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Universities and business: it is time to change the conversation

By Peter Binks, Chief Executive Officer, BHERT

This article appeared in FORGE MAGAZINE: Available from newsagents from 14 December 2018.
Download a copy: BHERT-article-Forge-Vol-4-No-3.pdf

Over the past decade, as Australia has wrestled with the challenges of its post-resources boom economy, shifting global alliances, and the Brexit-Trump double-whammy to the established order, we have had plenty of opportunity to find fault in our own backyard.

Australia has some of the world’s best universities, a set of great research institutions, and companies that rank among the world’s best in fields as diverse as banking and finance, mining, agriculture, and medical technology. How is it, then, that according to common perception, these great institutions cannot seem to find a way to work together?

Don’t believe the hearsay

It is a proposition almost unchallenged in the public domain that Australian companies and universities cannot collaborate. This is supported by the oft-cited OECD statistic from 2015 that Australian companies rank 33rd – out of 33 – in company–university collaboration relating to innovation.

That OECD analysis is patently wrong. It systematically undercounts more than 10,000 formal partnerships between 38 Australian universities and a range of Australian companies. These partnerships represent an annual investment of more than $1.2 billion – a figure that is growing by more than five per cent year-on-year.

Any of the 230 industry executives, university leaders and community managers who were at Melbourne’s Park Hyatt on 13 November for the annual Business Higher Education Round Table (BHERT) Awards could have testified that there is no shortage of extraordinary partnerships between Australian universities, companies, and community organisations.

Outstanding collaborations

The BHERT Awards are in their 21st year, celebrating the very best university-based partnerships in the country. The winners are those collaborations that not only demonstrate impact at a national level, but also derive their value from an innovative approach to bringing disparate cultures together. In 2018, BHERT had the highest number of submissions ever received and, in the view of a high-calibre panel of judges, the entrants boasted the greatest quality and diversity of initiatives yet seen.

2018’s winners include:

  • an academy to assist students on the autism spectrum in securing roles in the IT industry (only 41 per cent of autistic people can find employment in Australia)
  • a major partnership supporting the international competitiveness of Australia’s food industries, which has resulted in significant energy and waste reductions in the dairy industry, and has led to the development of new food products
  • Australia’s largest science and engineering challenge for school students, reaching nearly 50,000 students per year, with major partners including Google Australia
  • a powerful work-integrated learning collaboration between a Queensland university and an Indigenous health institution to address disadvantage in Indigenous health
  • a revolutionary approach to cancer treatment, developed from the common cold virus and using the body’s own immune system, which resulted in the $500 million acquisition of Australian technology company Viralytics by the global pharmaceutical firm Merck.

The partnerships recognised by BHERT are not overnight sensations; they have been in place for several decades, saved lives, generated millions of dollars in GDP, resulted in new companies, and shaped the way we support disadvantaged communities.

Recipient of the 2018 Ashley Goldsworthy Award for Individual Leadership in University-Business Collaboration, Professor Jane den Hollander AO, Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University, with BHERT Patron Professor Ashley Goldsworthy AO OBE KM.

The numbers that matter

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO, is leading the call for a better understanding of Australia’s collaboration performance. Like BHERT, he sees the OECD 2015 analysis as a flawed representation of Australia’s performance. An attitudinal survey using 2011 numbers, where the survey base does not match that for the other OECD nations, cannot accurately reflect Australian universities’ collaborative efforts.

That being said, there does need to be a measure of our performance and potential. BHERT’s British sister organisation, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), publishes a ‘State of the Relationship’ report each year, which has a total of 16 different indicators organised into four categories:

  • resources for collaboration;
  • knowledge flows between universities and business;
  • partnerships; and
  • commercialisation activity.

The performance of each indicator is compared with its own five-year average. The NCUB metric is complex, but it does a thorough job of assessing the extent, diversity, and engagement of university partnerships. BHERT supports the Chief Scientist’s call for a better measure of Australian university collaboration performance, which the Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science is currently exploring. In the meantime, BHERT places great weight on empirical and economic measures.

There are several available:

  • The Department’s ‘National Survey of Research Commercialisation’ (NSRC) 2013–2015 (June 2017), which draws upon data provided by 38 universities, and cites 13,391 collaborations by the universities (representing 74 per cent of overall collaboration activities), with an invested value of $1.2 billion in 2015.
  • Among numerous outcomes, the NSRC universities reported the launch of 55 new companies over the period 2013–15. This represents 69 per cent of the start-up activity from the publicly funded research sector in 2015, and in that year, 34 of the 38 universities surveyed were delivering industry skills training involving more than 8000 students, researchers, and academics.
  • The IP Australia ‘Australian Intellectual Property Report 2017’ (June 2017) paints a similar picture of substantial and productive industry– university partnerships. Australia is the 12th most prolific generator of patents in the world, commensurate with our strong base of scientific activity. Of Australia’s 21,000 Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications in 2000–2015, 6.6 per cent (1382) involved multi-party collaborations. Australia’s performance is similar to two of the world’s industrial powerhouses: Germany (7.8 per cent) and the United States (6.4 per cent).

Some powerful examples of current university–industry collaborations include:

  • The next-generation quantum computing partnership between the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) – $15 million was committed over a fiveyear period to quantum computing development at UNSW, with CBA also building a ‘quantum computer simulator’ to enable bankers to see what might be possible in a decade’s time.
  • The revolutionary water distribution partnership between Rubicon Water and the University of Melbourne – Rubicon Water was built on 18 years of research and development with the University of Melbourne, with the collaboration seeking to develop and commercialise solutions to environmental problems. The partners jointly held approximately 67 patents, shared research grant applications, and together supported the development of water researchers and engineers.

Changing the conversation

BHERT is not calling for complacency; our message is that Australia is doing well in many aspects of industry–university collaboration, but that we can do much better. Moreover, to drive economic growth and to properly address many of our societal challenges, enhanced partnerships between our universities and our companies and industries are essential.

It’s largely agreed that the most significant areas of improvement in Australia are the engagement of small to medium-sized enterprises with universities, and the translation of research and development into economic outcomes and products.

There is considerable activity underway already to address these challenges. Notably, a cross-sectoral summit – hosted by the Group of Eight universities (Go8) and BHERT in Canberra on 29 October – took initial steps towards a new conversation. Go8 and BHERT brought together around 50 leaders, including the CEOs of 15 small to medium-sized enterprises, to discuss industry–university collaboration. The group identified opportunities to overcome barriers to partnerships, including:

  • improving mutual understanding by universities and SMEs
  • aligning the incentives that drive universities, and making working with SMEs on research problems more attractive to universities
  • universities addressing timing and processes, to better support partnerships with small or emerging companies.

Collaboration is often costly, requiring new investment and dedication of resources. This also presents risk, with there being no guarantee of productive outcomes for all parties.

The summit therefore addressed ways to optimise government support of business–university research collaboration, with key takeaways being a need for reframed department thinking, and a call for smarter policies and direct funding instead of the current tax rebate mechanisms.

With the government’s innovation initiatives currently stalling, however, companies and universities are taking the lead, and working to establish operating frameworks in the absence of policy direction.

BHERT’s aim, along with numerous partners such as the Go8, is to change the dialogue around industry– university collaboration in Australia.

Critically, the national conversation has shifted from innovation to collaboration, with the focus now being on real partnerships between real companies and universities, producing real products, real financial outcomes, real jobs, and real benefits to Australia. In many ways, collaboration is the new innovation, with successful collaboration offering great potential for Australia. It is up to us to keep the momentum going.

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