Australian universities face mounting pressure to commercialise their research; to deliver concrete impacts outside of the ivory towers.
With a growing understanding that skilful management allows research findings to be both published and commercialised, academics are starting to see much greater impact from their work and the community benefits as a result.
Since inception the University of Technology, Sydney has focussed on taking its research to the wider world; and its relationship with UniQuest (the main commercialisation arm of The University of Queensland) continues to accelerate that process. Already a range of diverse research programs has led to commercialisation strategies being developed, including those for drug resistant worms, thought-controlled computers and street-safe rubbish bins designed to make it easier to check for explosive devices.
UTS has embedded three UniQuest Managers of Innovation and Commercial Development (MICDs) within the UTS faculties to work intimately with researchers from the start of the research cycle. Being in on the research programs from inception allows MICDs to identify commercial opportunities – including those perhaps not initially obvious to the researchers themselves; help researchers scope their programs in order to maximise those opportunities; provide business intelligence or market feedback to better inform the research program; and help forge links with researchers, industry and MICDs working in other universities.
The relationship is maintained right through the research program, with MICDs kept up to date on any challenges, breakthroughs or shifts in research direction that can emerge through often long and complex research programs. As the research progresses the MICDs help researchers crystallise emerging commercial opportunities by arranging intellectual property protection and bringing to bear the comprehensive range of services that UniQuest's head office provides – from completing due diligence, to drafting licensing deals or seeking out venture capital – as and when that is needed.
Professor Attila Brungs was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research) at UTS in September last year. Impressively credentialed with senior roles in CSIRO and McKinsey & Co under his belt, Brungs is keen for UTS research to continue having significant impact outside of academia, and also for the university to grow its reputation as a research centre of excellence.
"One of the key problems in some universities is that commercialisation is not considered integral to the broader research and university strategy," according to Professor Brungs. At UTS the commercialisation, research and university strategies are tightly interwoven which he believes is key for sustainable university research.
"Commercialisation is part of a suite of different paths to impact which is why one does research. UTS has a strategic plan to advance research and learning" - but always, he says, with a complementary eye to the broader application of research and its outcomes.
"One of the joys about UTS is that all the researchers have firmly in mind that we are not doing research just for research's sake - although that is critical. UTS is very much about impact."
Hence the two year relationship with UniQuest.
David Henderson, UniQuest managing director explained that the organisation runs a hub and spoke model to maximise impact. The embedded MICDs form the spokes, and UniQuest's 30-strong head office in Brisbane offers a hub of comprehensive commercialisation support services.
Echoing Professor Brungs' comments, Henderson noted; "The best way to make this work is where commercialisation is a part of the university's overall engagement strategy – where the institution values and supports it. Some universities do not value commercialisation - as a result they struggle to leverage their intellectual property out of the lab and attract the investment necessary to take it onto the global market, so missing many opportunities to have an impact on society."
Professor Brungs believes linking researchers with MICDs early in the research cycle means research programs can be scoped from day one with a clear understanding of any relevant potential commercialisation opportunities. As well as a clear understanding of what needs to be tackled during the research programme in order to properly realise any existing opportunities.
"Once you are at the end of the research, the route is so much harder to change. Early clarity and strategising about the research route means that small tweaks can be made that will make huge changes two years down the route," said Brungs.
For Professor Kees Dorst, Associate Dean (Research) and Professor of Design at UTS, that early link with the MICDs is starting to bear fruit. The Safer By Design Bin for example (which was developed under the umbrella of UTS' Designing Out Crime (DOC) initiative sponsored by the NSW Ministry of Justice and Attorney General (DJAG)) now has a patent pending and potential for overseas licensing.
Much of the research for the DOC project is carried out during intensive winter design workshops, and MICD Leigh Angus is working closely with the group in advance of this year's workshop to identify the best strategies to properly protect intellectual property before the designers showcase their work publicly. Dorst said this approach has also led a tightening of project design statements, again prompting improved outcomes.
In the case of the Safer By Design Bin, Angus was able to work with UniQuest's IP manager and patent attorneys to ensure that UTS could get a patent application on the bin. This application gives the UniQuest team something tangible to take to the market and should allow the technology to be licensed overseas. The Crime Prevention Division of DJAG meanwhile is working with industry partners to introduce the bins to NSW this year.
As Professor Brungs explained – having access to the comprehensive commercialisation resources and experience of UniQuest is important to UTS. On its own the university would not have the experienced commercialisation resources available to it through UniQuest, which would limit its ability to exploit opportunities.
