While Malcolm Turnbull’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) may not have resonated with voters in the last Federal election, it has reverberated around the corridors of the national research community since its release in December 2015.
NISA is firmly focussed on fostering innovation which it sees as being “all about new and existing businesses creating new products, processes and business models” to “drive smart ideas that create business growth, local jobs and global success”.
One key issue the Agenda identified was that Australia has the “lowest level of industry-research collaboration in the OECD”. While it is widely accepted that IP developed in research institutions is only one of many sources of innovation, it is nevertheless a key driver in many high growth regional economies and this is an area in which we need to do much better if we are going to compete and grow.
The reasons for the comparatively low level of collaboration between researchers and businesses are well-understood. As my good friend Frank Wyatt from Enterprising Partnerships put it over a decade ago, “they trade in different currencies”. Researchers are motivated and rewarded by publications and grant funding; businesses generally have one KPI – profit. Researcher timelines align with PhD and grant timelines, while businesses are driven by market opportunities and opportunity costs.
With one policy lever, NISA has changed the landscape.
Over the next 5 years the research grant block funding, the core funding that universities receive to cover costs not funded through competitive grants, will be substantially determined by their level of engagement with businesses, NGOs and government agencies. While a reducing safety net will apply over the next four years, by 2021 more than 50% of block funding will be determined by the level of its success in deriving funding from external partners.
Other programs like the CRC-Projects Program and the SA Government’s Early Commercialisation Program require a commercial business to lead and drive the application and the project, engaging research partners as appropriate.
These moves are profound game-changers and are driving culture change from the Vice-Chancellor level down. Universities are changing structures and creating new positions to engage with businesses and encourage more and better collaborative research projects. They are also recognising that their hard-line approaches to Intellectual Property have been significant barriers to commercial collaboration and many are softening their approaches to encourage greater levels of investment in research.
Universities are also acknowledging that businesses can find the their institutions daunting and impenetrable. Many are recognising the value of having a human in the loop – the so-called intermediary who can facilitate the dialogue and broker a successful relationship which is win-win for both parties.
In South Australia numerous agencies offer a front door to the institutions and assist companies navigate this complex space. They include:
- Flinders University – Flinders Partners and New Venture Institute (NVI)
- University of South Australia – UniSA Ventures, The Innovation and Collaboration Centre and the Business Development Network within the university
- University of Adelaide – Adelaide Enterprise and the Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Commercialisation Centre (ECIC)
- Commonwealth Government – Entrepreneurs Program, Innovation Connections
- SA Government – Technology in SA, Department of State Development (DSD), Primary Industry, and Regions South Australia (PIRSA)
With more than 96% of businesses in Australia having less than 20 employees, there has never been a more important time for those striving to build competitive advantage through innovation to leverage the amazing resources embedded in our universities. Give the culture shift underway there has never been a better time to do so.
PICTURE: Professor Rob Saint, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research at Flinders University recently signed a major academic and research agreement with French company DCNS who have been selected to build Australia’s Future Submarine. The signing in Paris was witnessed by Dr Susan Close, South Australia’s Minister for Higher Education and Skills.