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Catalysts for Innovation: 6 lessons Australia can learn from European Universities

By Damien Thomas

A sabbatical through Europe can never be called work.

I had the chance to learn from some of world’s best universities in Europe while I enjoyed raclette and fondue in Switzerland, magnificent Spanish cuisine, drank a pint of Guinness in Dublin, visited the shrine to Freddie Mercury in Montreux as well as marveled at the artists and design of Barcelona. Someone had to do it. So, I took one for the team. Just call me dedicated.

I'm fascinated by the potential ability for universities and research organisations to contribute to society. Governments around the world provide funding and support to university research and regularly ask how their investments in research enhance and improve our lives. Most people agree that universities can produce technology and scientific research which should be able to change the world in a positive way. It has been my job (and the job of the teams I have led) to assist researchers in creating Impact with industry, develop wealth and employment in Australia, Europe, Asia and the United States. I have seen many successful research-industry based collaborations.

Yet many Australians ask why our country does not rank well when we consider collaboration between universities and industry.

Australians have reason to be proud of some success. But we need to do much better. After all the world is a highly competitive place and all other nations are continually lifting their research performance and research Impact.

On my trip I met with leaders of a number of high quality research universities in Europe to hear about how they change the world in a positive way. I heard how they assisted in creating high quality employment opportunities for their graduates through excellent research programs and leading well formed partnerships with governments, social enterprises, small and large industry players, investors and other members of the community.

I met with leaders from high ranking universities such as Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne (EPFL), University of Barcelona, University Pompeu Fabra and University College Dublin. I also met with Biocat the biotechnology accelerator in Catalonia Spain.

For further information on global university rankings check the following:

So what are the lessons we can learn from the excellent universities I visited in Europe?

1.   Excellent European universities deliver quality research, engagement and impact

Copyright: EPFL - Alain

High quality European universities do not see themselves as institutions which churn out graduates but they do produce high quality graduates with great career potential. These universities are not required to attract high student numbers from domestic or international markets to ensure their funding. For example, income at EPFL from student fees is very small compared to the fee contributions at Australian universities. The majority of EPFL income comes from federal and state government investments, competitive EU project grants, philanthropy, and commercialisation revenues. Industry and commercialisation revenues have grown continuously over the last 10 years. In 2017 EPFL secured 244 industrial contracts, 50 licenses to their technologies and they established 15 new spin-offs during 2018 and raised CHf397 from venture capital in the same period.

As Professor Marc Gruber Vice President of Innovation at EPFL said to me, “We are mandated by government to deliver high quality research, high quality teaching and high quality innovation. Innovation or applying university research for success outside of the university is in the DNA of EPFL”. “EPFL has a mandate to be a catalyst for innovation within Switzerland and indeed across the world.”

The universities I visited indicated that teaching students the most advanced knowledge and techniques is very likely to create high quality employment opportunities for graduates. Investment in knowledge to attract the best and brightest academic staff and students is paramount. They must invest in high quality research which is interdisciplinary, internationally relevant and makes a real-world difference.

2.   University research should support nation-based competencies

Image: Shutterstock

Most European nations have a strategic focus on industry development and research. At a government level there is an understanding of where a nation has high levels of competence in research and translation. The Catalonia region of Spain, for example have great strengths in life sciences and biomedical research and they direct resources to that end. Switzerland maintain high levels of capability in micro-engineering. This leads to considerable university research in the same field. This strategic focus can result in a nation’s entire innovation system working together effectively where all participants in the innovation system, including key researchers, students, industry and innovation centres, seek to create opportunities for collaboration.

3.   Research and technology can only succeed with industry collaboration

Photo: Jimmy Musto on Unsplash

At the heart of European research is an engagement and collaboration model. Engagements with small and medium enterprise is streamlined to ensure ease of access to commercial expertise and capital which is required to convert research into real world outcomes. Universities are seeking deep and long lasting collaborations with public and private corporations. They use framework agreements where principle based discussions on Intellectual Property and other legal questions are clarified early. It is critical to understand what is involved in creating a market based opportunity including how investment occurs and by whom, and how value is shared.

