As published in The AustralianResearch 2021 Special Report on 10 November 2021.

The great universities all over the world are defined by their ability to not only incubate new knowledge through their research activities – but also to translate their research into societal, economic and environmental impact.

At The University of Queensland (UQ), we have a long history of sharing the new knowledge that’s generated from our research programs – and translating it into progressive ideas, better services and new products for the benefit of society.

Our strong track-record in research translation and commercialisation can be largely attributed to a decision taken in 1984 to establish our technology transfer company, UniQuest.

Today, almost four decades later, UniQuest is widely regarded as Australia’s leading technology transfer company. It remains deeply embedded across all of our research programs and active in protecting our intellectual property, licensing our technology, negotiating terms with our commercial partners and engaging with industry.

The flagship example of research translation that UniQuest has been involved in over that period involves the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine.

An exemplar of the life-changing discoveries that are occasionally incubated at Australian universities, that vaccine was originally developed by Professor Ian Frazer AC and the late Jian Zhou in a UQ laboratory in the early 1990s.

Other examples of UQ research that have been successfully translated and had a global impact include the image correction technology that’s now used in two-thirds of the world’s MRI machines and the internationally acclaimed “Triple P” Positive Parenting Program.

More recently, UQ has been directly involved in the two highest-value biotech deals ever completed by an Australian university – with the acquisition of Inflazome and Spinifex Pharmaceuticals by major global drug companies. In both cases, the initial drug discovery research was conducted at UQ and UniQuest played a key role in the commercialisation of those scientific discoveries.

While there are many success stories, we also know that there’s still enormous potential for our universities to make an even greater contribution to national prosperity through improving research translation.

In the 2021 Global Innovation Index that ranks national economies according to their innovation performance, Australia ranked just 25th in the world, despite punching well above our weight on a range of innovation inputs, such as research performance.

The only way of interpreting this is that we are global leaders at the front-end of innovation – in research and discovery science. However, we’re still underperforming when it comes to translating that research excellence into commercial benefits and societal impact.

This is a missed opportunity for the nation because the translation of our homegrown R&D has the potential to generate wide-ranging societal benefits, including the creation of new industries and new jobs for Australians.

Thankfully, though, there’s increased recognition currently – across government, industry and academia – that this is something we need to address.

To me, there appears to be a groundswell of activity, right now, directed at creating a more joined-up innovation ecosystem that will help to drive Australia’s economic growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison made this point in an important speech last October as he launched the government’s Modern Manufacturing Strategy.

In that speech, the PM said: “A lesson is don’t try to do everything. It’s all about alignment, across different levels of government, with industry and with the research and education sectors.”

Or, as our former chief scientist Ian Chubb once said, when it comes to innovation: “It takes three to tango.” The three dance partners in this “innovation tango” are, of course: (1) our universities; (2) business and industry; and (3) the government.

Governments need the right policy settings, incentives and messaging to foster entrepreneurship and innovation in our economy.

Business and industry need to appreciate the sheer capacity that exists within our research institutions – and embrace the potential of R&D, at scale.

And our universities need to be accessible, open to collaboration, and willing to establish new models for working in partnership with government, business and industry.

This has been a high priority for all of us at UQ (and UniQuest) for decades now.

We want to play our role in boosting national productivity and creating new industries and jobs. But it goes much further than that. It’s also about enriching the communities in which we’re embedded – and improving the quality of life for people right across our community.

Importantly, we now have a growing list of willing partners, from across industry and government, who share our enthusiasm for research translation, commercialisation and innovation.

Increasingly, our views are aligned, and our interests are in lock-step.

It suddenly feels like the “innovation tango” is afoot – and it’s gaining pace.

Professor Deborah Terry AO, is Vice-Chancellor and President of The University of Queensland.