The benefits of university-industry collaborations reach well beyond the classroom
It’s well established how collaboration between academia and commercial business can benefit both parties.
Not only do university students get priceless exposure to industry, but private enterprise gain access to some of the great thinkers in any subject area, use of the university’s cutting-edge resources, and access to new graduate talent, not to mention sharing the costs of a project.
Less attention, however, is given to how valuable these university collaborations are for wider society. Many have significant impact on the community in which they are developed. And some even go on to change the world, quite literally.
Going far beyond just a good business decision, some collaborations save lives, preserve our environment, and change our very understanding of how the world works.
Many of the world’s most ground-breaking inventions have been developed in the bosom of academia. Not surprising given that many universities are embracing an incubator mentality and championing entrepreneurship, making them hubs of innovation.
When this drive and ambition turns its focus to the greater good, real social impact can made.
The work of Dr Mathew Upton at University of Plymouth is a prime example of how such university collaborations can have truly global implications.
“Our collaboration with Ingenza and the National Physical Laboratory could deliver globally significant health benefits, tackling antibiotic resistance,” Dr Upton told NCUB.
“Ours is a unique consortium and extremely well-placed to take forward joined-up discovery, development and manufacture in ways which have not been done before.”
In collaboration with the UK’s premier industrial biotechnology company, Ingenza Ltd, Dr Upton’s team is working to tackle what the World Health Organisation has called “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.”
Solving the threat of antibiotic resistance could prove humanity-saving.
According to the O’Neill Review, antimicrobial resistance could cost the world U$100 trillion by 2050 and account for 10 million deaths a year, with drug resistant infections killing more people than cancer.
Through the collaboration, Dr Upton and his team of researchers have developed a new antimicrobial agent, epidermicin, which has unique and potent activity against MRSA, a leading pathogen causing infections in the community and in hospital patients.
Upton believes this success is owed in large part to the good working relationship with Ingenza.
“Working with Ingenza has progressed our research to a new level,” he said.
“Ingenza has an excellent and highly collaborative approach. We feel this cooperation has been more productive than the kind of relationship we could have realised with other companies, who might have attempted this work as a service contract.”
Curing antibiotic resistance is a fairly clear result. One that no one can argue doesn’t make the world a better place. But there are also less obvious ripple benefits that arise from university collaborations that may not be talked about in medical journals or be found gracing the cover of Scientific American.
Trickle down benefits of university collaborations
Beyond the main objective of a project, there is a ripple effect from a well-planned collaboration that leaves a lasting mark on the community.
In the case of RMIT University’s project with Melbourne Water, there were “heaps of jobs” produced as a result of the collaboration.
“Especially for young environmental scientists, there have been a lot of opportunities here,” RMIT University Professor of Ecotoxicology, Dayanthi Nugegoda, told U2B.
“We’re just finalising more appointments now and that’s really thanks to Melbourne Water coming to the party with this collaboration… They [new employees] are key to the future, so RMIT has also created a lot of jobs and opportunities because of this partnership.”
According to new modelling by Cadence Economics, in Australia alone, formal collaborations between Australian businesses and universities have created an estimated extra 30,000 full-time jobs across the country, in addition to the 120,000 jobs directly supported by the university sector.
This experience is shared by Professor Craig Baillie of University of Southern Queensland (USQ) whose Agricultural team of researchers has partnered up with leading manufacturer, John Deere.
Baillie explains that the project itself has required the team to take on new graduates and PhD students to assist with the research.
“It’s a really good opportunity for early career researchers to get exposure to a large company,” Baillie told U2B.
The USQ researchers are looking at new intelligence-based technologies and solutions for the agricultural industry to deliver real value to farmers and change the way primary producers look at land management and production.
Helping the little guy – globally
The project is part of a larger Master Research Agreement with John Deere that has produced a lasting relationship between the university and the international business. Their work so far has helped increase farm productivity, and develop the next generation of agricultural technology, including machine automation and control such as driverless tractors.
Undoubtedly a worthy cause and important research, but USQ’s partnership with John Deere allows it to go one step further. Not only are they able to help farmers in their state, but they can now reach a global audience and effect change on a much larger scale.
“We’re looking to commercialise some technology we’ve developed independently, but we’re using John Deere to commercialise that technology… that wouldn’t happen without the partnership,” Baillie said.
“It allows us to hand over research that we’ve developed in the industry to the largest tractor manufacturer in the world to be able to then commercialise that.
“Tapping into the John Deere network means we can basically have product anywhere in Australia serviced by John Deere dealership, as well as anywhere in the world.”
Getting valuable research to the people who need it
The partnership has given the USQ team a way to get their valuable research and new technologies “into the hands of the farmers,” as Baillie puts it, allowing the expertise to flow to the very people who need it.
Nugegoda of RMIT calls it finding a “home” for their research. It’s getting the knowledge out of the lab and doing some good out in the real world. After all, there’s no point having the world’s brightest minds working on a problem to then not implement their solutions.
“As a university, we’re always doing important research but it’s very hard to team with what is required externally if industry keeps to themselves,” Nugegoda said. This is especially true in Nugegoda’s field of environmental pollution, as many companies want to avoid the scrutiny of their environmental policies – or lack thereof.
“But Melbourne Water has proven they are very concerned with keeping the Melbourne aquatic ecosystems clean,” according to Nugegoda.
Saving the environment
Melbourne Water – a government-owned statutory authority that controls much of the water system in Melbourne, Australia – is the partner in RMIT’s new AU$5 million (US$3.6 million) collaboration working to combat pollution in Australia’s waterways and bays.
The collaboration – started in July – will run for five years and focuses on “keeping the Melbourne wetlands and rivers clean, keeping the ecosystems healthy, and keeping the Australian native biota happy.”
Nugegoda explains that it wasn’t long ago that her department, in particular, was viewed by some as being “against industry” given the work they do exploring environmental pollution. But there has been a dramatic shift in recent years.
“Organisations like Melbourne Water really understand that it’s very important to work with researchers so we can do the work that keeps the environment clean as well as provide information so if anything like a spill takes place we are on the spot and we can look at what the repercussions are and really do a proper risk assessment rather than just modelling everything.”
University collaborations also open up doors for important research that otherwise wouldn’t have access to the required resources.
Given the finite amount of government funding, business can be vital in propping up the coffers and keeping important research and innovation projects alive.
This is far from charity. It’s an investment that pays for itself several times over.
Cadence Economics confirms that formal collaborations between Australian businesses and universities generate an additional AU$10.6 billion (US$7.6 billion) in revenue for those companies who partner with universities.
The benefits to national economy are even greater with these university collaborations adding an estimated AU$19.4 billion (US$13.9 billion) a year to Australia’s income.
The injection to the economy means the nation as a whole is better off as a result, not to mention the cleaner environment, better medical care, and more reliable food supply that literally makes the world a better place.
As Nugegoda simply puts it, “if we partner with industry, we can really make a difference.”