Bringing uni research to market

Finding a way to commercialise research while supporting academic culture is an ongoing but necessary challenge for universities

As Australian higher education institutions face funding cuts, commercialisation of research – working with industry to convert research outcomes into marketable products or services – can provide an additional source of income.

But while success stories like Google (Stanford University) and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) inspire commercialisation activities, the managers responsible point out that generating a multi-million dollar university spinout is about as likely as winning the lottery.

Identifying a successful university spinout is part skill, part luck. Picture: Startup Stock Photos

Screening through countless research and inventions to identify the ones that may lead to great profits not only requires time, expertise and skill, but also luck. Instead, a different approach could help better integrate commercialisation into academia.

Commercialisation offices in Australia

Since the 1980s, the role of universities has evolved, moving from high levels of institutional autonomy towards working closely with business and government.

In line with US and European trends, universities in Australia have established technology commercialisation offices to transfer their research output for external markets, and they have had considerable success.

The Australian higher education sector represented 66 per cent of all patents filed in the public sector in 2009. According to the National Survey of Research Commercialisation, in 2015, universities in Australia accounted for 75 per cent of total invention disclosures, generated 29 start-up companies, held 13,391 research contracts, consultancies and collaborations with industry partners (total value $1,205 million) and reported 2,073 active licences, options and agreements that earned around $60 million.

But given that for hundreds of years, modern universities have only had two core functions, the pursuit of knowledge (or ‘pure’ academic disciplines) and the creation of an educated elite, shifting to a commercial mindset can clash with academic culture.

With commercialisation being a relatively new objective, the absence of clear university policies and systems may further lower academics’ interests.

Our research findings, published in R&D Management, represent two different approaches used by Australian university commercialisation offices that try to bridge the conventional differences between academia and industry through developing alternative strategic models centred around relationship building instead of revenue.

Two different approaches

The two cases describe alternative ways for university commercialisation offices to better support academics.

The first focuses on strengthening ties and trust between academics and commercialisation managers by emphasising its position as a service provider for academics.

University commercialisation offices that focus on building relationships may be more successful than those that simply focus on revenue. Picture: Startup Stock Photos

In this case, members of the commercialisation office act as consultants who provide advice on commercial matters such as contract and asset management, technology transfer, and development of customised programs on top of standard university courses. The key driver of this office’s strategy is to help the university produce better economic bottom lines, and measurements of performance are based on delivery of required services for the academics and meeting the goals set by the university every year.

By looking beyond financial impact and focusing primarily on providing consulting support, this strategy may help gain academics’ interest in commercialisation activities.

The second approach positions the commercialisation office as an innovation hub that acts as a conduit between academics and potential industry partners. Performance evaluation is based on academic perception and public awareness through indicators such as number of new academics contacted, number of new contracts established, frequency of media exposure, and most importantly, qualitative feedback from academics, industry partners and the wider community.

In addition to the traditional commercialisation model (establishing spin-off companies and licensing research outcomes), this office also promotes a parallel model that discloses early stage inventions to interested business partners with only a few simple steps at a small cost. This new model encourages more frequent interactions between academics and industry partners and is effective in raising the level of public awareness towards academic research.

It is possible for universities to combine the two commercialisation approaches described above. Instead of focusing mainly on growth and revenue-oriented measurement of university commercialisation performance, the effectiveness of university-industry collaborations may be further enhanced by a more holistic view of university commercialisation pathways.

Through developing longer term strategies and practices that look beyond immediate revenue generation, encouraging more academic involvement, increasing public awareness and building more stable relationships with business and industry partners, universities may be able to further enhance their commercial viability within volatile markets and environments in the long run.

Banner image: Startup Stock Photos