevant field of research, and connects them to high tech instruments and facilities they would otherwise find difficult to access.

It also said it wants the government to develop measurements of research commercialisation that track the research commercialisation pipeline over time.