Bringing researchers and industry together in the new world of hardware startups

by Jack Baldwin

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There's a broad discussion happening in Australia about how to strengthen relationships between private industry and universities in order to foster innovation.

'Innovation' is a nebulous term - it could mean a new product, a new process, or new ways of working. Innovations appear all the time - and a great deal many go unnoticed, unfunded and underutilised.

In many cases, industry doesn't have the capability to research intellectual property (IP) that will give them a commercial edge. Academic attitudes also contribute to universities shying away from private industry, valuing fundamental research over applied research.

Some argue that a government led initiative like the United States' Small Business Innovation Research scheme is required to encourage collaboration between industry and universities - others say it can be achieved with a healthy dose of effort.

Case Study

The Thin Film Coatings Group is part of the University of South Australia's Mawson Institute. They deal primarily in materials science and are leaders in pairing their research with commercial outcomes for private industries.

In fact, the Group is entirely funded through their industry engagements.

They developed the world's first plastic automotive mirrors with SMR Automotive, partnered with Malaysian Automotive Institute to create plastic vehicle windows and worked with Envirominerals Ltd to perfect their electrowinning mineral extraction technology.

They've collaborated on energy storage with Tindo Solar and are responsible for Heliostat SA's research arm. They've created contact lenses with Contamac UK and even researched adaptive camouflage with the DSTO.

In short, the Group is at the forefront of research and industry collaboration, and have written extensively about their experience in creating that collaboration.

The Group recently published a paper in Translational Materials Research called 'Optical coatings for automotive applications: a case study in translating fundamental materials science into commercial reality', which discussed their experience in the space and the best ways to pursue working relationships with private industry.

Tech Push or Market Pull?

Dr Drew Evans is a senior research fellow at the University of South Australia. He has a PhD in physical chemistry and has been with the Thin Film Coatings Group for five years, with more than thirty publications and six patents under his belt. He won 'Tall Poppy of the Year' award in 2013.

Evans says a main point of the current research-industry discussion is whether a 'Technology Push' or 'Market Pull' mechanism is better for encouraging and commercialising innovation.

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A market pull - sometimes called customer pull - is someone outside of a university wanting to create something because there are customers for that hypothetical product or service.

A technology push is someone within a university or technology-based company wanting to push research or an invention out in to the commercial space.

"A lot of the discussion is that market pull is a better mechanism, because it guarantees you've done market analysis and it's not just a researcher placing more importance on their work when industry doesn't want it," Evans says.

"My take on it is that market pull is better, simply because you can get industry involved with research from very early on in the project. The flow-on effect is that because they're engaged, they're constantly pushing the research in the direction they want, so once something is invented, they actually want it."

A technology push can still work, Evans insists, but its less likely, often due to a disconnect between the researchers and the needs of industry. An invention might be a great idea, but evolved so far in its own direction that industry isn’t sure of whether they want it.

Making contact

"If people don't know what it is you want to do, they're never going to knock on your door and ask you to do it," Evans says.

The role of a group leader in establishing an industry-friendly research environment is essentially a 'scientific entrepreneurial' one. The people in charge of these research groups need to be networking and keeping their eyes open for potential collaboration or opportunities with private industry.

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Group leader and associate professor Peter Murphy fills this role at the Thin Film Coatings Group. His background is industry-based, including a decade of work at SOLA Optical, which at the time was the world's largest manufacturer and coater of plastic ophthalmic and sun lenses.

The Group's paper states, "if the group’s research leader has an innate scientific entrepreneurial outlook and imprints this onto the research team, participation in the knowledge transfer process is likely to be high."

It also states that the vast majority of academic-industry interactions are initiated by a fairly small handful of academic researchers. It argues that this could be improved by changing the make up of the scientific environment, putting fundamental, applied and engineering research in closer contact with each other, allowing them to feed off one another.

That's largely up to the universities though - industry doesn't have good odds of altering the culture of academic institutions. There are other ways to initiate partnerships, though.

"All of our interactions come about because of people," Evans explains, "it's as easy as getting out there and telling people that's what you want to do, and then figuring out how to talk to the key industry people in your field."

This holds true for all industry and research areas, whether it's something tangible like the Thin Film Coatings Group's materials science or research in to public policy.

It also follows that industry figures have a responsibility to make themselves open and available to any researchers or academics looking to contribute. After all - if they're not aware of what you do or what you need, they're never going to knock on your door and ask to help with it.

Speak the same language

In their case study, the Thin Films Coating Group notes that industry tends to shy away from academia, despite the fact the two are a match made in heaven - on paper.

Small to medium enterprises (SMEs) and even multi-nationals might not have the expertise, wealth and infrastructure to undertake risky research on new intellectual property, but universities do.

"Rightly or wrongly, however, many traditional academic institutions have adhered to a hierarchal mindset where pure or fundamental research is valued above applied research, which is valued above engineering/product-oriented research," the paper says.

That prioritisation creates problems when it comes to collaboration. Much fundamental research is 'blue-sky' - curiosity driven programs with no defined outcomes, whereas applied research and product driven programs have a defined end-result in mind.

"We're all trying to achieve the same outcome, but the way we do it is a bit different," Evans says.

"Researchers often don't understand the language that industry uses. That language barrier means that when industry approaches a researcher to ask for help, the researcher doesn't know how to ask the right questions to find out the problem to solve.

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Stories of interest from across the Asia Pacific.

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