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It’s not the researchers – it’s the system.

Posted 4 years ago

The recent Value of Science and Technology Report by CSIRO identified five key barriers to realising value from innovation in Australia. It is an excellent and informative report, but there is one statement I see repeated in this report, and in others like it, that causes me concern.

We have world-class researchers.

Yes, we do. But it is not enough. There are major problems with the research system in which they operate.

Most of the time, we assess our researchers based purely on their ideas and publications. We place too little emphasis on the application of those ideas. We silently concede that to actually commercialise something is far too difficult; it would almost be unfair to expect it.

We must not settle for this. Through our work with CSIRO, Australian universities and other research organisations overseas we are highlighting the need to make systemic changes to the way that research groups and industry engage, to make commercialisation a more realistic outcome.

Below are three small changes that can be made to a research system that will significantly improve the likelihood of commercialisation.

1) Do more ‘Look See’ research

Most research teams are very skilled at research methodologies that stand up to peer review. However in most cases, this isn’t what industry needs in the first instance.

Industry is interested in determining how research outcomes can be used within their business model. When their company funds research, they want to find out sooner rather than later whether a concept has commercial potential. Waiting for validated experiments that stand up to peer review often delays this decision-making process.

This is where Look See research comes into play – simple experiments, that won’t stand up to peer review, but will provide valuable data to industry. Look See research provides the confidence (and buy-in) industry needs to provide additional funds for follow-on research to confirm the results.

During a recent video conference with several Deputy Vice Chancellors of Research I raised the topic of ‘Look See’ research, expecting to be shouted down by the group. It was heartening to be backed up by a few who recognised that this is a change we need in the Australian research system.

2) Set the right research question

Good research practice uses a research question to frame experimental design. The problem is that the research questions are generally focussed on solving a technical or social problem rather than on delivering a product or service.

With this approach, you can end up with a fantastic technology that never becomes a product. A range of business model problems, competition and customer adoption issues can easily derail a technology-led initiative.

Changing the focus from a technical problem to a product or service problem brings in variables such as competitor products, cost of production targets, and supply chain requirements earlier in the development process. This allows more time to address challenges before early stage development funds runs out.

This does not suggest that the research team should design the business model. It means that consideration of the final application is needed to frame a research question, and to design experiments that will ultimately lead to a product or service. And this requires meaningful engagement with industry throughout the process.

For more information on framing research questions and commercial considerations with industry partners have a look at our Commercialisation Navigator.

3) Plan and deliver research handovers

With industry-research collaboration, the aim is usually for the research team to hand the results and findings over to industry, so they can use the outcome in their business. To do this effectively, the research team first needs to understand how industry will use the results, and tailor the presentation of their findings to the context of their future application. That is the basis of their handover strategy.

But when I talk to researchers, the vast majority can’t explain their handover strategy – when it will start, the steps required, what industry partner training is required. This is compounded by many industry partners not understanding what a handover should entail either. Ultimately, this results in disappointed industry partners who cannot derive full value from the research outcomes.

So yes, we have great researchers. They do world-class research and write high-quality papers. But we need to address the fundamental flaws in the system that prevent our researchers from making more of an impact.

If you are leading or managing a research program, try one of the above system changes to see how it improves your engagement with industry partners. If you are an industry partner, discuss how you could implement the concepts with your research teams.

We need to focus on making significant improvements to our research system, rather than wasting more time blaming industry or researchers. We need a system that supports our researchers to turn their work into commercial outcomes and create real value for our community. Commercialisation does not have to be a struggle, when the system is designed to help it succeed.

Author: Brian Ruddle, Managing Director of Impact Innovation Group.