The Thin Film Coatings Group recently developed the world’s first plastic automotive mirrors with SMR Automotive. Part of the University of South Australia (UniSA)’s Future Industries Institute, the Group’s experiences of working with industrial partners have placed it at the forefront of research-industry collaboration. By Jack Baldwin, The Lead South Australia.

The Thin Film Coatings Group deals primarily in materials science and is a leader in pairing research with commercial outcomes for private industries. The group recently published a paper in Translational Materials Research called ‘Optical coatings for automotive applications: a case study in translating fundamental materials science into commercial reality’, in which it discussed its experience in the space and the best ways to pursue working relationships with private industry.

In fact, the group is entirely funded through their industry engagements. In addition to the SMR Automotive project, it partnered with Malaysian Automotive Institute to create plastic vehicle windows. It also worked with Envirominerals to perfect mineral extraction technology, collaborated on energy storage with Tindo Solar, and is responsible for the newly formed Heliostat SA’s research arm. It has created contact lenses with Contamac UK and even researched adaptive camouflage with the DSTO.

Dr Drew Evans is an associate professor at UniSA and has been with Thin Film Coatings Group for five years. He has a PhD in physical chemistry, with more than 40 publications, six patents, and the 2013 ‘Tall Poppy of the Year’ award under his belt. Evans says a main point of the current research-industry discussion is whether a ‘technology push’ or ‘market pull’ mechanism is better for encouraging and commercialising innovation.

Market pull occurs when someone outside a university wants to create a product or service because there are customers for it. Technology push is when someone within a university or technology-based company wants to push research or an invention out into the commercial space.

“A lot of the discussion is that market pull is a better mechanism, because it guarantees you’ve done market analysis and it’s not just a researcher placing more importance on their work when industry doesn’t want it,” says Evans. “My take is that market pull is better, simply because you can get industry involved with research from very early on in the project. They’re engaged, they’re constantly pushing the research in the direction they want, so once something is invented, they actually want it.”

Technology push can still work, Evans insists, but it’s less likely, often due to a disconnect between researchers and the needs of industry. An invention might be a great idea, but evolved so far in its own direction that industry isn’t sure of whether they want it.

“If people don’t know what it is you want to do, they’re never going to knock on your door and ask you to do it,” Evans says.

Industry tends to shy away from academia, despite the fact the two are a match made in heaven – on paper. Small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) and even multi-nationals might not have the expertise, wealth and infrastructure to undertake risky research on new intellectual property, but universities do. However, many traditional academic institutions have adhered to a hierarchal mindset where pure or fundamental research is valued above applied research, which is valued above engineering/product-oriented research. That prioritisation creates problems when it comes to collaboration.

“We’re all trying to achieve the same outcome, but the way we do it is a bit different,” Evans says. “Researchers often don’t understand the language that industry uses. That language barrier means that when industry approaches a researcher to ask for help, the researcher doesn’t know how to ask the right questions to find out the problem to solve.”

Another obstacle is the traditional university model with its emphasis on publications. Researchers – especially early-career researchers on short-term contracts – need to publish. But private industry needs a step up in the market, often with a request to delay publications until a product is out. However, Evans insists there are moves away from this cycle, as institutions realise they’re not insulated from the private space, as well as seeing the potential for recognition based on real-world impact.

“The biggest change that could happen is judging the performance of researchers based on impact. It’s great to publish and they should be doing that, but that’s not where the research stops. You should take the knowledge you’ve got in those publications, work with a partner and turn it in to something out in society.”

Even though the Thin Film Coatings Group is a model example of academic-industry partnership, the early days were ‘difficult’. Evans says initial projects operated on a fine line, and the Group only just managed to satisfy the University’s requirements in terms of publications. As it has established and proven the impact of its work, it seems to have been granted more leeway.

Do your groundwork

“Something that often turns off a researcher is that an engagement with industry might take six-to-12 months of talking before it even begins,” Evans says.

