Conducting research that creates, adapts or reapplies new technologies to meet the shifting demands of industry and society is critical to both Australia’s economic and societal prosperity. Will Venn takes a look at the new UniSA research institute which has ambitiously set out to create our future industries.

Where once universities were stereotyped as ivory towers occupied by a somewhat academic elite, today they are increasingly viewed as hotbeds of new thinking and new knowledge, with the research and talent strong enough to kick-start new innovative industries and boost beleaguered economies. 

Identifying, creating and growing new enterprises in the wake of declining manufacturing industries is not without its challenges; chiefly, how to align institutional research agendas with the commercial demands of industry and the needs of wider society.

Tim Mazzarol, of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Management and Innovation (CEMI), suggests that bridging the divide between academic and industry communities, between different systems of reward, timing, and measures of success, requires a change of mindset on both sides.

“It will also require an adjustment to the way in which academics are rewarded and how they and their institutions perceive their role within the national economy,” Mazzarol says.

Rising to meet the challenge of working in step with industry is exactly what UniSA’s new Future Industries Institute (FII) has set out to do. Leading the charge is FII director, Professor Emily Hilder, who also talks in similar terms of mindset change.

“A shift in thinking about how we interact with industry is required, but also how we measure impact and direction in industry. One of the bigger challenges for universities is that we judge everything on traditional measures of research excellence and we don’t have enough alternative reward that can be provided to individual academics for behaving differently,” Prof Hilder says. 

Understanding the big picture and how to meet challenges posed by industry means keeping pace with industry. Developing industry connections and having the transformational infrastructure necessary to build collaboration will be embedded in FII’s culture, according to Prof Hilder. 

“Everyone is talking about academic-industry collaboration at the moment; what’s important is how we change our way of thinking, so we’re listening to what challenges and opportunities arise from industry and end users, and are more able to engage with them as changes occur,” she says. 

“The perception is that industry works on a timescale that’s not compatible with academic research because the needs of industry may change rapidly. For example, if commodity prices change or the value of the dollar rises or falls. There are economic factors that will alter industry priorities, but I don’t think this is incompatible with academic research.

“If we think about it in terms of grand challenges and what may drive an industry to grow or move in an entirely different direction, then we’re working on similar timeframes and also working in a way that will make the biggest impact.

“The traditional academic approach is not the only approach that works in terms of driving strong positive outcomes in the university environment. We have an opportunity here to be a leader in this space. It’s a difficult challenge but we have the right team and attitude to do it.” 

Researchers at the Institute are already demonstrating, with real-world applications of research in areas such as nanotechnology, how FII can and is connecting cutting-edge research with industry practice.  

Making use of the impressive infrastructure at FII for material characterisation and fabrication is Biomaterials Engineering and Nanomedicine Strand Leader, Professor Nico Voelcker, who is examining the intricate ways in which nanoscale materials interact with human cells and tissues. 

“This fundamental science has led to discoveries with exciting applications in the health sector,” Prof Voelcker says.

“For example, in collaboration with Australian biotechnology companies, we are developing biosensors which are able to detect biomarkers in body fluids including blood, saliva and sweat.

“These biomarkers can indicate the early onset of disease, they can turn a wound dressing into a smart dressing that changes colour if an infection is present, and they can even tell if a driver is under the influence of an illicit substance.”

Interest in this new technology comes from diverse quarters including multinational biotechnology company Perkin Elmer and the Australian Federal Police. 

Together with the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Convergent BioNano Science and Technology, Prof Voelcker and his team are also developing nanoparticles that can selectively deliver anti-cancer drugs to solid tumours, thereby avoiding the side effects of traditional cancer treatments such as radiation therapy, and boosting the efficiency of anti-tumour therapy. 

Fostering this type of industry engagement and building an entrepreneurial research culture are high priorities for Prof Hilder, who is well-versed in the creation, adaption and reapplication of new technologies to meet the shifting demands of industry and society.  

As Director of the ARC Training Centre for Portable Analytical Separation Technologies and Head of Chemistry at the University of Tasmania, Prof Hilder focused her research on the design and application of new polymeric materials for use in a wide range of industrial settings.  

“For the past 20 years I’ve worked closely with industry on a lot of projects; it hasn’t been applied research, as such, but more using industry as a source of inspiration for the grand challenges we are trying to solve,” Prof Hilder says.

After gaining her PhD in Tasmania, Prof Hilder travelled to Austria as a visiting scholar at Johannes Kepler University, within the Institute of Analytical Chemistry.  

Then, as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, Prof Hilder worked on a range of projects, including – in the wake of 9/11 – the creation of a portable analyser for chemical and biological warfare agents.

“When I came back to Tasmania I was involved in some counter-terrorism projects. The work was an Australian Government response after the Bali bombings in 2002. This resulted in changes in technology used for the detection and analysis of improvised explosives in Australia. It was work that linked with my experience in the US and my PhD study, and it’s a good example of how things connect,” she says.

“The way all these things folded into place meant realising the potential of technology in different ways. 

“In all the projects I have worked on around disease diagnosis and drug analysis, the common theme is the development of new technologies that can improve analytical systems. Through this we’ve been able to develop a range of different technologies that have resulted in commercial products, and this is where the industry link has been important.” 

When reflecting on FII, where nearly all of the research conducted is classed as ‘well above world standard’ according to the 2015 Excellence in Research for Australia evaluation, Prof Hilder stresses thet international collaboration also plays a critical role in the development of the Institute. 

“International connections are essential – it is recognised we live in a global environment, and connections, like the partnership agreement with University College London (UCL) are extremely important for the research we’ll be doing and the students and researchers we are training,” she says. 

The UCL partnership will see a program of teaching and research collaboration between FII and the UCL Faculty of Engineering, including the establishment of five-year Foundation Research Fellows.

“We are hoping that FII will inspire students and researchers to undertake challenge-led research and improve their skills in a whole range of areas, including entrepreneurship and industry engagement,” Prof Hilder says. 

“Most of our graduates enter careers well away from the university environment but here there will be a real opportunities to train graduates and have staff who are better prepared to make that transition between academia and private enterprise and back again within their careers.”

Find out more at the Future Industries Institute website.
Connect with Prof Emily Hilder: @HilderEmily
Connect with Prof Nico Voelcker: @NicoVoelcker