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Bridging the Divide between Academia and Industry

okalinichenko/Adobe

Credit: okalinichenko/Adobe

By Derek Richard

The Science Next Collaborative is helping early- and mid-career researchers to make the leap from research to commercialisation.

In 2015, life sciences company Sigma-Aldrich approached a number of Australian academics, including myself, with the broad question: “How do we better equip our early- and mid-career researchers with the skills and resources that will allow them to bring their innovations and technical expertise to industry?”

This was an interesting question, as Australia is a global academic leader. Our research publications account for 3% of the world’s output even though we only have 0.3% of its population.

However, we don’t shine when it comes to industry partnerships, patents and start-ups. For every US$100 million spent on biomedical research, the UK has nine times more start-up companies and four times more patents than Australia. This is a major problem, but no one has found a tangible solution.

So, one cold rainy Melbourne day earlier this year, some industry and academic leaders met under the banner of the “Science Next Collaborative” to ponder this critical question.

This was nothing new for academics. Different federal, state and university bodies had reviewed these questions before, highlighted the problems and made recommendations. These white papers and reports generally soon found a home on a shelf, gathering dust.

Did these white papers and reports highlight our inability to translate our knowledge into tangible outcomes? We know there is a problem, yet the ability to address it with something other than words, statements and another paper was missing.

Redirecting funding to “translational research” has often been heralded as a solution, but this shift in funding focus has not yielded any tangible benefits, and I believe will never have the required impact. Basic and blue-sky research still remains the keystone of any competitive research nation. Without this research there is nothing to translate; it’s a bit like giving up on farming because it is supermarkets that translate crops into our shopping baskets.

The Science Next Collaborative realised that our inability to translate research into patents, spin-offs and industry engagement was multi-faceted, with no single solution. It requires not just a tweak of how we approach translation, but a paradigm shift with the adoption of global best practice and innovative solutions.

The Science Next Collaborative identified that we need to change how we train our early- and mid-career researchers, providing them with the skills that industry needs. We should also empower early- and mid-career researchers with the information required to make that step towards commercial engagement and output.

Industry has provided us with best practice entrepreneurial models. Johnson & Johnson has innovation centres around the world, and in 2015 opened its first innovation office at Queensland University of Technology. The UK Medical Research Council developed MRCT, a commercialisation company that brings economies of scale, resources, industry partnerships and expertise together to develop technologies coming out of their universities. MRCT is extraordinarily successful, having generated approximately $1.5 billion in research income for its partner UK universities.

The Science Next Collaborative is still in its infancy, so we are yet to see whether it will have the momentum and support to make real change to our commercialisation pathways. However, so far this initiative has developed its own resource-rich website (http://sciencenextcollaborative.com) and has organised forums in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

As this initiative expands and evolves in 2016, we may finally have a credible solution that could allow Australia to realise its full potential in academic research.

Derek Richard is a Science Next Collaborative Ambassador who is Principal Research Fellow in the School of Biomedical Sciences at Queensland University of Technology.