Bringing researchers and industry closer together - from the experts

By / 16th of July, 2015
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Bringing researchers and industry closer together - from the experts

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.

Market pull is better, simply because you can get industry involved with research from very early on in the project.

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.

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.

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.

The biggest change that could happen is judging the performance of researchers based on impact. It's great to publish but that's not where the research stops. 

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.

"They're more likely to start talking about funding and publications - which are all the things that industry don't want to talk about in the beginning."

The traditional university model's carrot on a stick is based on publications, especially for early-career researchers on short-term contracts. Evans says the future of a young researcher's career is based on getting publications out the door, so they can build a reputation to win grant funding.

Complications arise at this intersection of needs. Researchers need to publish, and private industry needs a step up in the market - often with a request to delay any publications until a product is out.

"Any engagement that leads to a delay in a researcher being able to publish could potentially kill off their career."

Evans insists that there are moves away from the traditional university model that feeds this cycle, as institutions realise they're not insulated from the private space, as well as seeing the potential for recognition based on real world impact.

"The biggest change that could happen is judging the performance of researchers based on impact. It's great to publish and they should be doing that, but that's not where the research stops. You should take the knowledge you've got in those publications, work with a partner and turn it in to something out in society."

It's important for industry partners to be understanding of the issues facing academics and be prepared to work through them as they arise.

Even though the Thin Film Coatings Group is a model example of academic-industry partnership, the early days were 'difficult'. Evans says that their initial projects operated on a fine line, and the Group only just managed to satisfy the University's requirements in terms of publications. As they've established themselves and proven the impact of their research and work, they seem to have been granted more leeway.

Do your groundwork

"Something that often turns off a researcher is that an engagement with industry might take six to twelve months of talking before it even begins," Evans says.

This screwing down of the details is an essential part of the process, however. Everyone knows what they're putting in to the project and getting out. When it comes to IP, industry might agree that they can use it in the industry spaces they're involved in, while the university might retain rights to it in other fields.

"Once the project is a success, there are no arguments about who owns what and who can do what. For a generic university engagement, there are so many different outcomes that could take place, and it all depends on that initial discussion."

Thin Film Coatings Group is often thinking years ahead on projects, well before they actually start. This is a tricky thing, Evans says, because a lot of industries and businesses don't even know whether they'll still be running in a few years time, but it ensures a pipeline of research that continues in to the future, ensuring the sustainability of the group and their industry partners.

Friends with benefits

The direct benefits of an engagement like this should be fairly obvious - a new product, new IP, a new market, a new technology that puts industry ahead of the game.

There are other, less obvious benefits. Having high-tech fundamental science behind a product gives a marketing edge that other products don't have.

Evans points to the iPhone, which is widely seen as a high-tech product by consumers. Consumers want to know that what they're getting is high-tech - based on good fundamental science. Apple's brand and reputation goes up with each new product.

Similarly, something like a plastic automotive mirror, which the Thin Film Coatings Group helped develop, achieves its own reputation. It's a world first that makes cars lighter, increasing bit-by-bit gas mileage and the environmental credentials. These are downstream developments that roll back to the original research and manufacturer.

The universities also gain a reputation that their research is having a real world impact - something that should encourage more of these engagements in the future.

"It's building a reputation that their research is relevant for the rest of the world. It also demonstrates to potential and current students that there are career paths to learn the science and engineering and then be able to use it out in society," Evans explains.

Another outcome of that is graduates that are keenly aware of industry needs throughout their education. They then have the potential to join industry partners in permanent positions once they graduate, leading to more research and more commercialisation opportunities, and building competency throughout an industry sector - rather than confining it to the halls of academia.

For Evans, there's a personal drive in working with industry that means he's more engaged in that process than he would be with dry fundamentals.

"It's a philosophical point of view that every day I come to work and I'm researching something, knowing that there are a lot of people in the world that can make use of this," Evans says.

"It's not just ten to twenty people in my research field that read my paper and say, wow, that was nice. There are people driving cars around that have my ideas on them. There are people creating renewable energy based on the research we do.

"It comes down to - what do you want to achieve out of your work? Working with industry isn't for everybody, in the same way that doing only fundamental research is not for everybody. But if a researcher has a desire to work with industry, there is absolutely no reason why they can't."

Follow it through

An important part of the research-industry engagement process is the technology transfer that happens once all the research is done. In fact, Evans says, this might be the most important part of all.

"What a lot of people don't appreciate is that the transfer and scale up of the idea requires just as much investment in resources and time and money as the initial research does. It's not as simple as saying, here's my idea, I've proved it in the lab, now go and make it."

Issues can arise with new machinery not working as planned, or unacceptable failure rates in product batches caused by some unseen problem. These kinds of issues require a lot of science and engineering to understand and overcome.

"Within our group, we understand that the project only finishes once there's a commercial product out in the marketplace. That's when we can say we've achieved our outcome."

There are people driving cars around that have my ideas on them. There are people creating renewable energy based on the research we do.

Even once a product is out on shelves, there remains an opportunity to optimise production and ensure the quality is top notch. There's also the chance to do follow up research and cement these relationships.

Many of the Group's previous engagements have led to further projects with their industry partners, small and large. PhD students attached the group have been involved with fundamental science projects with industry partners, possibly leading to more new products.

Summing up

"There are always challenges working with industry, but they're good challenges. An important thing is that we maintain flexibility in the way we work. When you're working with an industry partner that has customers of their own, there's going to be hiccups and hurdles along the way," Evans says.

"The researchers need to be flexible enough to drop everything and work on solving a particular problem that helps commercialisation. I know if we didn't do that, we wouldn't have achieved success on some of these projects."

The discussion of tightening links between researchers and industry in Australia is ongoing, and there's no set template on how it can work best.

The Thin Film Coatings Group is a good indication of how a team of researchers can get involved with industry and have their research result in real world products and technology.

A willingness to work together with partners, be flexible and bend the old-world rules of universities seems to be a good starting point for researchers wanting to make an impact.

The benefits for Australian businesses and industry - not just manufacturing, but any number of sectors - are vast. New technology, new markets and new IP await.

"As our group leader Peter Murphy says regularly, you need to find researchers that come to work each day because they want to work with industry. They're the people you want to be putting in to collaboration with industry."

Key contacts

Dr Drew Evans Senior Research Fellow Thin Film Coatings Group
61 8 8302 5719 drew.evans@unisa.edu.au