David Thodey explores the challenges of science and business collaboration, and how we are tackling them.

CSIRO chairman David Thodey says he experienced the challenges of engaging the research sector during his years as CEO of Telstra. (Getty Images)

Australia is a smart nation. We are a sport-loving people; a sunburnt country – the home of a fair-go. We may be “mates” but sadly, we are not naturally good collaborators. Maybe it is our sweeping plains and the tyranny of distance, but compared with other nations – and yes, most of them more densely populated than ours – our best and brightest in science and industry do not have a strong record of working together.

In the Global Innovation Index 2017 we saw Australia slip four places to 23rd in the world overall, based on 30th place for outputs and commercialisation, 52nd for innovation linkages and 48th for knowledge absorption. Innovation is not an issue, we excel at it. It’s connection in the innovation ecosystem that needs our focus.

I am grateful to have been chair of the CSIRO for just over 18 months now, and every day I am amazed at the quality and breadth of the work our scientists do. Just in the past few months, our scientists have detected the first “fast radio bursts” in space, they have also pioneered a new way to transport energy from hydrogen and they have assessed the science behind popular fasting diets. This is only a taste of what our scientists and the broader science community does every day.

But the longer I have been here, the more I have come to understand the challenges of embedding more of our great science into your busy lives. In my years leading Telstra, we made numerous attempts to engage the research sector, so I already knew the challenges on the business side, but now I see from both sides that the worlds of business and science are not always aligned.

At Telstra, we were often looking to collaborate on a new technology or emerging opportunity in the market for some commercial outcome – and this did not always align with the research interests of the University or faculty. Additionally, we were looking for a long-term relationship with the University or faculty – and often that was difficult for them as it was highly dependent on an individual Professor or Dean whether the relationship was established and continued. That is difficult for a large corporation.

In our case, we’re evolving from a more traditional “at the bench” model for science and making a concerted effort, through our latest strategy, to merge innovation with business. We have implemented a “customer first” focus, meaning we are encouraging our scientists to do more of the thinking around how their work can be tailored to meet a specific need, or a specific market. The strategy equally prioritises our role as a “collaboration hub”, so with each of our initiatives you’ll see a strong presence from our partners, including universities, industry, government and the community.

It is critical for Australian science to know its value in order to effectively market to industry, secure partnerships and accelerate the delivery of innovation. In the spirit of “know thyself” we recently commissioned an independent review of the impact and value delivered to the economy and the innovation system by investment in the organisation.

Based on 28 case studies (of the approximately 3000 underway), the estimated present value of benefits from our work is approximately $3.2 billion per year. This is almost three times the total annual budget and more than four times the funding provided by the Australian government, providing an estimated return of more than 5:1.

We are working closely with many of our corporate partners to strengthen every stage of Australia’s innovation pipeline. For example, we partner with BHP Billiton on an annual science competition for high school students who initiate their own science investigations. This year’s winner invented a composting process for cocoa bean shells, and her IP has been chosen by  Haigh’s chocolates – and she’s only 16 years old. A little further along the education journey, we are working on a new PhD program in partnership with universities and industry to give more science PhDs exposure to industrial challenges before they complete their study and head into the workforce.

In addition to partnerships to drive up Australia’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) capabilities, we have also introduced a range of new initiatives to boost our industry engagement. Our ON accelerator takes our best ideas from benchtop to beta, with an intensive, 12-week customer testing program, delivered in partnership with industry mentors. Our new CSIRO Innovation Fund will take some of those ideas from beta to buyer by investing venture capital in the most promising propositions, led by a team of investors from the international VC ecosystem.

Clearly, we believe in partnership with corporate Australia. But why should business? What value does it drive for them?

Every step we take towards making it easier to engage with Australia’s vast wealth of research talent is a step closer to delivering a better, science-driven solution to our business challenges. From the Brisbane dentist whose idea for a sleep apnoea solution is now a global business thanks to our manufacturing team through to the board of directors whose strategy is informed by the deep forecasting analysis of our CSIRO Futures team, Australian businesses have much to gain from engaging with CSIRO’s world-class researchers.

The federal government’s most recent Australian Innovation System Report found that for every dollar a business invested in research and development, they saw $2 returned – to the tune of $30bn invested for a return of $60bn in 2016. Further, the report found that businesses defined as “innovation active” doubled their productivity, tripled their number of employees and increased their export markets five times.

And large corporates have a critical role to play.

That’s why I’m such a great supporter for the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation’s scholarship programs for our innovators of the future, showcasing the bank’s vision and commitment to securing our future prosperity and growth. In particular, the emphasis on networking, business and industry insights in their Young Technologists and Future Leaders scholarships tap into the collaboration and cross-paradigm thinking that are essential in these disruptive and changing times.

If we can be better at working together to solve those scientific problems, solve environmental challenges, improve society and build stronger industries then all Australians can benefit. We can only do this if we learn to better work together.

This article originally appeared on Westpac Wire.