Inspired by this story and armed with a small amount of government funding, Lurie improved and finalised what would later be called the ResQPUMP and the ResQPOD – two devices that increase blood flow to the heart during CPR. When using these devices, 50 per cent more patients were alive at the end of a year-long study compared to normal hand compressions.
The funding was provided through a US Government grant, aimed at bringing ideas to market. Without that timely boost, the expertise that backed these devices may have stayed put within a university and these products may have never come to be.
In Australia, our world-leading knowledge and research has spawned many new industries, new products and services that we can sell to a global marketplace. Australia has demonstrated time and again that we have the skill and the smarts to compete with the best. Just think of world-renowned names such as Cochlear, CSL and Resmed as just a few examples.
So what is stopping us from growing more of these new companies and breakthrough products?
The heart of this challenge has been addressed successfully overseas through a number of programs, like the American SBIR, and they have three things in common.
First, they address the demand-side of the equation by creating direct incentives for businesses to partner with researchers to develop cutting edge new technology.
These initiatives have long-term predictability: both the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) initiative and its counterpart the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program have been running since the 80s and 90s respectively.
And finally, they directly target small businesses, giving them a chance to innovate and grow into bigger businesses, in turn growing and diversifying the economy.
Countries like the US have a broad mix of tax-based and direct incentives for business. At the other end of the scale, Australia has used ‘indirect incentives’, with 86 per cent of our business research support effort going to the R&D Tax Incentive compared to 38 per cent for the US.
To tackle the challenge of research commercialisation, we need to shift the balance towards more direct assistance.
Education Minister Alan Tudge has released a consultation paper to hear big ideas about how universities and businesses can help fuel the economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government, universities and business will all need to do their part. As Australia’s Chief Scientist Cathy Foley said in her first major speech in the role: we need to pass the baton between each actor more smoothly and more efficiently.
Connections between university researchers and business need to be deep and close. Staff need to be able to move easily between both places, speak each other’s language, and understand mutual aims.
Government can provide the ‘patient capital’ that underpins the workforce and infrastructure needed for basic and applied research. It can ensure that the legal frameworks, regulations, policies and programs are conducive to business growth, and to the pursuit of high-quality research.
Government can also provide the right incentives and playing field to allow the results to flow.
Australian universities need to keep pursuing both applied and basic research. And to continue their efforts to reach out to industry and make the connection points between business and universities more porous – allowing ideas and people to seamlessly travel back and forth.
When it comes to identifying the commercial potential of an idea and scaling it up for eventual launch into the marketplace — that’s where business comes in, small, medium and large. Australia, after all, is a nation of great businesses that do this all the time.
But businesses need to overcome risks, upfront costs and match with the right researchers to get hold of those great ideas and run with them.
The good news is governments around the world have been working on this for decades. And so there are examples from around the world that Australia can draw on and adapt, along with our homegrown business support programs that can be scaled up to meet the challenge.
The US small business initiative that led to Keith Lurie’s CPR innovation is a great example. Along with the complementary Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, these schemes have produced countless other companies and products.
They include 23andMe, the genetic testing start-up that provides customers with insight into their ancestry, as well as a genetic health assessment. The company is now valued at USD$3.5 billion, kickstarted by a series of government grants that tallied around USD $4.1 million. That’s growth of 850 times that initial government investment.
Our universities are some of the best in the world in research. We need to make Australia among the best in the world in the commercialisation of research.
If we can achieve that goal, we can build our national capability in a way that helps us navigate not just the current economic challenges but the economic shocks to come.
Catriona Jackson is Chief Executive of Universities Australia.
As published in The Australian on 13 April 2021.