Research commercialisation refers to the process through which ideas or research are transformed into marketable products, capital gains, income from licences and/or revenue from the sale of new product.

Recently, my firm landed an Innovation Connections grant from the federal government to identify an opportunity to work with a research organisation to test and develop a new idea. This new idea is a modular, living green wall system that accelerates the removal of air pollutants like CO2, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds faster than any other plant-based system on the market.

The government grant allowed us to partner with the Plants and Indoor Environmental Quality Research Group at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and test an invention that was years in the making. World leading researchers helped to validate the design, put it through its paces, and take real product data to the market to promote its benefits.

Collaborating with the team at UTS was a brilliant opportunity, but it is important to note that this kind of commercial research partnership benefits the wider industry too. By establishing a connection between scientific practice and theory, and market solutions, it enables researchers and business to share knowledge and collaborate on projects, and this can lead to innovative market solutions.

But what does this kind of research/industry collaboration mean for research today? Is it the end of ‘independent’ science and research? Will sponsored research skew development to address only the ‘popular’ causes? Let’s take a step back and consider the current climate for research commercialisation, both the opportunities and concerns it presents, the barriers faced and the years ahead.

Jobs, growth and quality of life: the benefits of research commercialisation

Speaking recently at a Westmead Research Hub event, Bill Ferris AC, chair of Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) called for more collaboration between Australian businesses and publicly funded research institutions.

“Better translation of research into commercial outcomes underpins economic growth and global competitiveness," he said. "If we fail to translate research into commercial outcomes, we will sell Australia short on jobs, economic growth and quality of life.”

Ferris shares this positive view of research commercialisation with the federal government. The departments of Education and Industry even released a joint discussion paper, titled Collaboration between the research sector and business is crucial for innovation, which was aimed at increasing the research/industry bond.

It’s not hard to see why research commercialisation is looked on so favourably when we consider the success of international ‘innovation hubs’ like Silicon Valley in the US and the Cambridge Science Park in the UK.

Home to 1,400 firms in software, electronics and pharmaceutical sectors, the Cambridge Science Park employs 53,000 people with annual revenue of £13 billion. Its success has been attributed to ‘synergy between campus and cluster.’

“The university is quite fluid at the edges, which allows it to sit very closely with industry in Cambridge,” said Dr. Anne Dobree, head of Seed Funds at Cambridge Enterprise. “I think one of the critical parts of that has been the university’s historic flexibility with its students and staff for them to do their own thing on top of their work.”

Research commercialisation in Australia now

According to a federal government study, Australia’s research output "ranks highly in the OECD on indicators of research quality. For example, in 2013 we contributed to 3.85 per cent of the world's research output (in terms of publications) from 0.3 per cent of the world's population, ranking 9th in the OECD."

However, a comparison of innovation inputs (including research) with innovation outputs ranks Australia 81st out of 143 countries.

While we perform strongly in terms of research excellence, we underperform by international standards when it comes to translating publicly funded research into commercial outcomes, due in part to the insufficient transfer of information and knowledge between businesses and researchers.

Recognising the barriers and breaking them down

It seems there are a couple of primary issues making it difficult for research/industry partnerships and collaboration in Australia.

First, according to a joint paper published by the Department of Education and the Department of Industry, the "proportion of Australian researchers working in business (as opposed to the public research sector) is significantly lower in Australia than in other countries. This is exacerbated by the low levels of mobility between the two sectors." When researchers exist in a separate ‘world’ from industry, the two groups develop independently.

This contributes to the second issue – when research and industry are brought together they often perceive differences in motive and approach as insurmountable. This was demonstrated in a 2008 University of Western Australia study of the experiences of university and industry partners working together on a grant project.

“Industry isn’t concerned with the science – only with the practical solution to the specific industry problem. They need persuading that the scientific work is essential,” said one academic researcher in the study.

“Academics are notorious for taking a long time to do research, whether it’s due to teaching commitments or because the work is linked to the requirements of a PhD…two months of work with a professional agency is closer to two years for academics…this is a big issue,” said another.

