During 30 years of involvement with Australian research, I have heard countless gloomy tales of low rates of research-industry engagement, and of missed opportunities to translate research into outcomes for society.
Yet there are plenty of excellent products, policies and services that began with Australian research. These suggest that a more optimistic story begs telling – particularly about what we can achieve going forward, if there is also a change in the attitude of business to true and deep innovation.
Indeed there are so many exemplars from throughout Australian higher education, that it was difficult to select a mere six researchers to recount ‘stories from the field’ for a panel on research collaboration and translation at this year’s Universities Australia Conference.
But that challenge was overcome, and the conference heard presentations from entrepreneurial researchers with projects at various stages of translation: Professor Sue Fletcher, Dr Colin Hall, Professor Darren Martin (based at my own institution), Professor Ron Rapee, Professor Veena Sahajwalla and Professor Xungai Wang.
The session highlighted that many roads can lead to successful translation. Among the lessons that emerged were that researchers must communicate clearly and openly, should listen to their industry partner’s problems and devise solutions, and should be prepared for a long haul to commercialisation.
Professor Martin stressed the need to candidly “vociferate”. “Be upfront and honest with investors and commercial partners. The minute something goes wrong, tell them. If you do that all the way through, you develop a reputation of being a good person that delivers.”
A serial entrepreneur, he has been part of two successful start-ups and recently developed a technique for extracting nanocellulose from native spinifex. With partners including the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation in northwest Queensland, he has investigated and patented its application to many products – including condoms – which would benefit from super-thin, strong and flexible latex.
Professor Fletcher, whose lab designed and evaluated a medicine that recently received US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accelerated approval, highlighted some challenges inherent in translating therapeutics for rare disorders.
She targets Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a fatal muscle-wasting disease that generally manifests in young boys and drastically limits their life expectancy. It afflicts about 50,000 patients in the developed world, and “there was little commercial incentive to initiate a program when their market is likely to be so small and the costs so enormous”, she said.
Other deterrents to commercial development include a small number of patients suitable for clinical trials, and “the initial unpreparedness of regulatory authorities to deal with new drug paradigms”.
Professor Fletcher and colleagues found ways around these blocks. They asked US-based Sarepta Therapeutics for experimental compounds, which led them to the first drug to alter the natural history of DMD. Two patents were licensed to Sarepta, which ran an adaptive clinical trial that convinced the FDA.
Professor Sahajwalla’s “green steel” technology was commercialised through a partnership with Australian company OneSteel. It has enabled the reuse of more than 2 million old car tyres to make high quality steel in Australia and abroad.
Professor Sahajwalla believes research-industry collaborations can transform a range of carbon-intensive manufacturing processes. She encouraged researchers to think globally when seeking partners, and to ensure that the entire university team understands the markets and operating conditions that shape industries. Innovations are more likely to be adopted if they take account of industries’ budget realities, their need to demonstrate a return on investment, and their existing infrastructure and workforce skills.
Dr Hall acquired an industry mindset when he was a new graduate working for a global ophthalmic lens manufacturer. After his employer reduced its R&D workforce he landed in academia and undertook a PhD. He and his university colleagues partnered with SMR to commercialise a plastic mirror system that underpins $160-plus million in export sales to major truck and car makers.
He credits his private sector experience for his skills as an effective industrial researcher. In industry, he learned project management and how to satisfy time-critical processes. An industry-wise research culture – which is crucial for success – remains alive in his university workplace.
Professor Wang gave several examples of his institute’s innovations used in the automotive sector – and others. He highlighted the world’s first one-piece carbon fibre wheel from Carbon Revolution, which stemmed from a student project and now employs over 115 people at Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus.
The institute’s partnership portfolio also includes: a large independent aerospace-grade advanced composite manufacturer which moved its R&D unit from Munich to the campus; a Switzerland-based firm that created an Australian entity on the strength of its collaboration with Professor Wang’s team; a manufacturer of specialty chemistry materials; a maker of motorcyclists’ protective clothing; and Ear Science Institute Australia.
He has found that widespread engagement helps the institute spot systemic industry problems, around which PhD topics can be built.
Likewise, Professor Rapee commented on the role of PhD students, who helped set him on the right track to develop Cool Kids, a psychologist-run treatment program for anxious children and teenagers. “They kept telling me ‘you’ve got to try and help these kids’,” he recalled. He took the advice and, 25 years on, the program is used in more than a dozen countries and has versions for young people who are victimised, depressed, suicidal, or on the autism spectrum.
“The most important thing is that we have helped and changed the lives of many thousands of young people,” Ron said.
The session confirmed that greater optimism about Australia’s innovation capacity is warranted, because our university researchers have what it takes to drive translation of their discoveries. It also confirmed that our students are hungry for opportunities to engage and translate. If students, industry and the broader community can see and hear more success stories, we will be on the way to cultural change, which will amplify universities’ contributions to a necessary transformation of the economy.