UNSW carries a new China torch

Stuart Kennedy

The University of New South Wales is about to snap its tech commercialisation partnership with China into high gear which could see its Sino deal flow hit the ‘billions’ of dollars according to the uni’s president and vice-chancellor.

The UNSW Torch project which links top Australian research with Chinese commercialisation skills and market scale is about to hit a new level as the uni builds out a Sino-Australian research commercialisation precinct in a campus area that was once the Randwick tram sheds.

The Torch program is the Chinese government’s major tech and innovation kick starter and a very big deal, with a $72 billion R&D budget that produces more than 10 per cent of China’s GDP and has fostered thousands of companies.

The UNSW facility will be the first Torch precinct outside of China, according to president and vice-chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs.

Prof Jacobs is a UK expat with a medical background, having been an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist and surgeon, as well as having been a researcher in women’s health and oncology. Prior to signing on at UNSW in 2015 he was vice-president and dean at the University of Manchester and director of the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre.

UNSW is a tier one Australian tertiary institution but it’s also a money maker, says Professor Jacobs, who was speaking this week at the InnovationAus.com’s China Money, China Markets event in Sydney.

“You could also think of UNSW as a big, multinational corporation with revenue approaching $2 billion per annum,” said Prof Jacobs.

“You should think of it as a driver of the Australian economy. The evidence is that the research we put out at UNSW generates $15 billion per annum for Australia’s GDP.”

Nevertheless, Australian research does not have a rosy image when it comes to getting great ideas out of the lab and into the world through fast and efficient commercialisation.

Many innovation commentators have praised the quality of the country’s research while deriding academic attitudes that favour peer recognition and being published in the right journals over making a buck.

Professor Jacobs appears not to have this problem.

“We are of course a non-profit organisation, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to generate economic prosperity,” he says.

“We have three major headings, not just academic excellence which is the top one. We have two others – social engagement and global impact. Under social engagement knowledge transfer is a crucial and absolute commitment by the university.

“About ten per cent of our turnover is in this area and it will grow very, very quickly over the next few years.”

He says the UNSW Torch initiative with China has almost $100 million worth of deal flow now and could reach into ‘the billions.’

UNSW has links with China going back half a century and teaches 10,000 Chinese students.

“Because we have links that go back so far and we teach so many Chinese students we have many alumni in influential positions in China,” Prof Jacobs said.

Given the linkages, Prof Jacobs has had plenty of air time between the two counties since signing on at UNSW, and at the end of a long meeting over there with Chinese government officials, he floated the idea of having the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology invest in high-tech UNSW research.

“That’s when everyone’s eyes lit up,” he says.

That meeting culminated in April 2016 when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang inked a $100 million innovation partnership at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The partnership kicked off with an initial $30 million investment for eight Chinese companies to support Australian research in advanced materials, biotechnology, energy, and environmental engineering.

Now it’s going to step up a gear or three. “Very soon we will have the first Torch precinct outside of China involving Chinese business but also Australian business and other universities. We don’t intend this to be limited to just UNSW,” says Professor Jacobs.

The plan is to build the precinct in a section of the UNSW to the north of the main campus inside by refurbishing old tram sheds there that were once part of the Randwick Tramway Workshops.

The project already had $70 million worth of projects in early 2017. The range of ventures will span everything from student startups to deals with large listed companies and everything in between.

Flagship contracts in place include commercialising local expertise in graphene power cables which make power grids more efficient by about five per cent. Others include a $20 million environmental technology contract and another in high efficiency silicon solar cell technology.

Next up is phase 2 of the project which Professor Jacobs believes could lead to vastly larger scale.

“I believe this could be billions for Australia, because we have a pipeline of discoveries and China is thirsty for them,” he says.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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