Uni research needs a Mr In-Between

James Riley
Editorial Director

No stone has been left unturned by successive Australian governments in seeking to understand the weird alchemy that enables successful research collaborations between university and industry partners.

It’s not quite the Holy Grail, but it’s not far off either. A global search of innovation ecosystems for a model that might translate to Australia has seemed endless.

But maybe it should not be quite so complicated. Capital Markets CRC chief executive David Wright says universities across the world operate in largely the same way. They may be focused on a wildly diverse set of research subject matter, but the way the research is conducted and how the universities are organised are remarkably consistent.

The same goes for private sector businesses. Although across the world, companies might be involved in very different products and services, in modern economies their motivations and structures are similar.

We need to keep this in mind, Mr Wright says, when we’re looking at successful models for university-research overseas.

No matter how many times we hear that Germans are somehow hard-coded at a genetic level to excel at university-industry collaboration, this is not the case. And pointing to Stanford/Silicon Valley also misses the point.

There are no examples at any scale from across the world of a utopian environment where businesses and universities freely collaborate as a simple bi-lateral research engagement.

The successful examples overseas have long-established and structured models where a trusted, focused and consistent intermediary organisation builds the connections between universities and industry.

There is no alchemy. It’s not magic. Whether it’s the Frauhofer in Germany or SRI International at Menlo Park in Silicon Valley, these translational research institutes are the organisations that enable successful collaboration.

The point, Mr Wright says, is that the other innovations centres realised long ago that universities and industry are necessarily very different – and that extracting and translating the value of university research required a structured response.

You can’t just say ‘industry is open to anything’ and ‘universities are open to everything’ and expect that a particular company and a specific research unit within a university will somehow come together and create amazing spontaneous value, Mr Wright said.

“There is a place for an organisation that is entirely focused on this interface to sit in between [a university and industry] and to make those connections,” he said. “This is critical.”

“You have to actually create permanent and well-known pathways between those groups. It cannot be ad hoc.”

“In Germany they recognised this a long time ago, and they set up institutes that sit between universities and industry – like the Frauhofer, like the Max Planck Institute and the many others that are scattered around Germany.”

These organisations have been successful over a long period because they have been able to deliver a level of consistency of service with a standardised way of engaging. And this in turn has delivered high levels of trust and credibility.

In Australia, this is where the Capital Markets CRC has been active. Through its industrial PhD program it has built consistent processes around engagement over twenty years.

The collaboration programs have been successful enough over time that CMCRC has built a substantial portfolio of companies and IP providing residual income – to the point where the organisation no longer relies on government funding, having built a sustainable model.

Mr Wright says the federal government Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program has provided a good base of collaboration across a broad set of research areas. While it is true that some CRCs have been more successful than others, the bigger issue is a lack of consistency in how these organisations engage with universities.

And yet it is consistency of product and service that drives trust. Mr Wright says if government can do one thing, it should be to help build a simple and clean collaboration/translation product and potentially replicating the CMCRC model.

“Our success has also come from having an entrepreneurial commercialisation program. We have created our own companies that have enabled us to get to financial sustainability,” Mr Wright said.

The industrial PhD program provides great value and public good on both sides of the collaboration, but it is not the kind of profitable program that could keep a high-performance organisation like the CMCRC on a sustainable financial footing.

“You need additional sources of revenue to do that. We do it by creating companies in our area and then building them up and selling them,” he said.

“You can’t rely on government money forever. You’ve got to have a commercial revenue stream that’s aligned with your business area.

“It has taken a long time for us to get to the point where we don’t need government money going forward. We have used our own startups and startup investments to do that,” Mr Wright said.

Capital Markets CRC has partnered with InnovationAus.com 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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