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Unis reject merger plan in Jay's innovation shakeup

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Premier Jay Weatherill appears on a crash course with the state’s three universities as he embarks on a plan to restructure the way they commercialise their research, consolidating Adelaide, Flinders and UniSA under a remodelled BioSA.

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The institutions today poured cold water on a proposed merger of their commercialisation arms, with all three defending their innovation record amid a terse backlash at an independent report that concluded SA had failed to capitalise on its tertiary research endeavours.

Weatherill revealed to InDaily last month, in the midst of a tour of General Motors facilities in Detroit, that his Government had “undertaken a very substantial exercise” around an innovation revolution, with a policy to be detailed in the June state budget.

“There are substantial resource implications, but the guts of it is making sure we’ve got strong innovation policy, making sure our institutions such as BioInnovation SA are somewhat reformed to play the role they need to play, that we get research ideas out of our universities and making sure we can commercialise them,” he said.

On his return, he revealed the inspiration for his agenda, an independent Implementation Plan for an SA Commercialisation Fund prepared for the Government by Redfire Consulting Group.

“It criticises the universities, it criticises the State Government and a number of our programs [but] we are favourably disposed to a number of its recommendations, which we’ll outline in the budget,” Weatherill said at the time.

The report was headlined by a $50 million venture capital fund to assist emerging tech firms, but also recommended the tertiary sector’s commercialisation efforts be merged under the control of BioSA to ensure “the universities will be more closely and better linked into industry and investors”.

The review highlighted a broad failure of universities in commericalising their research, with technology transfer offices (TTOs) struggling to employ staff “with the required skills to licence IP or to spin-out companies” and “under-resourcing, typically because TTOs do not breakeven and many universities are uncomfortable with this”.

It also suggested problems arose in the sector more broadly because of “university management interfering in commercial matters” and having “a lack of commitment [and] a poor grasp of what constitutes success for internal and external stakeholders”.

The report advocates the Government “encourages consolidation of the local universities’ commercialisation arms and the commercialisation of SAHMRI research” – a recommendation Weatherill’s comments suggest he favours.

“The broad thrust of the direction of this report we support,” he said.

“There are criticisms of the way in which universities commercialise their work… they’re all things we need to have discussions with the universities about.

“We don’t run the universities, they’re independent organisations, so we need to have a conversation with them… but this is the start of the conversation.”

But it could turn out to be a short discussion, with all three universities reacting tersely to the suggestion their commericalisation arms should be merged.

Flinders University Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Robert Saint says while that institution encourages the proposed increased investment in innovation, “Flinders would not favour handing over its commercialisation activities to an external body not under the control of the university”.

He questioned some aspects of the report, which he said would have “significant implications” for the state’s three main universities.

“We are far more active in this space than suggested in the report,” Saint told InDaily in a statement.

“Our commercialisation entity Flinders Partners has generated some $9 million in the value of our many spin-out companies. The Flinders New Ventures Institute is a leader in entrepreneurship training and has fostered the creation of over 100 start-up businesses.”

Saint said Flinders had “achieved many innovation successes in the period since the data quoted in this report”.

“We would be willing to work with the government to ensure that any decisions the Government makes are based on the latest information and a careful assessment of the likely effect of the proposed changes,” he said.

The University of Adelaide, meanwhile, only last month announced the appointment of a new Enterprise Director to head up a fledgling unit established to accelerate innovation and commercialisation of research.

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Adelaide Uni’s new Enterprise Director Kiara Bechta-Metti.

It noted at the time that Kiara Bechta-Metti “has more than 20 years’ experience in technology commercialisation, finance and new business creation in Australia and the US” and had worked for several Silicon Valley-based biotech firms, raised funds for start-up companies and “led the commercialisation on a wide range of technologies developed at CSIRO” over almost a decade.

A University of Adelaide spokesman told InDaily today: “The University of Adelaide supports the commercialisation agenda, and recently launched our own new commercialisation arm, Adelaide Enterprise.”

“While we are cooperating ever more closely with other universities, each has its strengths and we would not see a merger of the commercialisation offices as a priority.”

The University of South Australia, meanwhile, was only today spruiking its own new program to provide free intellectual property access for businesses engaged in partnerships with the university.

UniSA says it’s committed to “playing more than its part” in forging a new future for industry “in SA and beyond”, with a new strategic plan for the commercialisation of research.

Chief Executive Officer for UniSA Ventures Dr Stephen Rodda said there had been “clear signals” from Governments both state and federal that universities “need to lead in the innovation space”.

“At UniSA we are fortunate to have had strong connections with industry woven through our history as an institution – we’ve always been interested in supporting innovation and improved outcomes in everything from sustainable primary production, right through to best practice in education and new treatments for cancer,” Rodda said.

“The launch of our commercial operations under the new banner of UniSA Ventures represents some significant changes in how we operate, including introducing much greater flexibility around Intellectual Property and partnering.

“Our new IP principles make collaboration with the university easy to manage for companies of all sizes by removing the often criticised barriers around IP ownership and risk aversion.”

The Redfire report noted all three SA-based unis had TTOs responsible for the licencing of intellectual property developed through research efforts and formation of spin-out companies.

“Each TTO is small in comparison to TTOs in other states,” it said.

“Further, the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute currently utilises the TTO services of the three major universities, who are foundation partners.

“In our view, SA is too small for four commercialisation bodies. Moreover, it will not be possible for any TTO to organically develop the scale required to improve outcomes. Accordingly, we believe there is scope to consolidate the commercialisation efforts of the universities and SAHMRI.”

It emphasises that it refers “only to the licensing of intellectual property and the formation of spin-out companies”.

“Contract research would remain within each university,” it said.

“If the local commercialisation efforts were to be consolidated and put under the control of BioSA, there are resources available to increase BioSA’s budget by around $3 to 5 million per annum from contributions from the universities and SAHMRI to commercialisation activities.

“With a single entity responsible for commercialisation a consistent approach can be applied which will assist in the development of stronger linkages between research, industry and investors.”

The report notes, though, that “the Government has limited capacity to create this outcome”, because it requires the acquiescence of all three tertiary institutions.

“Nevertheless, the opportunity for change has a solid foundation and the potential benefits are of such significance that it is in the best interests of the major universities and Government to work together to achieve an outcome that is beneficial to all,” it concludes.

It also adds “an alternative suggestion, but not our preferred option” for a formal collaboration between all three universities, but notes: “We do have our reservations as to whether this type of model could work in SA given the rather half-hearted effort so far of the major universities to collaborate in research commercialisation.”

Weatherill has flagged a Government Innovation Statement, to be released in draft form in the lead-up to the budget.

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