This screwing down of the details is an essential part of the process, however. Everyone knows what they’re putting in to the project and getting out. When it comes to IP, industry might agree that they can use it in the industry spaces they’re involved in, while the university might retain rights to it in other fields.

“Once the project is a success, there are no arguments about who owns what and who can do what. For a generic university engagement, there are so many different outcomes that could take place, and it all depends on that initial discussion.”

The Thin Film Coatings Group is often thinking years ahead on projects, well before they actually start. This is a tricky thing, Evans says, because a lot of industries and businesses don’t even know whether they’ll still be running in a few years, but it ensures a pipeline of research that continues into the future, ensuring the sustainability of the Group and its industry partners.

The direct benefits of an engagement like this are clear – a new product, new IP, a new market, a new technology. There are other, less obvious benefits. Having high-tech fundamental science behind a product gives a marketing edge that other products don’t have. Evans points to the iPhone. Consumers want to know that what they’re getting is high-tech, based on good fundamental science. Apple’s brand and reputation goes up with each new product.

Similarly, something like the plastic automotive mirror that the Group helped develop achieves its own reputation. It’s a world-first that makes cars lighter, increasing bit-by-bit gas mileage and improving environmental credentials. The universities also gain a reputation that their research is having a real world impact – something that should encourage further engagements in the future.

“It’s building a reputation that their research is relevant for the rest of the world,” Evans explains. “It also demonstrates to potential and current students that there are career paths to learn the science and engineering and then be able to use it out in society.”

Another outcome is that students are keenly aware of industry needs throughout their education. They then have the potential to join industry partners in permanent positions once they graduate, leading to more research and more commercialisation opportunities, and building competency throughout an industry sector – rather than confining it to the halls of academia.

For Evans, there’s a personal drive in working with industry that means he’s more engaged in that process than he would be with dry fundamentals.

“It’s a philosophical point of view that every day I come to work and I’m researching something, knowing there are a lot of people in the world that can make use of this,” Evans says. “It’s not just 10-20 people in my research field that read my paper and say ‘Wow, that was nice’. There are people driving cars that have my ideas on them. There are people creating renewable energy based on the research we do.

“It comes down to: what do you want to achieve out of your work? Working with industry isn’t for everybody, in the same way that doing only fundamental research is not for everybody. But if a researcher has a desire to work with industry, there is absolutely no reason why they can’t.”

An important part of the research-industry engagement process is the technology transfer that happens once all the research is done. In fact, Evans says, this might be the most important part of all.

“What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that the transfer and scale-up of the idea requires just as much investment in resources and time and money as the initial research does. It’s not as simple as saying ‘Here’s my idea, I’ve proved it in the lab, now go and make it’.”

Issues can arise with new machinery not working as planned, or unacceptable failure rates in product batches caused by unseen problems. These kinds of issues require lots of science and engineering to understand and overcome.

“Within our group, we understand that the project only finishes once there’s a commercial product out in the marketplace. That’s when we can say we’ve achieved our outcome.”

Even once a product is out on shelves, there remains an opportunity to optimise production and ensure the quality is top notch. There’s also the chance to do follow up research and cement these relationships. Many of the Group’s previous engagements have led to further projects with their industry partners, small and large. PhD students attached to the group have been involved with fundamental science projects with industry partners, possibly leading to more new products.

“There are always challenges working with industry, but they’re good challenges,” Evans says. “An important thing is that we maintain flexibility in the way we work. When you’re working with an industry partner that has customers of their own, there’s going to be hiccups and hurdles along the way.

“The researchers need to be flexible enough to drop everything and work on solving a particular problem that helps commercialisation. I know if we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have achieved success on some of these projects.”

The Thin Film Coatings Group is a good indication of how a team of researchers can get involved with industry and have their research result in real world products and technology. A willingness to work together with partners, be flexible and bend the old-world rules of universities seems to be a good starting point for researchers wanting to make an impact. The benefits for Australian businesses and industry – not just manufacturing, but any number of sectors – are vast.

New technology, new markets and new IP await.