| 5 minute read

How Cooperative Research Centres shape Australia’s innovation landscape

Elena Galán-Muros
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In this episode, we have Jane O’Dwyer, CEO of Cooperative Research Australia, sharing her expertise on the unique role and impact of cooperative research centers in Australia’s innovation ecosystem. Join us as we explore successful collaborations, effective partnership management, and long-term evaluation of these transformative initiatives.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Todd Davey:
Can you give us a bit of a background on the role that the Cooperative Research Centres play in the Australian innovation system?

Jane O’Dwyer:
The Cooperative Research Centres program (CRC program) was originally founded in 1990 and the first CRCs came into existence in 1992. The fundamental idea of them is to create a framework that brings together industry, research organizations and government to unlock private sector investment in R&D and allows research institutions and industry to work well together.

There have been 236 CRCs so far, and they have to have genuine, financial or in kind commitments from industry and from the research partners.

Often, the research partner’s commitment is primarily in kind: they’re providing access to research capacity, infrastructure, etc. For industry, it’s usually cash on the table”.

What is interesting about them is that they will often bring together businesses that are in the same industry that might traditionally be seen as competitors, working to solve potential problems or looking over the horizon for something that will advance the whole industry.

Some of the CRCs will have 90 partners, so it can be an enormous challenge to manage all those competing interests, but the framework of the CRC program creates a great sandpit for research institutions and businesses to learn how to work together in a well-structured environment and to resolve challenges in that environment.

Todd Davey:
And how does that work? Is it primarily focused on blue sky research, applied research, or a mix of both?

Jane O’Dwyer:
The CRC programs technically needs to be industry led, so that tends to push it a little bit further up the scale towards applied research.

The main objective is for industry to identify their shared challenge or problem, and then to work with research organisations to solve it. The idea is to move research up the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, up to a point close to commercialisation, or to the point where it can deliver economic, social and environmental benefit.

Todd Davey:
What sort of mentality or approach should academics and industry have when they come together to do cooperative research?

Jane O’Dwyer:
They need an openness to understanding different ways of doing things and different approaches, and I think a deep level of respect is also important.

I think industry needs to come to universities respecting the knowledge and the capacity and skill of researchers. And researchers need to respect that industries know their business and what challenges they have. Often, academics are looking for an interesting problem and industry are looking for a really good solution”.

So it comes to understanding those two sides of it. And, at the end of a program like a CRC, what you really hope is that the researchers come out of it with a really deep understanding of working with industry and that ability to speak across the two sides of the fence; and that industry come out with a really deep understanding of the value and the capacity of universities and their as well. If it is done well, that is where we see those long-term relationships develop.

Todd Davey:
Some fantastic tips for both sides. How do you manage the relationship with industry when they might have a different timeline and expected output fast?

Jane O’Dwyer:
This question is actually one I’ve seen a lot of our members in this CRC program deal with.

There is no point going down a pathway to try and deliver something to an industry partner that you can’t deliver because the research isn’t advanced enough, or the capacity is not there to deliver it. That will only damage the relationship. You’re better off telling them: “That’s something that we’re not able to deliver for you right now. What are the other problems you might have that we could work on?”

It’s all about honesty, transparency, having those open conversations and being clear about those timelines and what they are”.

We have seen with the CRC program how sometimes it was difficult for the universities because large numbers of their industry partners hadn’t dealt with a government grant funding round before, and they weren’t as able and relaxed about the fact that it might take a bit of time.

What we saw out of that for some of the new CRCs was a bit of partner churn, which meant they had to bring in some new partners where some just couldn’t hold for that long, and they also had to part with others, hopefully on good terms. That’s where that constant dialogue and honest conversation comes in place, because you want to make sure that, when you can’t deliver something for an industry partner, they can come back to you another time when they might have something else that you can deliver.

Interested in more insights like this?

If you want to learn how does one gauge universities’ readiness to co-operate in engagement activities and guide it towards success, give our article Six dimensions of readiness: What universities need to engage and collaborate a read. To get some inspiration from both industry and universities, listen to our episode How Siemens, 3M, the University of Melbourne and NC State University create meaningful partnerships where our guests discuss how their organisations engage and interact with their stakeholders to ensure long-lasting, strategic partnerships.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform!

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