Surely the commercialisation of our world-class R&D is in the public interest. So why do we circle warily around the intellectual property that is created? Rowan Gilmore explores this faux siege.
I enjoy telling the story about one of our first Commercialisation Bootcamps, a two-day professional development program run by the Australian Institute for Commercialisation (AIC). The purpose of the program is not to turn researchers into commercial gurus; rather, it is to begin the cultural change in research organisations so researchers become aware of the value that may be hidden in their intellectual property (IP), how to manage it, and to learn what’s needed for that value to be realised. Our instructor became concerned when only two researchers from this ‘public good’ CRC showed up on the first morning, so with the business development manager, she pulled the others from their books and computers to grumpily assume their seats in the workshop.
“So what’s good about commercialisation?” she asked. After about five minutes, there were perhaps two bullet points on the whiteboard. “OK, what’s wrong with commercialisation?” Within no time, the board was full of red ink. It was clear that commercialisation was under siege. Their view was that protected IP was locked off from the community, and that one or two companies would quarantine research for their own monopolistic purposes and prevent the free dissemination of research that might otherwise save the world.
Fortunately, by the end of the workshop, most of the researchers had come around. Many agreed that commercialisation could in fact provide a sustainable route to the community for research that might otherwise lie unapplied and undiscovered, remote from the public it was supposed to serve.
The AIC also started to receive calls from a few scientists working at medical research institutions. They had been denied competitive grant funding for their research by peer review panels, apparently because of their poor publication records. The reason? These eminent researchers had been otherwise busy, translating the results of their research into clinical practice, trying to translate their research into real bedside outcomes. Their pursuit of clinical practice and implementing their research had lost them publication momentum, and apparently cost them dearly.
Who would have expected the austere and very dry Productivity Commission to be cautious about commercialisation in its March 2007 report into Public Support for Science and Innovation? To the relief of most of the research community, the Commission economists concluded that strong rationales for public funding support of research did exist, and that such support produces sizeable benefits.
But the report also found problems in commercialisation and knowledge diffusion mechanisms – many of them identified by the AIC in its own submissions to the Commission. It went on to argue that public funding of ‘commercialisation’ was less justified than it was for funding the basic research itself, because the economic benefits from ‘commercialisation’ tended to be captured by more confined interests – those companies that commercialised the intellectual property. In other words, although ‘commercialisation’ is laudable, public support for it needs to be carefully balanced.
While such an argument applies to almost any policy initiative, ‘commercialisation’ has become too narrowly constrained, for it ignores the numerous other diffusion mechanisms by which research is translated to an outcome – for instance, through clinical practice in the case of medicine, or research consultancy for engineering. Who would argue, for instance, against supporting the commercial application of research that could control the spread of bird flu to humans, or reduce rising sea levels caused by climate change, or limit the devastation of a terrorist’s bomb? That’s commercialisation.
Too frequently, commercialisation is assumed to be of patented IP, neatly packaged on a shelf and ready to apply. In fact, most IP is intangible know-how and requires considerable nurture, finance, and risk to make it market-ready. It requires a proof-of-concept, market research, packaging, and distribution to use. We view commercialisation as a broad spectrum of activities in which research, knowledge or ideas do not always sit on the shelf waiting to be exploited by a monopolistic company.
Commercialisation is an activity where know-how and ideas are practically applied to successfully create value in the marketplace. Or, as one of our programs puts it, taking “ideas to market”. Such a broad view of commercialisation is one entirely consistent with the public good and one where the public also benefits from the knock-on effects of vibrant and creative businesses that are spawned.
Perhaps the siege is only a mental barrier. Australia needs more, not less, commercialisation of its research and ideas. Let’s knock this siege down.
Dr Rowan Gilmore is CEO of the Australian Institute for Commercialisation which helps businesses, research organisations and governments increase the success rate of commercialising Australian innovation.