Commercialisation of research by the best-performing Australian universities is as good as the best in America and Europe, "and way above their average", a report prepared for the government says.
The report, by the Australian Centre for Innovation, includes a survey of 29 Australian universities that found there were 38 commercial start-ups in 2000 - up 40 per cent from the previous year. But universities' performance varies widely.
In the US, one spin-off company is generated from a research expenditure of A$130 million to A$177 million (£50 million-£68 million), with best-performers at A$40 million. In Australia, the figures are A$113 million per spin-off for the research-intensive universities, and A$303 million for the medium and small research profile universities.
"Scale is crucial," the report states. "Effective research commercialisation depends onI the quantity and quality of researchers. Even in the best cases, research commercialisation can generate only 3 to 5 per cent of a university's revenue, hence neither governments nor universities should pursue research commercialisation primarily as a major source of revenue."
Dismissing claims that academics are not commercially minded, the report says the great majority of academics with a substantial research performance (about half the total number) have a strong interest in seeing the potential outcomes of their research being realised.
Licensing protected intellectual property to existing companies is the most common way research is commercialised and generates the most revenue. But because Australian industry is fragmented, small and spends relatively little on R&D, the report says it has poor capacity to develop university-generated technology.
Universities then seek out foreign firms, meaning that ownership and exploitation of intellectual property becomes of paramount importance.
The report notes the recent announcement by the US National Institutes of Health that it would claim IP ownership in proportion to its share of funding in projects conducted outside the US. This, the report says, threatens the value and ownership of all such projects. "Vigilance, representation and appropriate policy may be necessary to protect the ownership of IP generated in Australia," it says.
Australian universities obtain only 0.2 per cent of their revenues from royalties, trademarks and licences. Education minister Brendan Nelson said one aim of the government's year-long review of higher education was to look for ways to make it easier for universities to commercialise research.
Full report: www.dest.gov.au/highered/otherpub/heiiac/report.pdf