Australia’s untapped university innovation

V-Tol Aerospace, a Queensland based company that develops unmanned aircraft systems, has teamed up with the University of Queensland to launch the Australian Unmanned Systems Academy (AUSA).


The academy is designed to create a new industry, educating students and organisations in unmanned systems and technology.


Also in Queensland, a biotech venture Vaxxas recently received $15 million of venture capital funding from US interests, to develop a needle free vaccine product.


Its creator, Professor Mark Kendall, works at the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.


Meanwhile, the world’s first IBM Research and Development Centre has launched at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus.


The lab, funded by the Federal Government, Victorian Government and IBM, is to look at such issues as managing natural disasters, fighting disease, boosting agricultural yields and biotechnology.


These are some of the examples of how universities and business are working together to build new industries.


Lagging behind


Unfortunately, they are far and few between. Australia has no tradition of university-industry collaboration and experts say it is an area we need to develop.


Pioneering start-ups have regularly started life on campus (take Facebook’s Harvard birth, for example), but Australia appears to be lagging in getting its university-based ideas to market.


Similarly, small businesses are generally failing to take advantage of the innovation and entrepreneurial thinking rife within Australia’s universities.


Australia is very unlike, for example, Germany where manufacturers enjoy a key advantage in research and development with close links with universities.


The German Government supports these partnerships through incentives like those that allow universities to patent and license innovations.


Australia’s situation is also very unlike America, where much of the funding for universities comes from the private sector, fostering collaboration between academics and business leaders.


Universities are massive store houses of technical skills and expertise that can provide businesses with cost-efficient R&D. The challenge is bringing the two together.


Getting collaborative


Doron Ben-Meir, the chief executive of Commercialisation Australia, says the level of university-business collaboration we’re seeing now in Australia is “the tip of the iceberg.”


“It’s really a case of universities opening themselves up to the opportunity in the first place and wanting to engage with industries and marketing themselves in that regard,’’ Ben-Meir says.


“Unfortunately to date, universities have been a little bit opaque to traditional industries and they need to open up.”


“The company has to see there is an opportunity to take advantage of the technical skills that might exist within the university and the university has to see the advantage of collaborating with the company.”


“But the real question is when the rubber hits the road and the individuals have to work together, can they work together effectively?”


“Historically we haven’t done a lot of it which means not many at universities have the experience of working with industry as we would like, so it’s going to take some time for them to get familiar and comfortable.”


He says part of the problem is that universities and businesses are working to different agendas.


“If you are entirely motivated by providing papers, and having them published in various journals is the primary focus of your activity and not engaging with the company, then the company might have a problem with you doing that because the intellectual property might have to be protected in some way.”


That said, there are examples here of universities working with industry. There are pockets where it is happening. The problem cuts both ways, as both universities and businesses struggle to connect to each other.


Commercial thinking


Daniel Leipnik, chief executive officer of the Specialty Group, which produces coated, laminated, and composite enhanced products for a range of industries, says universities have tremendous potential for collaboration.


But often they can’t build the links with industries because that’s not what their business is about.


“There is certainly a very talented pool of scientists that exists at the universities which can be accessed,’’ Leipnik says.


“Certainly on the flipside, universities can have difficulties in working with industry. There hasn’t really been a business structure. Their business structure is on educating students.”


He says one reason why businesses don’t work with universities is that they don’t know who to approach. Universities are enormous bureaucracies.


“They don’t know if the universities or research facilities have an expertise that can support industry,’’ he says.


“They may not necessarily be aware of government support which can help the whole collaboration.”


Still, he says more universities are moving in this direction. A number of universities such as Deakin and RMIT and research institutions like CSIRO have created jobs for commercialisation and program managers.


“There are opportunities in this space and a lot of universities are waking up to that,’’ he says.


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