Earlier this year, I had a remarkable opportunity to spend three weeks in Australia – a nation that was my home when I earned my doctorate at the Australian National University – focusing on the vitally important role that universities play in advancing national innovation and competitiveness.
I travelled there as an Australian-American Fulbright Commission Specialist and was privileged to spend time with talented colleagues learning more about Australia’s strength in scientific and technological research, as well as its challenges to advance innovation in the face of global competition.
Each stop on my visit reinforced Australia’s global reputation for excellence in research. And yet the same question and concerns would arise: Why is Australia – with all its considerable talent – lagging on global innovation indexes?
I shared with my Australian colleagues the same thoughts I’ve shared back at home in the United States, where there are also concerns about national competitiveness and the challenges of translating great science in the lab to innovations that provide a return on investment for the public.
As a neuroscientist, administrator and inventor with more than 150 patents worldwide, I’ve come to believe one factor is a strong indicator of innovation success: If there’s a culture of innovation within universities that encourages, supports and rewards inventors.
My home institution, the University of South Florida, is a good example of what I mean when I say a “culture of innovation”. USF is a young university at just a little more than 60 years old, yet for the past eight years USF has ranked in the top 20 of universities worldwide in securing new United States utility patents.
We’re not MIT. We’re not Stanford. You might not have ever heard of our university until now. But we’re a young institution unbound by traditions and willing to invest in supporting, rewarding and celebrating invention.
That “culture” has sent an encouraging signal to students and faculty who want to shape the future through innovation, and they feel free to explore their ideas here.
As I met with leaders at the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian government, the Australian National University, and the University of Melbourne – along with inventors and entrepreneurs brought together by Victorian Endowment for Science, Knowledge and Innovation (veski), RMIT University, Monash University, BIO21 and the Wade Institute for Entrepreneurship – it was clear that Australia has an abundance of energy, ideas and passion for innovation.
Academics everywhere I visited were eager to talk about patenting new technologies and open to organizations like the National Academy of Inventors, which works in partnership with the US Patent and Trademark Office to create a culture of innovation on otherwise traditional campuses.
In fact, Australia now has five Fellows of the Academy – selected in recognition of the transformational impact of their diverse inventions in bioengineering, cell biology, material sciences, biochemistry and electrical engineering – and five international affiliate institutions.
The question for universities, though, is how to create maximum impact with their inventive talents. For example, a good number of American universities reward faculty who patent new inventions in the tenure and promotion process, giving a new patent the same credit as a grant or prestigious publication.
US universities have also worked in partnership with the US National Science Foundation on the Innovation Corps program – which helps students and faculty discover if there’s a company to be created in their research. More than 360 companies have been formed in the program.
People presume that academic researchers know how to commercialize a new discovery or how to start their own companies, but we’ve found that’s not usually the case. Creating a university environment that provides training, seed funding for promising ideas, and linkages to industry partners make all the difference.
Not long after my visit, Australia’s proposed national budget was released with its plan to invest almost Aus$1.9 billion (US$1.4 billion) over the next 12 years in research infrastructure. This investment is a clear signal that Australia is not only serious about its global reputation for excellence in academic research, but determined to take hold of its future in the global knowledge economy.
Having both a national innovation agenda – as the country does in Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation – coupled with seed funding for a national space agency and investment in supercomputers, satellite observing systems and nanotechnology shows a focused and strategic investment in the scientific programs which are likely to spinoff unique innovations.
Put into a global context, Australia’s action sends a strong message to other advanced economies that the time to act is now. Shortly after I landed back in the United States, I was honored to participate in a conversation held by the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology – which coordinates the commercialization of new technologies from federal research – and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on the very same issue.
For the US, the question is how to better leverage the $150 billion dollars a year spent on federally-funded research to grow the American economy. The consensus was that innovation requires a comprehensive approach: Both a sustained public investment in research and the creation of environments and policies where new ideas and discoveries are supported as inventors navigate the treacherous road from lab to market.
One can be hopeful that rather than lamenting waning competitiveness, we are now seeing a new determination to tap into both our nations’ greatest and most inventive and innovative assets at our universities and research institutions.
Paul R. Sanberg is the University of South Florida’s senior vice president for research, innovation & knowledge enterprise, and is the president of the National Academy of Inventors. During his time as a Fulbright Specialist, he served as the Wilsmore Professor at the University of Melbourne and as an Honorary Visiting Professor for the Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship, Ormond College.