As Winthrop professor Tim Mazzarol noted in The Conversation, a major problem is "the lack of communication and understanding between the partners."

As far as problems go, these should be pretty easy to overcome and it’s something that the government is working on with the introduction of research grants for industry like the one received for the Breathing Wall.

Fear and loathing in a partnership

The commercialisation of scientific research has raised the concern of many, who fear the industry pursuit of profit will impact the research being funded and undertaken.

"Fundamentally at stake, the critics say, is the social contract that cultivates science for the common good," wrote William J. Broad in his article "Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science" in The New York Times.

Will research/industry collaboration and the commercialisation of research mean basic research – which investigates the mysteries of nature and has produced centuries of breakthroughs – will be dropped in favour of studies that produce profit, market share and popularity? Would a major breakthrough slip through our fingers because we stopped looking in the right area?

A little caution can be a good thing, but a little context can go a long way too. Did you know that scientific research has, for most of its history, been privately funded?

"During the early scientific revolution in Europe, important research often came from what we call self-philanthropy… This trend continued for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The current era of reliance on government grants… is essentially a post-war phenomenon," wrote Ashutosh Jogalekar in his piece "Are we entering a golden era of scientific funding?" in Scientific American.

So privately funded research is nothing new. Patrons of scientific research before World Wars I and II had the opportunity to manipulate the fields of inquiry to their commercial advantage. I’m sure they did to an extent, but the quality and expanse of scientific research kept growing.

It’s true that when government funding was introduced, research topics and grants were regulated to ensure a more “even spread,” but budget cuts to research and development funding means this spread of government funded research is getting smaller and smaller. The introduction or rather, reintroduction of commercialised research through industry/research partnerships helps offset government budget cuts so science can keep moving forward, rather than stalling until the economic climate improves.

For better or worse: marrying research and commercial enterprise

For better or worse, research and commercial enterprise are entwined. While some may fear the domination of private commercial interests over common scientific study, things are likely not quite that dire because research and commercial interests are not inherently opposed. They can, and quite often, do, work together quite harmoniously for the good of many rather than just a few.

Perhaps then we are entering a new era in science and governance? On a spectrum, privately funded research might sit on one end and government funded research on the other. Maybe the hybrid of government-supported commercial research sits somewhere in the middle, encouraging research/industry collaboration, and the translation of research wins into better outcomes for everyone? Ultimately the success of this new era of commercial research depends on creating new links and breaking down barriers between industry and academia.

Like any good marriage, it all begins with communication.

  • Greater mobility between academia and industry would certainly be beneficial to Australian science, but will never happen in the current funding environment. Scientists from industry just simply don’t have the publication record to be competitive for the fellowships and grants on offer, and no kudos are given for real-world knowledge and experience. Perhaps the government should consider more accommodating fellowship schemes if mobility is what they want, and possibly placing some people who are not career academics on review panels. Also, there are many more reasons why industry-academic partnerships are difficult. (1) The academic workforce is an unstable mix consisting mostly of PhD students and transient postdocs, which creates liabilities in terms of IP, confidentiality and time wasted due to constantly getting new members up to speed. (2) Academic researchers are usually sloppy with documentation, data security and storage. (3) Postdocs, PhD students and their professors require excessive publication outputs to keep their jobs, while industry partners would rather keep the research confidential until it is complete and properly protected. Constantly spinning stories for scientific journals also wastes a lot of time. (4) Australian labs are generally too small, unstable, narrowly skilled and do far too much derivative research to worth investing private money into. Companies find larger European and American labs/centres, doing faster-paced original research, more attractive to work with. (5) Publicly-funded research is locked away behind expensive Journal subscription fees. Therefore, industries have no idea of the current state of research. (6) Academics are notorious for being terrible team players. (7) Universities will constantly try to extort money from industrial partners wherever the opportunity arises, but will assume no accountability if research is a dud.