Focus must be on private research


Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Government should provide more support for industry-led research rather than just focusing on university grants and incentives, according to the winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for New Innovators.

Nura co-founder and chief technology officer Dr Luke Campbell won the prize last month for his work developing and commercialising the company’s headphones, which automatically learn and adapt to the listener’s unique hearing.

The technology is patented, and Dr Campbell was involved in both the research and the development of the product through to its commercialisation. The first Nura product was built using $20,000 in seed funding from the Melbourne Accelerator Program, with a subsequent crowdfunding campaign raising $2.5 million from nearly 8000 backers.

Nura is a rare Australian hardware success story in the face of regular reports of commercialisation struggles and drops in research and development spending. The business is still based in Australia with more than 65 employees in Melbourne, with manufacturing conducted in China.

The company’s headphones are available in 90 countries, and are featured in a handful of retail and pop-up stores. Nura owns a significant amount of intellectual property, focused on the concept of an in-ear and over-ear headphones that measures a user’s hearing by detecting activity in the cochlea inside the inner ear.

Dr Campbell said the federal government should focus more on private research to address Australia’s commercialisation issues.

“The government should focus more on the industry-led collaboration and supporting industry research rather than research that’s just from universities or in partnership with universities,” Dr Campbell told InnovationAus.com

“They need to be supporting companies doing genuine research happening in the private sector.

Nura applied for several government grants and incentive programs but was unsuccessful each time. The only government support it has received is from the research and development tax incentive.

Providing grants and support for industry-led research will lead to more successful Australian tech firms and help to boost local commercialisation, Dr Campbell said.

“Private research is a bit more directed at making sure there’s an outcome that has immediate commercial utility. They won’t hire someone to be a researcher unless their work is going to create an innovation that becomes a point of differentiation for your product, and that means the research will always be focused – it’s incentivised to actually come to fruition,” he said.

Currently most government programs focus on university research or public-private partnerships, in the form of grants and incentives.

“I have hesitation with grants that require private and university partners. The mindset of research in the private sector is much more focused and much more driven to a timeline and outcomes. That’s a mindset that the university sector doesn’t necessarily understand,” Dr Campbell said.

The key to Nura’s success in commercialising its IP was simple: hard work and dedication.

“It was about believing in the idea and the concept and building a team who believed in it. We all worked our arses off to bring it to the world. The differentiating factor was having faith in ourselves and our ideas, and being able to build a team that was motivated to bring that to the world,” Dr Campbell said.

After the product was developed, the team launched the crowdfunding campaign to show potential investors that there was a product-market fit. After that, it was all about getting the headphones onto as many ears as possible.

Nura has sometimes struggled to bring in talent from overseas and to get visas, and the number one way to combat this skills gap is to invest in local education for the long-term, he said.

“Government should be investing in STEM and making sure we have a lot of technically skilled people at a software level, and in university for engineering,” Dr Campbell said.

“That’ll be long-term bang for your buck in creating an ecosystem that can maybe not be world-leading, but can compete with the rest of the world.”

Dr Campbell was speaking to InnovationAus.com from China, where he is overseeing the final manufacturing touches to Nura’s second product – an in-ear version of the original headphones. If all goes to plan, the product will be available by the end of the year.

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