Commercialisation of Innovation in Australia

The University of Melbourne EARDRUM against a backdrop of the Melbourne skyline

Earlier this month I was invited to join a discussion panel at the Melbourne Law School to discuss commercialisation of innovation, given my experiences as a founder of the Melbourne Space Program as well as my primary company, Ubiquitus Solutions. Commercially valuable research and promoting innovation are topics I feel strongly about and deal with every day in both of these organisations, but I certainly wasn’t the most experienced person in the room, considering the panel consisted of Scott Vandonkellar, CTO of Zero Latency; Phillip Catania, IT and IP Partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth; and Dr Michael Panaccio, Co-Founder of Starfish Ventures. However I was surprised when I found there were plenty of opportunities for me to really engage in the discussion featuring these venture capitalists and expert lawyers; I had a great time and I’d be happy to participate in panel discussions again in the future!

After the event a lot of people expressed interest in what I had to say, so I figured I’d publish the transcript. If I wasn’t on the panel myself I would have been taking notes from the audience, so I’d love to hear what others think!

First and foremost, I want to just say that I don’t consider myself an expert on this topic at all, but I do have some experiences that I think are worth sharing. Commercialisation of innovation is something that I do feel quite passionate about, as much as it really is a collection of buzzwords. It’s a complex topic and I feel like I only understand the surface after my experiences. I’ve only been active in the space for a couple of years and am still learning as I work to build my organisations and receive mentorship from those around me.

Last year I became masochist. I started my own business — Ubiquitus Solutions, which now has three employees and works with partner organisations to develop artificially intelligent automation systems for our clients. At the same time, I started the Melbourne Space Program (MSP) with a group of electrical engineering students with an eye to building and launching our own satellite.

The MSP should be a side hobby, but I find it can require a full time job’s worth of dedication as a founding member and Managing Director. Engineering programs tend to be very insular, but around February last year we decided we needed to expand our team, as we’d identified the need for numerous support roles beyond engineering students. In particular we needed legal members, because in Australia the legal challenges in the space sector are arguably more difficult than building the satellite itself.

Fast forward a year and we’ve grown our satellite project from a collection of 20 or so engineering students into an incorporated, not-for-profit organisation with over 100 active University of Melbourne students and alumni, with backgrounds in engineering, business, commerce, IT, education, and of course — law. What we need for a more innovative society are businesses with more diverse talents and skills.

At the MSP, our mission statement is:

… to promote innovation, technological advancement and education in support of a strong Australian aerospace sector that contributes significant social and financial value both nationally and internationally.

At the moment our primary project is building a satellite and launching it next year. Included in that is convincing organisations that sponsoring us will sufficiently benefit the sponsoring organisation. While we’re not directly in the business of commercialising what we’re working on, we are exploring business cases that we hope will lead us to running a financially sustainable organisation.

What we’re trying to do goes beyond building a satellite. We want to see novel technologies being developed by our members. One example of this is an inflatable satellite antenna developed by a group of students within our telecommunications team. This week I’ve been in talks with an international company who recently listed on the ASX who opened discussions with us on funding us in the order of multiple millions of dollars, and to join the University of Melbourne in a joint venture to make this piece of technology a commercial reality. In 18 months we’ve gone from a small student club dreaming of a satellite to an organisation that has the potential to incubate companies developing the next generation of space technology.

In late July we put on a 5 day public space festival. We wanted to increase public awareness of the MSP, establish critical bonds between all the players in the Australian space industry, and to reach out to the public. Our educational portfolio teamed up with Lego Australia and the Victorian Space Science Education Center to run engaging workshops for children and teachers. We also experimented on a new initiative I’m personally very interested in — we ran a space hackathon with a couple of twists.

The winning team, Space Freq, are a group of students from MLS, MSE and MBS. They’re proposing to develop a service that makes it easier for satellite startups in Australia to meet legal obligations. We’re helping them get the mentorship they need to develop their plan into a commercial business. As a result of this success, the MSP is currently in discussions with the CSIRO and Pollenizer on starting space company incubators in both Melbourne and Sydney.

One of the problems these commercial spin off ideas leads to is a conflict in our commitment to research. We’ve already heard expressions of concern from members who we push to publish their research results in public journals, but they fear for their ability to either protect their IP or that someone will copy the idea once it’s out there. This doesn’t seem to be an uncommon problem either, and I’ve both heard and read about this being a potential academic culture issue in Australia which has contributed to leading to our nation having such a woeful ability to turn research into commercial success.

This is the point where I’m going to defer to the opinions and experience of other panellists, but I do have some interesting experiences in this area from running my other company, Ubiquitus Solutions. At Ubiquitus, clients generally come to us to modernise their products, whether it be utilising wireless tech or using more powerful, cheaper and smaller electronics. Generally, our clients want to update their current offering with something more innovative to disrupt their competitors. It’s been interesting to see the motivations behind this. Some are driven by their desire to develop and market better products or services than the competition, but it’s also not uncommon for others to try to rely on patents to cease competition. Not through developing something novel, but by gaining patents for technology that I’d personally deem an obvious progression on previous technology. For example, adding Bluetooth to an existing device.

When we think we’ve discovered a great solution to a problem, I don’t think the first thought should be to file a patent. It should be to keep innovating to stay ahead of the curve! I’m not saying not to worry about patents at all, but save them for truly innovative and novel developments. We’re at an interesting time, where technology advances at a pace much faster than the legal system can keep up, and a new product will be superseded after 12–18 months.

This is compounded by what you see happening in booming manufacturing markets like China. By the time you’ve spent 10’s of thousands fighting one infringing company in China, another 10 will emerge. The only way to combat this particular issue is to have a newer product ready for market by the time others have developed replicas.

To me, patents should never be the end goal. They should be a secondary safeguard where appropriate, if significant research and development has occurred resulting in a really novel and desirable solution. We need to find the line between protecting novel developments from simply being copied and inviting a collaborative culture for a thriving and competitive economy. This extends from not only individuals being afraid to discuss ideas and projects they’re working on with others, but companies and organisations working together too.

Finally, I want to quickly touch on the topic of failure — it’s a hot topic when talking about innovation because it usually stirs up thoughts of multi-billion dollars ‘overnight success’ stories, but the reality is most businesses and most startups fail, but to fail is not a bad thing and not a thing we should be scared of. We need to encourage everyone to seek out innovation in whatever they’re doing, because of the value it adds, potentially both financially and socially. It might be developing the next bionic ear. It might be developing a prototype law bot as a first point of contact for new clients at your law firm, which you predict will save lawyers 20 hours a week.

Innovative ideas are one thing, but innovation to add significant value is another, and is what makes commercialisation of innovation difficult. Running a startup project is really a series of scientific like experiments, where you’re desperately trying to identify the right innovative solution that your target market will find valuable enough to want, with a limited amount of time and money. And if everyone practices finding valuable, innovative solutions to problems they encounter then the world will be all the better for it.

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