Why can’t we unlock the innovation from research? Governments and academia alike hold the key
By Dr Mobin Nomvar >>
STREET ARTIST Banksy once lamented of Modern Art that most of the world’s creative minds were being attracted to the advertising sector, locking up the world’s creativity from the modern art scene.
He famously said, “Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”
While perhaps hyperbolic, the sentiment is well understood and could be tweaked to describe the world of academic research in Australia. Innovative ideas are rarely given the opportunity to come to fruition as academics instead default to the creation of a research paper which, while no doubt valuable and informative, is far from impactful.
This issue is clear when we look at the numbers. The World Intellectual Property Organization’s 2021 Global Innovation Index saw us take a step back in the rankings, coming in at 25 out of 133 countries for overall innovation, down from 23rd a year earlier.
While not a drastic slide in and of itself, the devil is always in the detail.
The commercialisation gap
A deeper look at the index shows that while we rank well in innovation inputs – for example, higher education investment in research (15th out of 133) – we pale when it comes to innovation outputs – such as the translation of research and development into marketable, commercial outcomes (33rd out of 133). Using a different metric, we rank 10th in respect to our human capital, but rank 42nd in knowledge and technology output.
This disparity is the very crux of the matter at hand; we are mired in theory and failing to turn our ideas into practice. We see prestige in the paper, not in commercialisation.
There are a range of reasons why we are stuck in theory: among them, a lack of research translation skills, short term focus business model of the universities, historically too risk averse decision-making at both government and university levels, and a lack of support network for academics.
This is not acceptable for Australia, having brought so much innovation to the world throughout history on so many fronts. To drive the nation forward economically and socially, intellectual property must be unlocked from the shackles of academia.
Driving innovation in academia comes down to funding, incentives, skills, and support – most importantly, ongoing support from the government and from universities.
Throughout academia, there is talk of multidisciplinary research, but innovation requires communication between people with diverse expertise and backgrounds. Attention must be paid to giving academics the means and opportunities to approach experts in commercialisation and entrepreneurship for advice and guidance.
While it is pleasing to see a recent, albeit slow, shift away from the ‘publish or perish’ mentality, the overwhelming incentive lies in papers – they’re risk free, foster promotion within the ranks, and cost little – rather than practical application which requires a higher level of funding and comes with the downside risk of failure.
The pathway between formulation of and research into an idea to concrete and substantial innovation is obstructed by a lack of means and, to be blunt, government support.
Incentivising theory to become practice: setting the right structure is critical
While Australian universities are looking to commercialise more than ever, with revenues up from $119 million in 2018 to $242 million in 2020, the minds may be willing, but the support needed to innovate has not been.
The ongoing discussions by the government around funding to facilitate early-stage research, elevating commercial success to the ‘next level’ in Australia, is in theory a welcome start to ramping up our capabilities. However, how it is structured is paramount to its success, otherwise it’s an expensive empty promise.
Although funding is critically needed, discussions consistently ignore the fact that the research industry in Australia is alien to the concept of commercialisation.
Researchers and their traditional support systems don’t have the commercial mindset or understanding of commercial structures, market status or regulatory requirements needed to monetise intellectual property (IP). Dedicating part of this funding to the creation of an innovation ecosystem is the key to success.
Returning to our innovative roots
Australia has a long history of leading innovations that changed the world as we knew it – the black-box flight recorder, the electronic pacemaker, spray on skin, Google Maps, wi-fi, the Cochlear implant, and more – in short, innovative ideas are aplenty, but they need to be unlocked from the minds of academics and freed from papers they publish.
Utilising those with skills in the translation of research into commercialisation and using that knowledge to build towards an innovative ecosystem is just as important as securing the right funding.
Silicon Valley did not become what it is today simply as a result of funding, rather by creating a supportive innovative ecosystem of capital market, talent acquisition and nurturing, access to innovation driven markets, and support.
Appearing on track to get the fundamentals of funding right, the next step is to ensure investment in innovation on a national scale – be it from business, education, government, or all – should follow to build a supportive innovation ecosystem.
About the author
Dr Mobin Nomvar is co-founder and managing director of Scimita Ventures. Dr Nomvar is an innovation and R&D specialist who is passionate about Australia realising its innovation potential in the modern world. www.scimitaventures.com