UniQuest meanwhile can spread the commercialisation load and run several large projects in parallel.
The MICDs not only help researchers understand the challenges associated with commercialisation and the steps needed to properly identify and protect IP, but can also act as a catalyst for collaboration and cross fertilisation both within UTS and more broadly with industry and the other universities for which UniQuest provides commercialisation services.
Increased collaboration is at the core of the Government's $542 million NCRIS (National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Services) program. And as Professor Brungs noted: "Collaboration is critical to my vision for research at UTS."
Dr Michael Manion's mandate is to commercialise research conducted at UTS's Faculty of Science and extract as much value – monetary and otherwise – as possible. One of three UniQuest Managers of Innovation and Commercial Development (MICDs) embedded at the university among the researchers, Manion has links with a couple of hundred researchers – getting to know what they are working on, how they are going about it, and exploring the possible outcomes of that research.
With a background in cancer research, when Manion came across the work of Associate Professor Mary Davey and her team, he recognised that there was a valuable opportunity both in terms of commercial income and community impact.
The researchers had developed drug resistant worms, which apart from demonstrating drug resistance were essentially unchanged. These worms could be used to test a range of different compounds with specific effects in order to tackle drug resistance. Given the rising incidence of drug resistance in both humans and animals the interest in this area is growing swiftly.
Details about the breakthrough have been published in the International Journal of Parasitology and by the time Manion learned of the UTS research programme an animal health company had already contacted the university about the worms.
"We could licence it, sell the worms, make a few thousand dollars and give them a research reagent. But potentially this model could be used as a screen not only for anti-parasitic drugs, but simultaneously looking for compounds with the potential to interfere with drug resistance across a range of therapies. Drug resistance is a problem in a number of disease settings, like cancer and infectious diseases, especially with compounds we have been using for many years.
"If we can interrupt the pumps that push the drugs out of cells (thus diminishing their effectiveness), we can then increase those drugs' effects. This might have implications in cancer therapy, anti-virals, and anti-inflammatory therapies, to name a few," according to Manion.
Working with Professor Davey to shape the next phase of research with a commercial end-point in mind, Manion said the research group was now testing about 2000 compounds against the drug resistant worms to demonstrate the worms' value as a drug screen.
"The next step is to find a partner like a drug company. This is much more valuable than sending them the worms. Now we can partner with them in a drug screening effort and also develop the skills base at UTS."
For Mary Davey the experience of working with UniQuest has been enlightening. "As researchers we tend to sit in little rooms and say 'isn't this fun?'" Having a heightened commercial awareness meant that the research could have much greater reach, and also lead to additional funding for research that was still fun, but also far reaching.
The journey from the lab bench to the end user is challenging – as Professor Hung Nguyen knows only too well. But having worked in industry previously he has always kept commercialisation firmly in mind – an approach now bearing fruit for the wireless thought control technology he and his team have developed.
In a clear demonstration that the academic's mantra to "publish or perish" need not damage commercialisation opportunities much of Nguyen's work has been outlined publicly over the last few years in academic journals. Working with UniQuest it has been possible to file provisional patent applications for the technology and retain the copyright to the software, proving that public disclosure and commercialisation can co-exist when skilfully managed.
Developed initially for people with disabilities, the system allows people to control technology by thinking – and could be used, for example, to control a wheelchair. Instead of manipulating a joystick to steer, the person processes a thought - "turn left" - which is picked up by a sensor, recognised by the UTS developed software, which in turn activates the technology to steer the wheelchair.
With a final product for wheelchair-dependent users perhaps only three years off, UniQuest and Nguyen believe a product could be on the market even faster if the technology is licensed by computer gaming companies.
The notion of a computer-brain interface has been explored by gaming companies for years – but in the past devices proposed have been clunky. Nguyen's work promises much sleeker designs.
Nguyen has been working in the field for the past ten years, and although he always hoped to end up with a commercial product he was, until two years ago, unsure what could be patented, what could be commercialised.
Working with UniQuest however has helped crystallise that and an application for a provisional patent has been filed, and the software copyright retained by UTS. "Now we are looking for commercialisation grants – and to try to improve the system to make it easier to demonstrate."
With the proper protection in place Nguyen has been able to showcase the technology more widely, leading to exposure on the Catalyst television programme earlier this year.
"UTS is a place to do research for the benefit of the community and we are very practical. The impact of research is much stronger if you can bring a product to market.
"It is difficult to go from the lab bench to the end user, but because I worked in industry before I have always had a vision to move to commercialisation as soon as possible," said Nguyen.
"It is very satisfying when your research gets commercialised."