Measuring a university’s impact on the innovation ecosystem

According to Reuters’ annual ranking of Asia Pacific’s Most Innovative Universities for 2018, Australia has 5 on the list, Monash University in particular receiving the top spot at #25 out of the 75 listed. This ranking looks to identify the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries. However, if you look more closely, the methodology behind these rankings does lean towards more traditional research impact in the form of academic papers and patent filings (patents cited etc.). This ranking seems to discount alternative measures of a university’s innovation impact such as licensing royalty income, university spin-offs etc. which are being overlooked by more traditional research measures.

Australian universities and innovation

Traditionally, universities have existed to create and disperse knowledge - an important role in developing new technology and innovation. Australian universities are well-known for producing world-class research. The Australian Research Council’s most recent 2015 Excellence in Research Australia, showed through internationally benchmarked data, that Australia’s research effort continues to perform well-above world standard in every broad discipline group and Australia ranks 8th out of 36 OECD+ countries in its contribution to the top 1 per cent of highly cited publications per million population.  

Although we’re a global leader in our research efforts, Australia struggles to commercialise this research, therefore impacting our innovation potential. Industry-research collaboration is critical to translate knowledge creation to application however Australian universities have difficulty engaging industry. Australia ranks the lowest in the OECD on the percentage of SMEs collaborating on innovation with higher education or publicly funded research institutions. There have been disincentives within the Australian research sector to engage with industry or move between industry and academia because research funding is allocated in relation to academic measures such as peer-reviewed papers and citations rather than industry collaboration and commercialisation.

What is being done to bridge the industry-university collaboration divide?

There has a been a concerted effort by governments and universities to bridge this gap between industry and Australian universities to foster greater commercial outcomes from university research. Some of these collaborative initiatives include:

  • Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Linkage Project grants supporting collaborative research projects undertaken between a university and a partner organisation (eg in the private sector and government);
  • Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) and CRC-P grants: the long-standing government program supporting industry-led collaborations between universities and industry. CRCs are up to 10 years and CRC-Ps up to 3 years and including SMEs.
  • Innovation Connections, an element of the Entrepreneurs Programme: Connects SMEs to expertise, technology and advice to meet their R&D needs through subsidised university researcher placements, SME’s research employee placement into a university to access research infrastructure or a graduate/post-graduate placement  to work on a specific SME research project.
  • APR.Intern: Australian Postgraduate Research Intern is an all discipline 3-5 month internship program placing PhD students into business with a 50% rebate available.


Universities and Student Startups

Another key role of Australian universities is educating the workforce of the future, vital to Australian industry gaining the skills and expertise they need and providing career pathways for graduates. Education is actually Australia’s third largest export, valued at $30.9 billion a year, and we are a top destination for international students.

Today, young people need to be prepared for a variety of roles in the future that will be transformed by automation and digitisation. For Australian universities to stay competitive, they are recognising that they must transform their learning environments to incorporate entrepreneurial skill development and student startup support programs on campus to build the businesses and skills of tomorrow.

Universities are therefore investing heavily in entrepreneurship and commercialisation activities. Whether it be through incubator and accelerator startup programs, offering a Bachelor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, or allocating a Deputy Vice Chancellor of Entrepreneurship, these did not exist a decade ago.

According to Universities Australia, there are over 100 startup support programs being delivered across Australian universities, many of these delivering a range of offerings to student and alumni startups. The past five years has seen a significant growth in these programs and although the concentration has predominantly in capital cities, there is a growing demand and implementation of startup programs through regional universities – University of Newcastle’s partnership with Slingshot Accelerator, University of Wollongong’s iAccelerate, Flinders’ eNVIsion Limestone Coast, UNE’s SMART Region Incubator to name a few. 

University Startup Programs, noting those that so not have an official logo have not been included. Source: Decode System.

Galileo Ventures recently reported that half of Australia’s most active accelerators are affiliated with universities. These programs therefore play a significant role within the early stage startup ecosystem.

Impact and promoting university research collaboration to industry.

Given the breadth of activity being undertaken by universities in the innovation ecosystem, it is important they can demonstrate impact for their own competitive offering. Whether this be through tracking student startup outcomes or attracting industry investment and partnerships.

A key measure of the government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda allocated resources and funding to assess how universities are translating their research into economic, social, environmental and other impacts. Traditionally this has not been measured within the Australian research system and the Australian Research Council (ARC) ran a pilot Engagement and Impact Assessment in 2017 with a national assessment underway and the results being announced in 2019.

Unfortunately, the world-class research being undertaken within universities is often hidden and corporates struggle to navigate a university’s ecosystem to know whether there are benefits of engaging.  The ARC’s impact activity will outline the benefits of university research to the broader community however it will not showcase relevant research capabilities and strengths across universities to attract industry collaboration. A platform providing more visibility to the world-class research, how to engage and who to engage with and collaboration tools to navigate IP and licensing agreements would boost the innovation potential of universities.

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