Universities do not wait for industry to come to them. These leading institutions proactively seek ways to collaborate and engage with industry. Marc Gruber told me that,

“Industry needs to be in tune with university research as innovation and technology accelerates. Working with EPFL is an opportunity for industry to enhance their success.”

4.   Speed of technology commercialisation is critically important

Photo: Viktor Kiryanov on Unsplash

Commercialising technology, founding new companies, raising capital and expanding new business must move quickly. Delaying the early stages of commercialisation will impact the long term success of the venture. For example, investors have many options for placing their investment funds. If universities cannot move quickly enough, investment funds may be redirected to alternative projects. Capital raising is a competitive space.

Leaders and others in private industry in Australia frequently ask,

“why does reaching agreement with a university on the terms of collaboration take so long?”

All universities are challenged to address this question. In part, the answer lies in a mismatch of expectations and cultures between private industry and universities. Spending time at the beginning of a relationship, and gaining an understanding of each other’s needs and objectives, can decrease the amount of time ultimately needed in the commercialisation chain.

5.   Technology parks in universities create a catalyst for innovation

Image: StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

Technology parks for start-up companies exist in many of the universities I visited. For example, EPFL has built a technology park housing 130 companies in their early stage development as start-ups. The company Logitech was co-founded by a former EPFL student Daniel Borel. Logitech continues to invest in research at EPFL. The EPFL technology park was originally established in 2010 and then expanded in 2016. The park includes many successfully operating companies which create opportunities for industry, academic and student-based learning. In Europe I often heard the question

“Can you learn entrepreneurship in a university classroom?”

There is broad agreement in Europe that you need experienced entrepreneurs, existing industry players, investors and government involvement to create real world learning to be successful in industry.

I was told on many occasions that intellectual property is nice to have but in no way the determinate of success. Instead, really understanding what the market opportunity is, including who your customer is, moving quickly to commercialise and then bringing the new technology to market, raising capital and then facilitating rapid international expansion, is generally more important than unique pieces of intellectual property.

6.   The importance of early stage and well directed seed funding

Image: Pixabay

Seed capital is important, but it should only be applied in small doses when the technology clearly and truly addresses a market-based need in a market relevant way, that is the technology is not relevant until it is embodied in a business model where a customer will pay for the innovation at a realistic price. When seed capital is deployed in Europe, the new venture conducts deeper market analysis, clarifies the business model, carries out technology road mapping and establishes freedom to operate while simultaneously understands the regulatory environment. Seed capital in Europe comes from a mix of university funds, venture capital and corporate venture capital.

“At EPFL, entrepreneurship is already well developed but more entrepreneurship for students and academics at EPFL is required. Technology without application and markets is just technology without real-world Impact creation”

says Marc Gruber, VP Innovation EPFL.

Many Australian universities are making efforts to lift Impact outcomes and improve their industry engagement. I have just seen some of the world’s best in Europe who are moving very fast to engage, collaborate, innovate and invest in research and also achieving graduate quality and graduate employment. It is imperative that Australian governments, universities, research institutions and industry now focus and accelerate even more to compete.

The Europe I saw beyond research and innovation

Travelling through Europe allowed me to see more than just the achievements of great universities and leading experts in innovation and translation. Indeed, in Spain I did happen to spend time being mesmerized by the beautiful works of Antoni Gaudi in Casa Vicens, the amazing Cathedral Sagrada Familia and Casa Battlo. I was lost in my imagination in the Prado museum as I contemplated the paintings of Franscisco Goya and many others. I marvelled at why Swiss trains always (nearly) ran on time and when they didn’t run on time, I watched the anguish of the Swiss commuters. I've argued in an Irish pub about the greatest of the Irish writers (Oscar Wilde is the correct answer!). I was working. Seriously!

If you want to learn more about how your company can work more effectively with universities to achieve competitive advantage, or if you are in a university and wish to better connect with industry, please contact me for a free information pack on universities and industry working together at


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