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Researchers may be motivated by impact but that is not enough to achieve it

Academic innovators are learning to question project commercial viability and to shift their focus to solutions for which there is a demand. from www.shutterstock.com

Researchers may be motivated by impact but that is not enough to achieve it

Academics must demonstrate that their research has impact; they need to show that their publicly funded research is making a difference to society in some way. Whether through economic, policy or environmental means, the challenge can be generating traction outside the traditional research publication framework.

The government has urged academics to work more closely with industry as a way to achieve this.

A recent survey found that most academics were motivated to engage with industry to have an impact on society, but that they felt they needed more support, time and an environment encouraging of engagement to do this.

So how can universities and industry collaborate more closely to create a supportive environment to help researchers achieve impact?

A few programs are leading the way from the research side.

The University of Melbourne’s Translating Research at Melbourne (TRaM) and CSIRO’s ON accelerator are both developing programs, inspired by the US National Science Foundation’s proven Innovation Corps (I-corps) model to bring “start-up science” to Australian researchers.

I-Corps is a set of activities and programs that prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and broadens the impact of select, NSF-funded, basic-research projects.

The strength and appeal of the I-corps model lies in using the hypothesis and evidence-based method familiar to academic researchers. By applying this process to understand market demand for products, services and systems, I-corps teams have a framework to test their thinking. This builds researcher confidence to get out of the building and engage with potential customers, partners and competitors.

Key to the approach is that teams focus on understanding the problem, rather than pushing a solution. It’s a profound change from the traditional academic mindset, where the assumption can be that everyone will need your solution as soon as the research is complete. Teams quickly discover that ideas are cheap and customers are often getting by just fine already.

The I-corps approach also fosters the start-up founder mindset – to question project commercial viability – rather than just technical feasibility.

As might be expected, some teams decide that no viable market exists for their research. When this insight happens quickly, teams “pivot” to consider new markets or approaches.

This “failure” is celebrated for saving time and resources that might otherwise have been wasted working on solutions no one wants. Even when such failure is absolute, the framework still equips researchers to rapidly identify effective impact pathways in the future.

Start-ups with a university setting

A key insight teams develop from this model is that no single individual has the skill set to cover the innovation process. To build on self-organised teams, researchers are connected with entrepreneurs and appropriate mentors to create powerful networks with access to industry and business know-how.

By keeping the start-up within the university, teams can take their time to gain better understanding of the problem, refine their solutions and access scholarly knowledge and research facilities.

This improves their chances of realising potential impact, creating a win-win for the university by retaining academic capacity and creating a virtuous cycle for research impact as start-ups become consumers of research.

Adapting for Australia

In the Australian context, both the TRaM and ON programs have seen great traction for teams willing to engage in the process.

The first intake for the TRaM program commenced in July this year. To date, the five teams selected for this intake have gained invaluable insights by conducting over 140 customer interviews.

Many of these teams have listened to what customers told them and pivoted, redirecting their research to problems that matter to customers. When asked how quickly they would have known to shift without adopting this approach, the answer was “probably never”.

CSIRO has successfully adapted the I-corps model within CSIRO and more than 15 teams have now been through the program. CSIRO is also extending ON program access to the university sector.

Measures of success

The US I-corps program has already helped accelerate the formation of more than 320 research-based companies, raised over $80 million in additional funding and created over 1,200 jobs.

Qualitatively, the real success of such programs lies in boosting national innovation capacity, with benefits spread over the entire trajectory of research and start-up careers.

Role of the government

A key role that only government can play in this space is as a customer for research from start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Looking again for international inspiration, the US Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) schemes and the UK’s equivalent Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) mandate a proportion of federal agency R&D spend that applies to only small to medium-sized enterprise (SMEs).

The US SBIR program currently engages 11 federal agencies, which allocate 2.8% of their R&D budget through the program. It has enjoyed bipartisan federal support since its establishment in 1982. This consistent, broad buy-in has led to SBIR-supported success stories including major tech companies such as Symantec and Qualcomm.

Although Australia lacks a comparable program, in an encouraging sign the federal and Queensland governments both recently flagged pilot schemes that reflect the US SBIR model.

What kind of future do we want?

The July federal election result led to media suggestions that voters saw innovation as a byword for unemployment. Fortunately, others have recognised that ignoring innovation will simply mean we have to import it.

So how do we build the industries of the future here in Australia?

The 2014 ACOLA report on the role of research in lifting productivity recommended:

increased investment in R&D, a commitment to innovation, better links between business and research … and the effective training and utilisation of an innovation-capable workforce.

More recently, ACOLA has revisited the topic from the perspective of skills and capabilities.

Formal education no longer provides a sufficient skills basis for the rest of a person’s working life … [Universities] need to teach more broadly across disciplines, covering transferable skills alongside specialist knowledge.

With $50 billion spent on government procurement every year, there is a real opportunity for Australia to be first customer for the innovation it creates.

Only bipartisan, ongoing support for at-scale SBIR-style programs and the research innovation accelerators (like TRaM and ON) that feed them can foster the next generation of research entrepreneurs and the industries and jobs growth they create.