The need for risk

Commercialising research takes years of work and risk-taking, the President and Vice-Chancellor at Monash, Professor Margaret Gardner, AO, explains.

Note: A version of this article was previously published in Science Meets Business.

In February 2015, at the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, Victoria, Professor Xinhua Wu unveiled the world's first 3D-printed jet engine.

Wu is the head of the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing (MCAM). The Centre, in collaboration with CSIRO, Deakin University and the University of Queensland, is leading initiatives to develop 3D printing and put Australia at the forefront of the global aerospace industry.

MCAM has partnered with French aerospace company Microturbo (Safran) whose work involves seeking out new manufacturing processes that make components lighter and cheaper than traditional ones, without reduction in performance. The two organisations pooled their expertise in additive manufacturing of metal to print two engines – one on display in Avalon and the other at Safran in Toulouse, France.

Bridging the gap between research and industry remains a goal for many nations, and the example of MCAM is a useful starting point for discussing the role universities could play in this.

Research and development is inherently risky, with high rates of failure. Companies are under pressure to deliver commercial returns to investors, yet the time frame for major innovations to be made often spans decades.

"Universities combine capability with tenacity – and odds are they'll still be there in 25 years."

Universities are in a position to assist industry innovation, however, because they have the capacity to apply resources to long-term projects and are willing to allow sufficient time for the process of discovery and application. They combine capability with tenacity. And while there are no guarantees, the odds are good that your university research partner will still be there in five, 10, or 25 years.

For maximum benefit, commercially and otherwise, collaborations between industry and academia should focus on building enduring relationships that go beyond a single project or contact. Ideally, these partnerships should facilitate engagement at multiple levels.

Another way to offset the risks of R&D is for universities to address problems that entire industries need to solve, consulting multiple players in those industries to uncover what the major issues are. In the case of MCAM, the need for lighter, stronger parts is common across the aerospace industry, so its relationship with Safran has been a catalyst for relationships with Airbus, Boeing and defence contractor Raytheon.

These relationships are intensely collaborative, as university researchers work with their industry partners from the very early stages of each project.

This process is a far cry from the movie trope of the lone genius scientist who spends years in the laboratory, makes a miraculous discovery and only then emerges into the daylight. It's about teams of experts investing the precious resources of time and trust for the long term – for it is from this investment that real gains will come.