Big Research Ideas @ Work Awards | Innovations

Big Research Ideas @ Work Awards

Big Research Ideas @ Work Awards

Updated 20 February 2012, 22:21 AEDT

The winner was Sean O'Byrne from the University of NSW @ ADFA.

But, while winners are grinners, how do you get your product to market?

DESLEY BLANCH : While Paul Barclay was in Canberra, five up-and-coming researchers from the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales@ADFA, that's the Australian Defence Force Academy, they did battle for the ACT Big Research Ideas @ Work Awards. The winner was Sean O'Byrne from the University of NSW@ADFA.

Here's his brief pitch.

SEAN O'BYRNE : My research idea is a for a laser-based sensor that will measure what comes out of the exhaust of cars and other trucks and other vehicles. At the moment, your car or other vehicle will have an oxygen sensor in it and that is a fairly slow sensor that can tell you something about how your car is operating, but it will not necessarily tell you all that you need to know to keep your car running as efficiently as possible.

The laser sensor that I and my research group at UNSW@ADFA are developing will allow a vehicle to tell you exactly what the mixture of emissions is coming from your car, so that you can keep your car operating as well as possible, that is the basic idea.

PAUL BARCLAY : Then can I just ask you -- obviously you've been listening with interest to what the panel has been saying about the challenges, difficulties of taking an idea from the university level, making money out of it in the commercial world. Did that resonate with you the idea that you can come up with the idea, but the skills you then need to take it forward are an altogether different kettle of fish?

SEAN O'BYRNE : Yes, absolutely. I mean as academics, we are all really enthusiastic and interested about innovating and getting our ideas out there to help the community. I think we all see that as part of our job. But the difficulty is that as academics, we spend most of our time learning how to do the research and learning how to teach our students. All of these things are time consuming and are demands upon our time to. So there is a sort of difficulty with how much of my resources, my personal resources can I devote to these things as well as doing the other parts of my job.

PAUL BARCLAY : Sean O'Byrne says he is having trouble at the University of New South Wales at ADFA attracting Australian PhD students to work in what he regards as an interesting and cutting edge field.

SEAN O'BYRNE : I should mention that the work that I just talked about before is a direct result of some other work that we are doing with a consortium called the Scram Space Project, to put a Scram jet into the upper atmosphere and our part at UNSW@ADFA is to develop a laser sensor for that and that's exactly the same technology that we're trying to transfer.

And just recently, we advertised for a PhD position in that area and from my point of view as an academic; PhD students are the power house behind innovation in universities, there is no question about that. They produce a lot of great ideas and we advertise this position and I got 25 candidates or so in total, but none of them were from Australia and this is a cause of some concern for me, because I see it as engineering and science as being a tremendous sort of career to get into.

There is a tremendous amount of opportunity and I would imagine, maybe I am naive. But when I first came up to it, I thought, here I have a project where you get to put a laser on an aircraft that will fly in the upper atmosphere at ten times the speed of sound. I thought there would be people beating the doors down. Part of the problem is at ADFA, our undergraduates cannot do PhDs for research, because they are in the Armed Forces, but the fact that I got responses, but didn't get Australian students was of some concern to me.

PAUL BARCLAY : Sean O'Byrne. The other finalists for the award were Andrew Nearly, Robert Acland, Glenn Bann and Stewart Ramsden whose entry was a mathematical puzzle or educational toy called Infini-tiles.

Margaret Sheil, Murray Rankin and David Gemmell were the judges for the Big Research Ideas @ Work Awards. So what are these young inventors up against in the real world to get their product into the marketplace?

David Gemmell.

DAVID GEMMELL : In the real world they are up against finding partners to take their product forward. If you take Infini-tiles which is appealing esthetically, it's well thought out. There is probably very little wrong with the prototype as something that you can take to market. However, you have got to be able to get that product into the market. I'm quite sure that the team are very clever engineers and have thought this out very well, however I don't think they know too much about the toy industry in Australia and I am sure they have not been to any toy fairs. So they have to find partners to take this forward or they have to create an organisation. Creating an organisation is very expensive and probably the cheapest way is to find partners.

These are the choices that have to be made by any inventor. Do I want to run a business or do I want to continue inventing? I do some mentoring work and at the moment, I have just of the five companies I have been working with, I've persuaded two of them not to be companies, but just to do what they do really well which is inventions and then license what they've created to other people and get the revenue flowing into their inventing houses, become as Edison seemed to do quite well, within his day.

PAUL BARCLAY : Yeah. Murray, any thoughts?

MURRAY RANKIN : The biggest challenge I think is that you've got an idea in various forms, some are more tangible than others at the moment. The biggest challenge I think is now for the guys to really sit down and think and put the strategy hat on and think about what route to market they are going to take to get it there.

And the reason I say that is because, when you sit down and start thinking about, there's many, many paths you can get to that definition of success, whatever your definition of success is, and quite often you'll find (and this comes from the school of hard knocks), is that the initial route to market that you think is right and you invest in, may not necessarily be the one that you end up following once you get into the marketplace, find partners, find alternate ways that are the lines of least resistance etc. Because there are smart ways and there are hard ways and looking for the people that can help you do that, the mentors and the networks and that can do that is the answer to that challenge.

PAUL BARCLAY : We'll just wrap up with you Margaret, We mentioned earlier that one form of funding ARC provides is linkage funding where you have an industry partner. Can that help with commercialising research, having that industry partner from the beginning?

PROFESSOR MARGARET SHEIL : Absolutely, yes, and if they have got the commercial expertise, I mean the most successful linkage grants are where you have an industry partner, they have got the commercial expertise, they recognise that there's some inventive and research expertise that they need and they get together from the very early stages and work together to take something forward.

PAUL BARCLAY : Another challenge is for the universities themselves maintaining the ownership of the intellectual property that results from the research they fund and how they do that. A very important case for universities has just been resolved earlier this year, the Gray case, Dr Bruce Gray, was a former professor with the University of Western Australia. He developed a cancer treatment technology while at the university. It's now being developed by a medical company he founded. A lot of money has been made as a result of it. The university tried to claim some of the profits from that cancer treatment, was unsuccessful in the courts.

Are there implications for universities out of a case like this in terms of maintaining some of the potential profit stream from the research they fund?

PROFESSOR MARGARET SHEIL : There is. I mean without commenting on the individual case, as I said there has been a major effort in recent years to form key partnerships with university commercialisation officers so that you do have the intellectual property managed correctly from the beginning that your staffing policy, your employment policies all need to look at issues such as this, so they are all aligned.

And the other important thing I think universities need to do is to create incentives for academics and rewards of the sorts of academics that are interested in going with a commercial partner, so it is not just about getting an ARC grant. There are other ways you can contribute from your researcher and the universities need to value that.

DESLEY BLANCH : Professor Margaret Sheil from the Australian Research Council wrapping up Innovations for this week. And if you would like to revisit the story, just go to the web site where you can download the program, listen online or read a transcript.

DESLEY BLANCH : Until next week, I'm Desley Blanch saying bye for now.

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