Helping innovative small businesses fast-track commercialisation

University of Wollongong deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation, Jennifer L Martin. Image credit: University of Wollongong

Caroline Tung finds out how the NSW government’s Innovation Districts Challenge is boosting commercialisation for products such as IoT-enabled technologies.


The New South Wales state government’s first Innovation Districts Challenge is now underway and is designed to assist small-to-medium-sized businesses accelerate the commercialisation of products to counter the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Eleven universities across New South Wales and the CSIRO are the major anchor tenants of districts around the state and will help businesses prototype and test products and services.

The University of New South Wales is one university administering Stage 1 of the challenge on behalf of NSW Treasury. The university’s Faculty of Engineering works with more than 500 industry partners to assist with complex product and service development.

Universities assist the shortlisted applicants with developing their business model, market strategy, their pitch and presentation of their concept.

UNSW Entrepreneur in Residence, Danielle Neale, said the challenge presented valuable coaching opportunities for businesses.

“The kinds of products and services that the government is particularly interested in are those that can improve the health and wellbeing of NSW residents, and specifically around reducing the outcomes and impacts of COVID-19,” she said.

“If a business has been working on the development of personal products, and they have pivoted towards hand sanitiser or a special application of a hand sanitiser that makes it more competitive, or better suits the specific health problems that COVID-19 creates, then that product is eligible for this grant.”

The challenge ranks selected businesses that have been registered in NSW and have been operating for at least 12 months. Businesses must also be able to demonstrate generating revenue of at least $75,000 during that time to be considered for funding.

Participating universities act as a partner for businesses seeking to commercialise their research, while using their presence and networks to spread the word.

“We have increasingly well-developed entrepreneurial training facilities and program development managers, as well, who can assist with things like pitching and planning the business commercialisation process,” Neale said.

“Something that I think is very interesting about this challenge is the speed at which the initiative is moving, which is unusual for governments and universities.

Stage 2 of the Innovation Challenge involves the top three businesses from each district going through a process of developing their pitch and plan. One applicant from every district will receive $10,000 of funding towards commercialising the research associated with its product and service, with 15 out of 36 businesses in the state pool to receive funding.

From the time a business is selected for funding, they are given 12 months to commercialise and start generating outcomes.

“I think the speed and accountability that is part of this grant is very unique,” Neale said. “What will be interesting is when we get to the other side and have a look at the outcomes, and particularly, how successful we were in helping people across the state in the community. The top funding awarded will be $250,000, which is quite valuable if you want to commercialise in the period of time requested.”

University of Wollongong deputy vice-chancellor for Research and Innovation Jennifer L Martin; NSW Member for Wollongong Paul Scully; NSW Member for Kiama Gareth Ward; UOW innovation and commercial research marketing manager Julia Frith; UOW industry research manager Zahra Shahbazian. Image credit: University of Wollongong

Creating more opportunities for SMEs

Zahra Shahbazian from the University of Wollongong (UOW) manages strategic business development for the Illawarra district. The Illawarra Innovation Quest program not only assists businesses in their journey with this particular challenge, but also organises follow up meetings for other matched funding opportunities.

“My involves wearing multiple hats. My main role is strategic business development. Another part of my job is looking after IP and commercialisation as well,” she said.

“As part of the challenge, we offer coaching in pitch training. In the application, businesses need to submit a two-minute video, so we are offering coaching, how to pitch better, and we also assist them in writing their final applications to make sure they’re hitting the target and increasing their chances of winning as well.”

UOW’s message to all their industry partners is clear: they are all winners.

“We follow up with the businesses who weren’t shortlisted to understand their needs and see what else we can do for them. I think it’s a win-win situation for everyone. It actually increases our exposure, businesses know they are very active in these sorts of collaborations and industry engagements,” Shahbazian said.

She believes regional centres like Wollongong are becoming increasingly popular for manufacturing R&D, and also sees the Innovation Challenge as a springboard for further partnerships.

“For universities, it is a matter of pride that we’re a part of this, because the funding doesn’t directly come to the unis, it actually goes to the businesses to assist them with marketing and commercialising their products and services,” Shahbazian said.

“UOW has state-of-the-art research capabilities. We see that a lot of people are choosing to move here and live in this region because of COVID-19. As people don’t have to travel to work anymore, I think this region will attract a lot of businesses, and UOW will be at the centre of that.”

A clearer pathway for innovation

According to Shahbazian, the extra government investment has created a clear pathway that previously did not exist for researchers to collaborate with industry.

She believes the funding will give academics the opportunity to make their research impactful by helping to solve real world problems. It also allows businesses to think critically about how they can diversify and open up options for growth.

“If you think of it as a bridge, it’s already built. Academics are very busy with research, teaching and publication, and industry partners, on the other hand, come from a business background and time is worth a lot of money to them,” Shahbazian said. “Previously, there wasn’t anyone to connect these two.

“Over the last five years, UOW has provided that pathway for the businesses and researchers to identify each other. From the researcher point of view, they get the chance to trial their invention and technology and try to work to solve a real-world solution. That’s very important.

“From the business point of view, this pathway is very important as well. We have seen a shift in attitude in terms of working with universities. They can see their business may be profitable now, what about in five years’ time, what about in ten years’ time? It’s future proofing their businesses by tapping into research expertise and making sure that their business’ future is secure.”

Innovation district partners

  • Australian Catholic University
  • University of Newcastle
  • Charles Sturt University
  • University of New South Wales
  • University of Sydney
  • Macquarie University
  • University of Technology Sydney
  • Southern Cross University
  • University of Wollongong
  • University of New England
  • Western Sydney University
  • CSIRO

Some COVID-19 related issues addressed by emerging businesses

  • social issues. e.g. domestic violence
  • health products and services. e.g. nutraceuticals, immune health, mental health
  • IoT-enabled technology to reduce contact services
  • air conditioning industry
  • emotional fitness training for COVID-19 frontline staff
  • safety zoning app for social distancing

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