Research to riches

Research to riches
May 2012

Venture capitalists have a term for the path from lab to marketplace: the commercialisation chasm, says Anne-Marie Birkill, co-manager of the $40 million venture capital fund OneVentures.

Being able to simplify your story to cater to different audiences is important, and not just in the elevator pitch, but in every meeting and presentation along the journey.

It’s a chasm that UQ Business School is determined to bridge. In collaboration with UniQuest, one of Australia’s leading research commercialisation companies, the school delivers advice and expertise to inventors and researchers looking to take their bright ideas to the market.

With 28 years of experience with technology start ups, UniQuest offers a rich resource of experience and expertise. There could be no better advertisement for its expertise than the launch of the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine (Gardasil), as just one example. UniQuest is benchmarked among the top ten per cent of technology transfer companies worldwide.

Students studying commercialisation at UQ Business School are working on a vast array of technologies from anti-crack aircraft paint to microalgae based biofuels, from music therapy programs to reducing arsenic contamination in copper mines. Developing an original invention is an impressive feat; but if the goal is commercialisation, it’s only the first step on a complex and perhaps risky journey. In the case of pharmaceuticals, the process can take up to ten years, and half a billion dollars in investment funds. Even an agile smartphone app may take a year to develop and a few hundred thousand dollars to get it on its way. Not that anyone counts the cost when there’s success!

“Our course is about understanding the potential commercial and non-commercial ways to get research out of the university to where it can make an impact,” explains Associate Professor Damian Hine, who has directed the program since 2007.

“Biotechnicians, engineers, students from life sciences, often in the latter stages of their PhDs, learn about doing deals, pitching to venture capitalists, even how to recognise what technology and intellectual property might make it in the marketplace. They get hands-on experience working with inventors, startups and managers to help them develop their strategies.”

“We take a pathways approach,” explains Hine, “outlining the steps towards commercialisation, and giving every student real life experience of each step – and access to experts along the way. “Students get insight into a broad range of practical skills,” he explains. A simple example is communication. Often university researchers find it difficult to talk in lay terms about their specialist area. They are too technical to make sense to people outside the lab. “Being able to simplify your story to cater to different audiences is important,” says Hine, “and not just in the elevator pitch, but in every meeting and presentation along the journey.

“The way you talk to a person in finance is different to the way you talk to a person in your own technology field. You have to pitch properly,” agrees OneVentures’ Anne-Marie Birkill, who guest lectures on the program. “Courses like this give people the language to be able to communicate to different audiences.”

There are many enthusiastic and satisfied students. William Ha is part way through his course. A dentist, Ha is finishing his M.Phil in dental biometrics. In his Easter break last year, Ha created an iphone app to help dentists calculate prescription drug dosages. With the help of a software engineer the app was built within a week and on the market within a month. While it has had a good reception in Australia, insights from the course are helping Ha understand how to better assess the efficacy of his product, and how to improve his approach to market.

“The app didn’t go down well in the US because they use different drug formulations. So it got low ratings. I’ve upgraded it to match US prescribing patterns, but the original ratings continue to hinder uptake.”

“With what I know now, I should have figured that the US is the biggest market and tailored it to the US and had a bigger release. I could have released the app at a cheaper price then raised it.”

So far, Ha’s app has made him and his friend $2500 each, with a steady income of $200 a month. “We’re not about to quit our day jobs,” he notes. Students get sound feedback from industry experts. Venture capitalist Anne-Marie Birkill provides students with insights into the mind – and the wallets if they’re lucky – of the venture capital community.

She is a realist: “We have a real shortage of availability of venture capital funds in this country. It’s not good anywhere, and in Australia it’s pretty dire,” she explains. “And the commercialisation chasm between the research and development effort and eventual success is about money. The money to take these ideas forward is very scarce.

Government schemes like the Innovation Investment Fund (IIF) help stimulate investment in venture capital, but it took a big hit from the GFC.
“In a world where super funds and other institutional investors are constrained in how much they can invest in this asset class at the moment, because their overall fund has depleted, we need continued government support to ensure this industry recovers.”

More than 200 higher degree students have completed the graduate certificate since it began five years ago. But it’s not just about Phd research and Masters programs. UQ Business School runs a series of successful short programs attracting inventors and researchers from around the world. A particularly successful relationship has been formed with a number of Latin American institutions.

David Chang was sent to UQ Business School by Ecuador’s top university, ESPOL (Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral), to study research commercialisation. Since his return home, he has developed a technology commercialisation company at ESPOL, Inventio, modeled on UniQuest; formed a new innovators’ community, IDEA; and accelerated his start-up production company, KMareta Creative Studio.

One of Chang’s top lessons from the UQ Business School program was that “innovation is an invention that creates value.” William Ha’s take-aways focus on the practical. “I know other researchers who have created something innovative, but they felt the steps to commercialise were too arduous and complex so they didn’t bother. I have learnt how to build connections with industry and negotiate with those connections so that someone else can commercialise the research while you can still make money in your salaried job.”

“It’s one thing to have a great idea, it’s another turning it into a business. Research students start with ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ The course taught me to ask: ‘who cares?’ It puts a spin on research that makes it relevant. Without that spin your research could go to waste.”