Much has been said and written about the challenges associated with commercialising research from universities and publicly funded research organisations. But little of this has led to step change.
Why? Why is it so difficult to commercialise research, particularly when so many new breakthroughs are discovered at universities? How do we create a system that gives things a chance to succeed?
Commercialisation of new technologies is a complex operation, says Stephen Rodda.
When it comes to commercialising university technologies, globally less than 5 per cent make it to an actual commercial product that generates revenue for both the inventors and the university.
After 45 years and 10,000 discoveries at Stanford, just three had generated multimillion-dollar licences by 2016.
The reality is that the system to support commercialisation of new technologies, in the broadest sense, is complex, and the roles and responsibilities of each element of the system need to be understood.
Universities themselves don’t commercialise technologies. Universities work with existing companies, investors, new companies, entrepreneurs, and governments to drive the commercialisation process.
With the economic impact of COVID-19 being felt in higher education more acutely than many other sectors, universities have the opportunity to challenge their business models, which includes prioritising their focus on research commercialisation and partnering effectively with industry.
This is a two-way interaction; while universities need to be more proactive at partnering with industry, industry needs support to work effectively with universities.
In capitalising on this opportunity, the sector has five must-win challenges to overcome:
- Commitment – Effective commercialisation begins at the top and requires active buy-in from senior leaders in university, industry, and government sectors.
- Investment – market failures exist on both sides of the valley of death for technology development. Universities lack the ability to effectively fund patent budgets and proof-of-concept funding to de-risk technologies to the point that industry can take them on. Industry in some cases lacks the capital to invest in high-risk technology development programs and in other cases the willingness to do so. Support and funding from government would drive commercialisation and economic outcomes through closing the gap on this valley of death.
- Skills development and experience – Training research leaders and providing them with the skill sets required to build partnerships with industry and technology development outcomes. Similarly, experienced commercialisation and business development staff are critical to support research leaders and to break down the barriers between universities and industry.
- Incentivise participation – Research leaders must be recognised, celebrated and incentivised to pursue research commercialisation, including sharing in commercialisation income and through academic promotion. Allowing researchers to participate in commercialisation activities should not compromise an academic’s career path and should not be muted due to how conflicts of interest are managed.
- Prioritising R&D – Business expenditure on R&D has been in decline over the last decade and gross expenditure in R&D tracks at approximately 1.7 per cent of GDP – both metrics are considerably below OECD averages and highlight the lack of priority put on innovation. Similarly, we need greater mobility of people between industry and universities, including a greater level of PhD-qualified directors on boards of companies and in charge of innovation.