Australia’s universities are world-class, ranking seventh globally for academic performance and tenth globally for the production of highly cited publications.
When it comes to translating this research into real world industrial applications, however, we perform poorly, relative to our global peers.
In fact, the percentage of Australian companies that introduce a new-to-market innovation is comparatively low, ranking us 25th globally.
So, too, is the percentage of private companies that cooperate with higher education, for which we rank 32nd.
Professor Julie Cairney of the University of Sydney says that, with higher education undertaking one third of national R&D, translating academia into real world solutions is a major priority for universities and government.
She believes several factors make research commercialisation challenging in Australia and highlights a few possible interventions.
What is causing the ‘valley of death’?
The gap between invention and VC investment is ultimately a market failure, underpinned by systemic and cultural issues, Prof Cairney highlights.
“Firstly, the availability of venture capital in Australia is much lower than in most other OECD countries, which places us at a natural disadvantage.
Australian researchers must work harder and pitch more to get investment, irrespective of how impactful our research discoveries may be,” she said.
“Secondly, entrepreneurial researchers often lack the business skills and access to training to find funding for clinical trials, etc. And I expect that many aren’t motivated to acquire this knowledge, because it is seen as peripheral to their role.
“There is a perception in some parts of our community that a university’s sole functions are to contribute knowledge and train people, not to translate research into products. That’s a cultural issue in the academic sector – and clearly something we need to work on.”
Behind this cultural hurdle is a set of research metrics that are focussed on publication as a measure of performance.
“These days we shouldn’t just be measuring the number of papers someone has produced, or how many times they have been cited. Rather, we should also be looking at their real-world impact; whether they lodged a record of invention, got their solution patented, licensed, and whether a company has been produced out of the work done. These alternative types of metrics also describe a university’s research success,” Prof Cairney said.
Academic mindset may also be fuelling these cultural barriers, given the stigma that sometimes exists among non-entrepreneurs around profit-making.
“People don’t generally become academics because they want to be business people. In terms of career choices, they are almost on opposite ends of the spectrum. As such, some academics may find work around commercialisation a bit distasteful – even if it is inextricably linked to their research making a real-world impact.
“Others may simply not have the confidence or skillset to establish a start-up, have conversations with lawyers, or set up licensing. Let alone the time to do so.”
What is our best course of action to address this issue?
While these skills are inherent in VC companies, Prof Cairney said the onus should not only be on the private sector to invest more readily. Instead, the public sector needs to step up to provide support to researchers, she says.
“Of course we would all love private investors to do this, but the reality is they won’t put money into risky, unproven ideas. If a professor in physics has developed a world-first sensor and had it patented, that is great. But any investor would need to understand the potential customers, the size of the market, whether the product can be built affordably at scale and priced viably.
“It is between the university and government to help bridge this gap – to support researchers in writing business plans and undertaking market validation. As a sector, we have to own it, take responsibility, and ultimately convince investors it is worth their money.”
That said, private sector could play a role in improving innovation literacy around the country, she argued.
“Businesses should be open to conversations with universities about how to licence technologies, whilst recognising this doesn’t mean they will get it for free,” Prof Cairney said.
Regular collaboration could also strengthen researchers’ awareness of the commercial side of their work and mitigate some of the cultural barriers to research success.
“If we can get to the point where researchers realise that commercial activities are the pathway to making impact, then we could heighten perceptions of them. This could motivate those with the least amount of business focus,” Prof Cairney concluded.
Continuing the debate
Prof Cairney is due to participate on a panel at the National Health and Innovation Precincts Summit next month, where fellow panellists will be grilled on their views around this topic.
Joining her on the panel are:
• Anne O’Neill, Acting Executive Director, Office for Health and Medical Research, NSW Medical Research
• Prof Jason Kovacic, Executive Director, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute
• Dr Joy Francisco, Chief Commercial Officer, Sydney Local Health District
• Moderator: Dr Adam Walczak, Deputy Director, John Hunter Health & Innovation Precinct, Hunter New England Local Health District
This year’s event will be held on 6-7 December at the Aerial UTS Function Centre.
Register now to secure your seat.
About Prof Julie Cairney
Professor Julie Cairney is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research Enterprise) at the University of Sydney, where she supports strategies to enhance industry collaboration and improve research commercialisation. This increases the impact of the University’s research through partnership with industry, government and the community.
She previously served as CEO of Microscopy Australia, a national infrastructure facility that provides open-access microscopy platforms and expertise across Australia.
A Professor of Engineering, she is also a leading researcher specialising in using advanced microscopy to study the three-dimensional structure of materials at the atomic scale.
Her work is published in the top international journals, including Science and the Nature series. She has received a number of awards for this work, including the 2020 Acta Materialia Silver Medal, an international prize that recognises scientific contributions and leadership in materials science.
A graduate of the AICD, she sits on a number of Boards, including Uniseed, Cicada Innovations and several start-up companies. She is also a Special Advisor to the NSW Innovation and Productivity Commission and a passionate contributor to the broader scientific community.
She has served on the ARC College of Experts and the New Zealand Marsden Fund and was the Vice President of the International Field Emission Society. She was selected as one the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s 50 Young Scientists of 2016.