Macquarie’s answer to clever collaborations
There’s no denying the benefits of collaborating with academia.
From access to cutting edge research capabilities to funding and commercialisation opportunities, much lower overheads and a ready-made workforce, the list is exhaustible.
In February 2018, Universities Australia launched its Clever Collaborations report to highlight this fact and encourage more public-private sector partnerships between university and industry. Among others, the umbrella group said although the country was lagging far behind its OECD counterparts in business-funded and business-linked research, the Australian national economy was already benefitting AU$19.4 billion a year from current partnerships.
Boosting engagement, therefore, could easily add AU$10 billion more.
Fact is, universities are not only home to some of the world’s best and brightest minds, they are also the grooming grounds for the leaders of tomorrow. Not tapping their potential would be akin to having one’s cake but choosing not to eat it.
Some of the world’s greatest innovations began at university, from the likes of Google to Facebook, not to mention the innumerable medical breakthroughs and technological discoveries that continue to power modern society.
For Macquarie University, ranked among the top 2 percent of universities in the world and one of Australia’s best, its partnerships with industry have historically resulted in developments with lasting global impact.
These include the development of WiFi technology, novel parasite detection that keeps drinking water safe and drought-resistant crops, among others.
Yes, the story of WiFi has its origins in the 54-year-old public research university in Sydney, the thriving capital of New South Wales and one of Australia’s largest cities.
What began as an idea by one Professor David Skellern, head of Macquarie’s Department of Electronics at the time, laid the very foundation upon which today’s entire computing environment is built.
As it goes, Dr Skellern teamed up with Dr Neil Weste and colleagues at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to develop a new radio-transmitting microchip that was small, reliable and economical. That chip became the building block of WiFi.
According to Dr Skellern: “What we did at Macquarie was show that it really was viable to make systems using the signaling format that could be small and economic, that would be commercially viable. We showed how to make the system practical, how to make it low-cost so that it could be in everyone’s devices – in everyone’s handheld devices and computers as it is now.”
Skellern and Weste reportedly established Radiata Communications several years later to commercialise their idea, receiving venture capital funding from telecommunications giant Cisco. In September 2000, Radiata unveiled the world’s first wireless computer chips at a trade show in Atlanta.
In 2001, Cisco bought out Radiata in a share deal worth AU$565 million and Skellern was hired as technology director of the firm’s new wireless business.
This is just one of several other groundbreaking inventions to come of Macquarie’s strong industry ties. In another, a cross-faculty team of microbiology and opto-electronics researchers from the university collaborated with Sydney Water to investigate the discovery of waterborne parasites Giardia and Cryptosporidium found in Sydney’s water.
The investigation later led to a novel detection mechanism that labelled the parasites with fluorescent markers – a technology used today throughout the world.
The university is incredibly proud of these achievements, and is at the forefront of efforts by educators across Australia to encourage such partnerships.
Industry funding of academic research can be a win-win situation, Anna Grocholsky, Macquarie’s Director of Commercialisation and Innovation pointed out in The Lighthouse, the university’s mouthpiece.
“Having access to our expertise and IP means companies can leapfrog over competitors to develop new technology. With an exclusive IP monopoly this gives them a significant return on their investment,” she says.
She pointed out that through these collaborations, companies could test out new ideas in the university’s research facilities without having to invest in building their own laboratories.
“They can have instant cross-faculty assistance and work with our researchers. In return they can acquire the exciting Intellectual Property rights that come out of the collaboration,” says Grocholsky.
In conjunction with its Clever Collaborations report last year, Universities Australia has been encouraging businesses to embark on more formal partnerships with academia. Their pitch to business? That collaborations don’t only benefit the national economy by creating thousands of new jobs – it also grows business bottom lines.
The group hopes to lift the number of businesses collaborating with universities from 16,000 to 24,000 – a 50 percent increase – an outcome it says could contribute up to AU$30 billion to the Australian economy every year.