Not just universities responsible for Australia’s poor research commercialisation track record

Coverage of Australia’s relatively poor track record for research commercialisation focuses on research sector obstacles, but industry also plays a role.

Much of the discussion around research commercialisation has shone a light on the deficiencies of Australian universities. No doubt, changes to the cultural, structural and professional aspects of the research sector must occur to encourage greater strides in commercialising our research.

Australia’s Economic Accelerator is aimed at developing “a pipeline from discovery through to commercialisation,” including co investment and formal partnerships with industry. But there has been little commentary on how cultural, structural and professional aspects of Australian industry may need to change to accommodate research commercialisation.

Australia’s relatively poor research commercialisation outcomes are not solely the responsibility of academics and research institutions—for, when we have  successfully commercialised research, it has often been done overseas. A quick perusal of CSIRO’s top 10 inventions from the past 100 years show the names of several commercial partners selected to deliver some of Australia’s most profitable inventions: Unilever, DuPont, American contact lens company CIBA Vision, Swiss healthcare company Novartis.

The return on investment to industry of university research and development has been estimated at $4.50 for every $1 invested—but, for some reason, Australian businesses fare extremely poorly in measurements of collaboration with research institutions. CSIRO’s 2021 report on Unlocking the innovation potential of Australian companies tells us that major barriers to commercialisation of science and technology are low levels of cross-sector collaboration and “cultural challenges, including risk aversion to innovation and business‑research incentives misalignment.”

Research commercialisation is the process by which ideas and research get transformed into actual marketable products and begin to return revenue. While it seems clear that closer ties with industry is among the goals of the Australian Government’s University Research Commercialisation Package, from the recent commentary around research commercialisation you’d be forgiven for assuming that only research institutions and academics were responsible for the process. There seems to be surprisingly little interest in the historically risk-shy attitude of Australia’s industry investors.

We have long recognised research commercialisation as a challenge. But in so frequently presenting it as a unilateral issue stemming from the research sector without giving due consideration to the risk-averse, low-innovation culture of industry, we risk erasing the nuances of that challenge.

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