Collaboration in the Age of Innovation Briefing

University and industry partnerships

24 July 2017

Professor Wilkinson talked about the strategic partnership with Cochlear founded on the long-term aspiration that the relationship will last for 100 years. ‘The university is not going anywhere, and babies are being born now (needing hearing implants) who will live 100 years.’

Janssen described Cochlear as ‘still a start-up’ after 35 years and it spends a significant amount on R&D. Cochlear is based on the Macquarie campus, and Janssen said that, as a company continually reinventing itself, being on campus opens up the possibility of a whole lot of other collaborations, such as with the business school.

Conlon said that, for Optus, it was very important to have a relationship with the universities, largely Macquarie, because Optus has no R&D capability so partnering is how they innovate. ‘We are working with the uni on R&D . . . it’s about delivering mutual value.’

When asked about the difficulties for business of working with universities, Conlon said that governance was an issue. ‘We need to look at creative ways to get around procurement because it stymies innovation. Procurement guidelines have dragged us back.’ Understanding each others’ realities was considered an important step.

Janssen noted that research funding in universities was too individualistic so there was no incentive to collaborate. ‘It’s too much about the individual, rather than the team. Unis need to make researchers realise that innovation happens when they work together – and the younger unis often do it better.’

A question from the floor noted that Israel was good at selling the story of the benefits of university and business collaboration. Conlon, who had recently been on an AICC trade mission to Israel, agreed and said she had come to understand the power of the narrative. She also referred to the Israeli army experience where 18 and 19 year-olds are managing teams, setting them up for industry leadership.

The red tape involved in bringing international talent to Australia was also seen as a problem. Janssen said he wouldn’t be here without a 457 visa, and Professor Wilkinson conceded that the 457 visa was an example of policy gone wrong.

Professor Wilkinson said that the speed of innovation in China meant that it would be a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ Australia will become irrelevant. Conlon said that she had noticed a lot of Chinese in Israel, presumably seeking out the ‘next big thing’ from a country famed for its innovation. She talked about hearing stories of Chinese walking the streets of Israel, asking if anyone had a startup they could invest in.

Janssen said that in the last week, Cochlear had announced it was establishing a research and manufacturing centre in China, not because they want to move out of Australia, but because they want access to the huge Chinese market. The Chinese government has just announced funding for 4,000 hearing implants, a significant number given Cochlear’s worldwide sales of 30,000. ‘China will become the largest market.’

Asked if the teaching of knowledge was still necessary in universities, Janssen said that it was, because students need the skill to filter the important from the unimportant. ‘You need to be unconsciously competent’. Professor Wilkinson believed that both core knowledge and soft skills – such as communications, critical thinking and working in a team – are necessary. But he said that students really learn when they are in the workforce and that’s the value of placements and internships.

Conlon said that universities need to be agile and should have better digital engagement with their students who are very savvy these days.