The long road from innovation to commercial reality

| May 9, 2024

Australia likes to think of itself as punching above its weight when it comes to research.

According to our federal education minister, we produce three percent of the world’s research despite having only 0.3 percent of the world’s population.

But our spending on research and development as a percentage of GDP is and has been for a very long time below the OECD average.

According to Treasury this reflects a relatively low R&D spend by industry, attributed to the structure of our industries, and industries’ willingness to be early adopters rather than developers of innovation.

Government in Australia is the main driving force for R&D spending, strongly supporting research at universities and other publicly-funded research organisations.

It should come as no surprise that Australian innovation is driven by our universities, and that little of this innovation leads to industrial impact in Australia.

One journey of Australian innovation that I’ve been a part of illustrates some of the critical issues and obstacles involved in taking research from an idea to a full commercial product.

It all began with a start-up company, Rubicon Water, seeking a systems engineer for help to manage some irrigation canals.

They were trying to solve a local, seriously important Australian problem: how to manage one of our most scarce resources, water.

It was late in 1996. At the time, several attempts to solve the problem, involving both local and overseas water engineers, were considered failures.

But then one of my former students who was working for the company suggested his professor could help.

The conversation that ensued led to an ongoing collaboration between Rubicon Water and the University of Melbourne, where I was working at the time.

Many conditions came together that contributed to the success of the project.

At the time I had nothing to lose, in that I was a full professor already, had research funding available and even if this problem turned out to be too hard to solve, there are worse things in life than trying and failing, as every researcher knows.

Importantly, if we succeeded, the Australian problem represented only two percent of the world’s problem, meaning there was a significant overseas market we could tap into as well. Water management is a serious issue as any World Water Development Report indicates.

The collaboration was high risk. We both were out of our comfort zones. Why would industrial water engineers work with university systems engineers? We don’t speak the same language!

But equally it was a high reward opportunity. From an academic point of view this problem had the pedigree of being hard, and modern practice, under competing interests, pointed to how difficult channel management had become.

Innovation would not come easy. The fact that there were many stakeholders didn’t make things easier.

To overcome the many obstacles, our collaboration had a champion in both industry, and in the university. We worked well together. We were willing to go the extra mile, keeping our focus on achieving tangible outcomes for all parties and celebrating together.

Government funding reduced the risk in the initial research phase. Second tier funding to do a pilot trial at scale was obtained through a partnership between government, end users and Rubicon Water making equal financial contributions.

After the successful pilot, commercial realities took over.

Even the weather conspired to help us, with an unseasonable storm demonstrating the benefits of our automated systems and accelerating their acceptance among end users.

Through a series of research grants, government trade funding, significant Rubicon Water investments, and serious university research efforts, Australia has now a world-leading technology in open channel water management which is exported around the globe and supports water sustainability worldwide.

But that success came about more through grit than by design.

Universities in Australia were not conceived to commercialise innovation, nor are they rewarded, funded or equipped to take ideas to market. Indeed by and large universities exist to create the talent pipeline to ensure society’s future prosperity.

Clearly, future talent has to be innovative, challenging the status quo and to this end research is very valuable. However, this research does not have to achieve societal impact to help shape innovative talent.

The journey from an idea to a typical technology level readiness that may be expected in a university, to a full commercial product that can be maintained in the market is not trivial.

Market success requires much more funding, and very different talent, than what is required to demonstrate a solution inside a university, as shown by the well-discussed valley of death concept in technology development.

Indeed, apart from some unicorn successes, the way from a successful research idea to market impact requires industry investment and collaboration.

Innovation in Australia would benefit from industry participating in setting the national priorities for research funding, and being at the table when funding decisions are made.

What it takes to realise market success, in full competition with the rest of the world, could be better understood by universities, and the amount of work involved in maintaining fruitful collaborations with industry.

Since 2022, Rubicon Water has been a listed company. It only took a quarter of a century.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.