The event brought together VCs, research experts and other senior figures from the global HE community to wrestle with issues around funding, how to bridge the valley of death (that period of time when initial research begins and before it has attracted commercial investment), multilateral partnerships and entrepreneurism & agenda-setting.
Opening the event, titled From Catapults to Commercialisation, Dr Nessa Carey, from PraxisUnico in the UK talked about schemes that have been successful such as the government-backed Catapult centres designed to foster economic growth through research.
“You can measure what’s easy to measure and not what you need to measure”
With an impact-focused backdrop to research funding in the UK, she warned of the danger of metrics in valuing research impact. “You can measure what’s easy to measure and not what you need to measure,” she counselled.
She pointed out that societal impacts from research outputs (such as behavioural change), for example, are not easy to capture via metrics on outcome.
However, David Sweeney, Director (Research, Education and Knowledge Exchange) at HEFCE in the UK was more upbeat.
With government grants for research dependent upon assessment outcomes in the Research Excellence Framework, as from 2015-16, he said a cultural shift was occurring in terms of understanding research impact. “We’ve cracked a fundamental problem,” he said, accepting a need to refine the process.
He also spoke of successful initiatives in the UK, such as the Knowledge Transfer Network and National Centre for Universities and Business.
There seemed to be broad consensus that licensing income from research achievements was not an effective KPI and a focus on IP ownership and licensing actually obscured far better commercial outcomes via collaborative research and consultancy.
Joongmyeon Bae from KAIST in South Korea captured everyone’s attention when presenting the approach to R&D in his country, underlining the priority at government-level and at institutions such as his.
KAIST offers entrepreneurial support and can invest in its own students via a sophisticated Startup programme that enables production of prototypes, offers one-stop support for marketing, design, intellectual property rights, legislation and connects students/projects with VCs.
“A university must esteem the commercialisation of research,” summed up Bae.
Tanya Monro, DVC, Research & Innovation at UNISA, continued the conversation in this direction by illustrating that career progression to professor purely via industry engagement, as well as teaching or research contributions, was now possible at UNISA.
“There is a lack of understanding from universities in how to engage with the industry. There is a tendency to over-complicate”
Peter Schutz, Chair of Food Innovation Australia, challenged delegates to be more practical and approachable in their dealings with industry. Suggesting there was an arrogance sometimes exhibited, he counselled, “There is a lack of understanding from universities in how to engage with the industry. There is a tendency to over-complicate. They don’t want a thesis [but a solution].”
He added that he had witnessed unreal expectations over funding models and IP ownership. He said industry representatives would ask two questions of any research project: “So what, and who is the customer?”
Johnny Chan from City University Hong Kong made an impassioned plea for the HE community to take a lead on identifying research agendas – academia does not change as often as governments, and industry has too short-term a focus, he said.
In his summary of the event, Andrew Coats, Academic Vice President at Monash-Warwick alliance underlined the importance of person-to-person links enabling industry and academia “to be part of the same continuum”.
The practicalities of these partnerships were also assessed. Issues such as currency exchange fluctuations on multilateral partnerships (such as those funded by the UK’s Newton Fund) could be resolved by long-term planning, advised the International Unit‘s Vivienne Stern. Meanwhile, Bae at KAIST observed that differing semester systems did not always help getting research collaborations to fly.