Industrial PhD’s in the real world

James Riley
Editorial Director

Of all the great challenges facing Australian policy-makers in trying to build a better functioning innovation ecosystem, finding ways to encourage the successful commercialisation of university-based research has proved consistently difficult.

There is a self-image in Australia that “we’re great at research, but terrible at commercialisation.” Who hasn’t heard these words over and over? The numbers don’t lie. We score well against our OECD peers for the numbers of new knowledge research papers published, and we score poorly for commercial outcomes based on research inputs.

But these are economy-wide numbers. And if we are to avoid this mantra becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, we need to better understand what works – and look at how we can replicate these successful programs.

One way to improve the metrics is to enable better joint university-business collaboration on research projects. At face value, this is a no brainer: Private companies with big complex problems access the brainpower and creativity of elite, specialist university researchers?

Seems like a match made in Heaven. What could possible go wrong?

It turns out these collaborations are more complex than first glance would indicate. Business and universities speak a different language, they have different gaols, and the incentives of each are misaligned.

The chances of success for a business with a problem knocking on the door of a university seeking brainpower to fix it are remarkably low.

This is where the CMCRC comes in, as an intermediary for marrying high-value problems with high-end university-based PhD researchers.

The Capital Markets CRC (CMCRC) was originally founded more than 20 years ago through the federal Cooperative Research Centre program. Once solely funded by the government, successful commercialisation of products and reinvestment of earnings means it is operate on a sustainable economic basis once federal funding comes to an end in 2019.

The company offers an Industrial PhD Program that has proved itself over a long period to deliver specific value in the translation of research into the private sector.

CMCRC Group Chief Executive David Wright says the role that CMCRC plays in bringing PhD researchers into private sector companies in Australia to solve problems is a success story for Australian research.

The model works, he says, and should be extended. The expertise within CMCRC is applied to working closely with the industrial partner on project design, and to ensure the problem being put forward is significantly challenging: It must be something that requires a PhD-level capability to solve.

It works with the industry partner to understand the current state on research in the world in that particular area, and whether there is any existing research being done, or if there has been some products already created that addresses the problem.

It then scouts which universities have specific research expertise in the area of interest and defines a potential research project with PhD candidates.

“We work with the industry partner in detail over a considerable period to determine what problem they have that could be solved by PhD-level research,” Mr Wright says.

“The needs of the industry partner must to be framed in a particular way, and we need to be searching for the really difficult problems to solve that have really high value,” he said.

The CMCRC then works with the university and with the PhD candidate.

The researcher is embedded within the industry partner. The research carried out must be publishable – such that the student earns their PhD – and within a timeframe that meets the needs of both the university and the industry partner.

In about 60 per cent of cases, the PhD candidate takes up a position in industry once the research is completed and they have been awarded their doctorate. This is an outcome that has the effect of transferring high-level research expertise into partner companies, and building capability for future research from within.

David Wright is a passionate advocate for private sector collaboration with university research. Because it works, and it builds on-going research capability. Instead of solving a complex problem via commercial research, the program embeds the expertise within a company and builds capability.

Mr Wright says that while Australia should certainly look at leading economies like Germany – which have a sustained track record of commercialising institutional research – he warns against romanticising some innate capability of the German people.

There is a process, he says. It’s not like Germans are hard-coded with some kind of research translation super-gene. Rather, they have an ordered process. Institutions like the Fraunhofer have specific programs that enable that translation.

And they do it at industrial scale. And this is where the CMCRC is playing its role, and where Australian policy-makers must look to drive positive change in the Australian innovation ecosystem.

The CMCRC is, incidentally, chaired by Australian technology luminary David Skellern – the electrical engineering researcher who was famously on the team that build the first 802.11a wireless chipset and who founded Radiata, which was ultimately acquired by Cisco in 2001.

In addition to this hands-on university researcher to entrepreneur experience, Dr Skellern was also for six years the chief executive officer at government research agency NICTA.

The CMCRC’s chief scientist and founder, Dr Michael Aitken, is another Australian technology industry hero, who in 2016 was awarded the Prime Minister’s prize for Innovation in Science – in part for his role in developing high-end financial services data products.

Mr Wright says industrial PhD programs need balance. If you track too closely to the industry partner, you will wreck the integrity of the program – because the research won’t be deep enough, and the student will not get awarded their PhD.

“That’s more like consulting work – the ‘D” in R&D – and that’s not where we are aiming,” he said.

“But if you track to closely to the university, and the research is too ‘deep’ then there is not enough interest or value to the industry partner, and you are not able to translate the value into industry organisation.”

That is why Australia is ranked so low in OECD in terms of research translation, and this is where Mr Wright says the CMCRC has something to contribute.

“This is our value. We are in the middle of the transaction. We make sure that value gets translated.”

Capital Markets CRC has partnered with to deliver a Special Report on issues in Australia related to Industry Research Partnerships.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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