University of Queensland: A top 50 university revolutionising its partnerships
How does a university at the size and success scale of the University of Queensland (UQ) achieve consistency in their external engagement across faculties? We spoke to Paul Nicholls, Executive Director of Research Partnerships, at UQ, a recent Initiator member of UIIN to delve into their recent developments in this work.
What is your approach to partnerships?
UQ partners with industry and government to create impact across a number of key portfolios including Energy Transition, Minerals & Resources, Defence & Space, Food & Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment, Advanced Manufacturing, Health & Medical Sciences. We then consider these in the context of global, national local industry and government drivers such as decarbonisation of heavy industry, talent retention, and the regionalisation of Australia. These are not problems that can be solved in any one institute or faculty; they require a multidisciplinary approach, so support mechanisms are crucial. We have built mechanisms into our promotional scheme to reward and recognise industry relations and partnerships – a different style of incentives to traditional grants and publications. Additionally, we have built training programs to help researchers understand how to conduct those conversations with companies. We also have business development staff in faculties and institutes across the university. One of the things that is top of mind for us is the consistency of engagement with companies, and I think this is where UIIN will be a great resource to find and share best practices on the training and development of professional staff to support this type of work.
What are your institution’s goals moving forward in terms of university-industry engagement
In Australia, a lot of the fundamental research that typically relies on winning grants is subsidised by other revenue sources, including international student revenue. During the downturn in this revenue due to COVID, there was a major impact on higher education in Australia and it exposed the challenge for the funding of fundamental research. One of the things that universities are trying to do is to help identify alternative revenue streams by delivering value for companies. Our role is to help the industry find that front door into the university – through a web presence or industry engagement mechanisms, like innovation centres – and then find the right mechanism for the relationship, whether that’s work-integrated learning, contracted research or PhD programs. Creating that front door was critical, and at UQ we have since found that the demand for engagement from outside the university is quite high. There are people inside the university who also want to engage with the industry, but don’t know how, so creating best practice tools and templates, training modules etc. is going to become important.
What has been a success story for UQ in terms of your partnerships?
One of the major initiatives we are leading is the Food and Beverage Accelerator (FABA). It was borne out of the Trailblazers scheme from the Australian government to help create support for industry-to-university engagement, particularly for companies that don’t have the capital to invest in research infrastructure. The government identified UQ with its highly successful commercialisation arm UniQuest as a partner for the scheme. A lot of primary materials and food is produced in Queensland – we export a lot of it as grains, rather than as product. The Trailblazer provided approx. $180 million over four years to build common user infrastructure and commercialization services where we train our researchers and SMEs to work in the same space. That then created 10 major projects which are now going through a process where they learn better how to commercialize their product, and onshore their manufacturing. This will create a cohort of researchers and companies with better experience engaging with industry to commercialise their products.
What is your biggest challenge in partnerships and how do UQ address this?
One of the challenges with an organisation of this size is that you don’t you don’t know who’s talking to which industry. We created the interim Community of Practice, which gave us 40 recommendations of what to do from training to resource sharing, but the number one thing was sharing information. To address this challenge, we built a business development CRM which tracks our AUD500,000+ initiatives in the pre-contracting stage, who is responsible for them, which faculty, which portfolio etc. We currently have 200 projects in that pipeline, so that’s another way of recognising that this is important work in the university. Now the CRM is built, we’ll be focusing on the other recommendations so we’re expecting to see a lot of uplift in activity next year.
If you would like to learn more about the University of Queensland, contact Paul Nicholls via email.
Ready for more?
If you are curious about how other universities and organisations are managing their external partnerships, visit our Members spotlight section.
To learn more about the dilemmas that can arise in partnerships and what you should keep in mind to make them both mutually beneficial and ethical, read our article The road to ethical partnerships: Lessons from university-industry collaborations.
Lauren Kroemer-Pope (interviewer) is the Outreach and Partnerships Specialist at UIIN.
Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.