Uni research agenda gets a commercial shove

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal government has ramped up efforts to drive more industry-targeted and commercially successful research through the university system, with a $242.7 million program to create four university-based research and industry hubs.

The Prime Minister used a speech to the Business Council of Australia on Wednesday evening to unveil a government “Trailblazer Universities” initiative to encourage industry-university collaboration toward creating new technologies, products and companies that are aligned to the nation’s industrial and strategic priorities.

Each of the four Trailblazer University hubs would focus research and commercialisation effort on the priority industries set out in the Modern Manufacturing Strategy – including defence; space; resources technology and critical minerals processing; recycling and clean energy; food and beverage; and medical products.

Melbourne University

The universities will have to compete for the funding, and the programs will need to be set up outside of the existing university structure using a different set of commercially focused incentives.

The four universities selected through a competitive tender process will receive up to $50 million over four years to build their commercialisation capacity, and $8 million in specialist support from the CSIRO.

The universities will be expected to demonstrate commercial readiness, including through existing strong links with industry partners – including co-funding commitments – as well as “innovative intellectual property arrangements”.

The government is encouraging the universities to find promotion pathways for academics that are dedicated to commercialisation activities rather than just pure research. And it wants to see governance arrangements chaired by and industry leader.

“This investment will allow four select universities, four of them, including at least one in regional Australia, to position themselves as a research and development leader and demonstrate to the entire sector the benefits of a strong focus on commercialisation and industry engagement,” Scott Morrison said.

“We need our universities to play a bigger role in our economy, working hand in glove with Australian businesses to develop the next generation of great Australian products and companies,” he said.

“They are a giant economic asset for this country, which generations of Australians have invested billions in, and I want to see that put to work to realise this next stage of our economic recovery.”

The focus of the program is entirely at the commercialisation end of research. The $50 million over four years can be used for a variety of areas, including the recruitment and support of leading research staff “to engage in breakthrough research commercialisation activities.”

The funding could also be directed toward training staff to build greater commercialisation capability, or on research infrastructure or other facilities that support commercialisation outcomes.

The Trailblazer Universities program, which the government says is the initiative under a research commercialisation agenda that will be announced incrementally in the coming weeks.

Education Minister Alan Tudge was even more blunt than the Prime Minister in describing the attitude he wants universities to bring to the program.

“We want our universities to play a bigger role in our economy, working hand-in-glove with Australian businesses to develop the next generation of great Australian products and companies,” Mr Tudge said.

“I am calling for expressions of interest from universities that are hungry to take research and convert it into commercial opportunities.”

The government has built the program for a quick turnaround. Applications will be assessed in a two-stage process: through expressions of interest between November 2021 and January next year, and a more detailed business case examination for shortlisted applicants between January and March.

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