Research translation policies not fit for purpose

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Current policies aimed at creating incentives for research translation are not fit-for-purpose for tech companies, with too much focus on public-private collaboration, according to Q-CTRL founder Professor Michael Biercuk.

Australia’s struggles in commercialising research into viable products and companies has been widely recognised for several years, and the government has introduced policies aimed to address this, mainly by encouraging private sector companies to collaborate with public institutions such as universities.

These include the Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P), with funding on offer to partnerships looking to commercialise research.

But according to Professor Biercuk, who is also the director of the University of Sydney’s Quantum Control Laboratory, the current debate around research translation is too focused on collaboration as an end in itself, rather than the actual output.

Michael Biercuk
Translate this: The incentives used to shoe-horn research collaborations are wrong

“I’m very keen to see that in the story of research translation, we focus on the end goal instead of the intermediate goal. Research collaboration between the public sector and industry should be aiming to an end, it should not be the primary means to the end, and it shouldn’t be the end,” Professor Biercuk told InnovationAus.

“A lot of the funding mechanisms and incentive structures are really only focused on making some kind of collaboration between public sector research organisations like universities and private industry, but in my view that is maybe not where the discussion should end.

“We should be focused primarily on the outcomes which are diversifying the economy, diversifying the space of company activity and ensuring there is research translation. If you refocus on that then what you see very clearly is collaboration may be part of the story, but it should sit alongside other incentives to drive the ultimate desired outcomes.”

Q-CTRL is a quantum computing startup based in Sydney. Its technology was developed by Professor Biercuk in the University of Sydney’s Quantum Control Laboratory and the company was formed in 2017.

Most of the existing government support, including the CRC-Ps, are “convoluted” and time-consuming, making them unsuitable for companies like Q-CTRL, Professor Biercuk said

“What we’re seeing is this focus on collaboration which is actually quite blunt. Most of the programs are designed to foster collaboration by mandating certain structures in their composition of a team that applies for funding,” he said.

“We go through some really substantial contortions in order to meet the requirements of these things. If the objective is to support the end goal of greater diversification, greater research intensity and translation, then I think there are complements or wholesale replacements that would work better.”

And these policies are designed for larger incumbent companies, not for innovative startups, Professor Biercuk said.

“It looks like most of this is crafted by a view to what industry used to be, and what universities used to be. Industry has self-reported in Australia as being not innovative, with some tiny fraction according to the Chief Economist reporting new-to-world innovations every year,” he said.

This has the effect of transforming universities into “outsourced R&D teams”, he said.

“That’s pretty risky. We’re talking about problems being set by industry where industry is not innovative and then taking highly innovative organisations like universities and then shifting their emphasis to solve these short-term problems,” Professor Biercuk said.

“That to me is not a successful collaboration, not in the long-term of diversifying the economy. It’s making low-cost subsidised research teams for the incumbent industry. It completely ignores the way the startup sector behaves in that most of us doing deep tech actually have built our own R&D teams.”

The public policy emphasis should move away from public-private collaboration and towards assisting companies in translating research, with or without a university, he said.

“The CRC-P program should be expanded to include single player SME organisations or collaborations between SMEs – it shouldn’t mandate these complicated structures that also involve public sector researchers,” he said.

“There’s a lot of activity we can do where we’d love better support for research-intensive activity, but we don’t need a university partner to do that, and we’re not alone in that.

“The emphasis in policy for research translation has not been for supporting companies like mine that are direct translators, but rather on trying to force a union between public and private organisations.

“That’s extremely difficult when you look at the timeframes involved and the complexities of the instruments that end up being required.”

These policies should look to assist companies in surviving the translation phase, he said.

“There should be the establishment of more programs that simply target translational research where there is this valley of death from fundamental science over to direct product development. That’s an area where you can have government support programs that do not necessitate any form of inter-organisational relationship,” Professor Biercuk said.

“That’s essentially because we need to move fast, if we’re spending four-plus months applying for them then waiting and then spending six-plus months negotiating the IP arrangements, you’re well over a year until you start. Name me a startup that can just swallow that. It just doesn’t work for our sector.

“I think that government policy in this should span all of industry, from large, old incumbents through to new highly innovative organisations which frankly are much more likely to develop new world capabilities.”

Earlier this week ANZ bank chairman and NSW chancellor David Gonski called on the government to focus on working with industry to translate institutional research into “tangible things”, labelled the recent budget a “good beginning”.

“It shows government’s participation and interest in research, which in my opinion is vital. We need to follow the way that Israel has done this, not only in researching but in translating that,” Mr Gonski said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. SBT 4 years ago

    Wholeheartedly agree, a sad but true state of affairs for “research commercialisation” in Australia.

    Instead of funding and nurturing innovative science and technology a lot of time and effort is spent on ticking boxes and performing substantial contortions in order to meet bureaucratic requirements (most not innovation-related). Meanwhile the rest of the world moves onward (and good projects will head overseas). We’re good at talking-the-talk though…

  2. Sub manager 4 years ago

    oh, well done, MB. I had issue with gonski’s industry collaboration clarion (yesterdays article) same as I do with most of csiro’s industry co-investment required model of research/devt/commercialisation, and the difficult CRC/P model. You’ve presented your view very clearly, so well done. But few will hear, fewer still take the time to consider. Incentives aren’t structured for that.

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