Australia’s patchy performance in linking public research with private enterprise is an old story that has been receiving plenty of attention lately, including at last week’s third Factories of the Future event.
An impressive list of speakers – including NSW industry minister Anthony Roberts, Karsten Hojberg from software company Autodesk, a leading materials science expert and a promising start-up manufacturer – highlighted the importance of collaboration to businesses.
“You don’t have the knowledge [within your organisation]… There are very few companies that do, and they’re very large companies: the Siemens, the Bosches,” explained Dr Phil Aitchison, chief operating officer and head of R&D at Imagine Intelligent Materials.
“These guys can do this themselves and very few others can. So you need to collaborate with suppliers, with software suppliers, with hardware suppliers, with raw materials suppliers, to make sure that everything is working the right way.”
An 18-month-old graphene products manufacturer and solutions provider which got started via IP developed by researchers from Wollongong and other universities, IIM is aiming to enable smarter manufacturing and infrastructure through self-reporting materials using the atom thin layer of carbon.
Identifying and implementing real-world uses for the nanomaterial is a complicated and delicate operation, and a lot of minds are needed for the task. Even then, commercial success isn’t a sure thing.
“In Australia there’s a lot of expertise in graphene and materials technology and a lot of things like that, but no one group of people has all the information,” explained Dr Aitchison.
“We don’t. No university does. CSIRO doesn’t. Nobody has this knowledge. So what we have to do is bring all that information together where it’s required and help our partners turn it into industrial products that they can sell.”
Held the same day Australia’s researcher/business relationship was evaluated poorly in yet another report, FotF number three heard of some of the cutting-edge developments going on in Australia’s research community.
There were “stockpiles of knowledge” in the nanomaterials domain to tap into, explained Professor Gordon Wallace, Executive Research Director at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science.
It wasn’t simple to develop some of the technologies highlighted – such as a bioprinting stem cells – and required collaboration between different universities, disciplines and clinicians, as well as private firms. Dealing with anything at the nano scale is tricky to begin with, but could reap commercial rewards.
“[It’s] going to take cleverer ways to put those together, because you can’t take things out of the nano world into structures and devices without clever ways to assemble them to make sure you retain some of those amazing properties,” said Professor Wallace.
“We need to identify these opportunities; we need to map across the knowledge base and the commercial opportunity base to bring benefit back from this huge investment.”
Though there are innovations that haven’t come out of publicly-funded research, many of the country’s success stories have.
Encouragements for closer links between universities and private business are certain to feature in the upcoming innovation statement from the federal government, expected December 9.
“The National Innovation and Science Agenda will sharpen incentives for industry-research collaboration, including international collaboration,” a spokesperson for industry minister Chris Pyne, who did not elaborate, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
The need for improvement is obvious. Among many findings published on the subject, the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2013 showed Australian collaboration rates with higher education or public researchers are poor: 3.5 per cent for large firms and 4.1 per cent for SMEs in Australia.
At the top of the results was Finland – another high-cost economy – with 70.0 per cent for large and 29.2 per cent for small/medium firms.
Lifting poor engagement levels is acknowledged as no easy task, for a variety of reasons.
However, the need to do so has taken on a new urgency as Australia’s ability to maintain its prosperity by digging and shipping resources looks increasingly weak.
The message from last Friday’s event, given the current circumstances, had particular weight: go and see what our researchers are doing and see if you can get it into the market.
“Come and visit us,” Professor Wallace advised.
“We’re not very far away – we’re just down the road at Wollongong. Our doors are always open and I look forward to welcoming you through them.”
Image: Ken Robertson/Fairfax