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Sourceable: What is research commercialisation?

Research commercialisation refers to the process through which ideas or research are transformed into marketable products, capital gains, income from licences and/or revenue from the sale of new product.

Recently, my firm landed an Innovation Connections grant from the federal government to identify an opportunity to work with a research organisation to test and develop a new idea. This new idea is a modular, living green wall system that accelerates the removal of air pollutants like CO2, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds faster than any other plant-based system on the market.

The government grant allowed us to partner with the Plants and Indoor Environmental Quality Research Group at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and test an invention that was years in the making. World leading researchers helped to validate the design, put it through its paces, and take real product data to the market to promote its benefits.

Collaborating with the team at UTS was a brilliant opportunity, but it is important to note that this kind of commercial research partnership benefits the wider industry too. By establishing a connection between scientific practice and theory, and market solutions, it enables researchers and business to share knowledge and collaborate on projects, and this can lead to innovative market solutions.

But what does this kind of research/industry collaboration mean for research today? Is it the end of ‘independent’ science and research? Will sponsored research skew development to address only the ‘popular’ causes? Let’s take a step back and consider the current climate for research commercialisation, both the opportunities and concerns it presents, the barriers faced and the years ahead.

Jobs, growth and quality of life: the benefits of research commercialisation

Speaking recently at a Westmead Research Hub event, Bill Ferris AC, chair of Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) called for more collaboration between Australian businesses and publicly funded research institutions.

“Better translation of research into commercial outcomes underpins economic growth and global competitiveness,” he said. “If we fail to translate research into commercial outcomes, we will sell Australia short on jobs, economic growth and quality of life.”

Ferris shares this positive view of research commercialisation with the federal government. The departments of Education and Industry even released a joint discussion paper, titled Collaboration between the research sector and business is crucial for innovation, which was aimed at increasing the research/industry bond.

It’s not hard to see why research commercialisation is looked on so favourably when we consider the success of international ‘innovation hubs’ like Silicon Valley in the US and the Cambridge Science Park in the UK.

Home to 1,400 firms in software, electronics and pharmaceutical sectors, the Cambridge Science Park employs 53,000 people with annual revenue of £13 billion. Its success has been attributed to ‘synergy between campus and cluster.’

“The university is quite fluid at the edges, which allows it to sit very closely with industry in Cambridge,” said Dr. Anne Dobree, head of Seed Funds at Cambridge Enterprise. “I think one of the critical parts of that has been the university’s historic flexibility with its students and staff for them to do their own thing on top of their work.”

Research commercialisation in Australia now

According to a federal government study, Australia’s research output “ranks highly in the OECD on indicators of research quality. For example, in 2013 we contributed to 3.85 per cent of the world’s research output (in terms of publications) from 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, ranking 9th in the OECD.”

However, a comparison of innovation inputs (including research) with innovation outputs ranks Australia 81st out of 143 countries.

While we perform strongly in terms of research excellence, we underperform by international standards when it comes to translating publicly funded research into commercial outcomes, due in part to the insufficient transfer of information and knowledge between businesses and researchers.

Recognising the barriers and breaking them down

It seems there are a couple of primary issues making it difficult for research/industry partnerships and collaboration in Australia.

First, according to a joint paper published by the Department of Education and the Department of Industry, the “proportion of Australian researchers working in business (as opposed to the public research sector) is significantly lower in Australia than in other countries. This is exacerbated by the low levels of mobility between the two sectors.” When researchers exist in a separate ‘world’ from industry, the two groups develop independently.

This contributes to the second issue – when research and industry are brought together they often perceive differences in motive and approach as insurmountable. This was demonstrated in a 2008 University of Western Australia study of the experiences of university and industry partners working together on a grant project.

“Industry isn’t concerned with the science – only with the practical solution to the specific industry problem. They need persuading that the scientific work is essential,” said one academic researcher in the study.

“Academics are notorious for taking a long time to do research, whether it’s due to teaching commitments or because the work is linked to the requirements of a PhD…two months of work with a professional agency is closer to two years for academics…this is a big issue,” said another.

As Winthrop professor Tim Mazzarol noted in The Conversation, a major problem is “the lack of communication and understanding between the partners.”

As far as problems go, these should be pretty easy to overcome and it’s something that the government is working on with the introduction of research grants for industry like the one received for the Breathing Wall.

This article was first published in Sourceable. Read the full article here…