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By Michelle Goldsmith 28 March 2023 6 min read

Did you know almost all (99.8 per cent) Australian businesses have fewer than 200 employees? These businesses are classed small and medium enterprises (SMEs). You might not realise it, but SMEs drive our economy. The SME space is where many of our most exciting new ideas, inventions, and innovations are born.

But the road to research and development success is paved with challenges for SMEs. Research projects often require funding, facilities and technical expertise that smaller companies simply don’t have on hand. The solution? To collaborate with research institutions – such as Australia's world-class universities – that do have this expertise.

A helping hand

We've helped facilitate SME-research sector partnerships through our SME Connect programs. In essence, we play the role of mentor and matchmaker for SMEs. We help them define their research objectives, connect with the perfect research partner, and access funding. This helps small business leaders transform great ideas into real outcomes.

Collaborative research not only tends to make businesses more financially successful. These projects often create larger benefits for people, communities, and the environment.

The big three

Through SME Connect, we’ve linked SMEs with universities and other research institutions in every state and territory. Over the course of the program, some research partners have become particularly prolific collaborators, racking up triple-figure project counts.

Let’s take a closer look at our top three university collaborators and some of their standout achievements.

The University of Newcastle

Since 2015, The University of Newcastle (UoN) has partnered with 117 small and medium businesses to deliver 167 projects. These projects come to a total value of over $15.5 million.

Smart device cybersecurity

Smart devices and the internet of things (IoT) are revolutionising industry and making our lives easier. Yet networked devices can be vulnerable to hacking and other cyberattacks. The potential repercussions can include anything from stolen data, lost productivity due to downtime, or even dangerously malfunctioning equipment.

When Strategic Group realised the IoT devices its agribusiness customers were adopting posed cybersecurity risks, the IT company turned to SME Connect to find a solution. The company partnered with UoN's Global Innovation Chair in Cyber Security, Professor Vijay Varadharajan, and the rest of the team at the Advanced Cyber Security Engineering Research Centre (ACSRC). Together they developed a novel secure smart device provisioning and monitoring service architecture (SDPM), which better protects IoT networks from malicious cyberattacks.

Strategic Group's Aron Robertson and Peter Spiers with Professor Kallol Krishna Karmakar from the University of Newcastle.

A clean pandemic pivot

When the pandemic hit, Australian dishwasher producer Norris Industries needed to think fast. The company’s main business – supplying commercial glass and dishwashers to hospitality venues – was no longer bringing in the revenue to stay afloat.

Norris Industries had previously completed an energy-efficient dishwasher evaluation project with our SME Connect facilitator in Newcastle, Dave Fleming, and researchers from UoN. Calling upon these connections again, the business was able to rapidly pivot to produce COVID-19-killing hand sanitisers.

Hybrid diesel-electric boats make waves

Steber International, a custom boat manufacturer, has partnered with UoN and electrical engineering company Ampcontrol on multiple CSIRO-facilitated projects. These partnerships have involved developing and evaluating a hybrid diesel-electric power system for boats. Through this partnership, they launched their first prototype boat, a 22ft vessel, in 2020. The second, a 43ft Beta prototype vessel, will take to water in April 2023, when customers can witness its whisper-quiet electric mode for themselves.

Steber International and Ampcontrol installing the marine microgrid system into a prototype vessel as part of a project with the University of Newcastle.

The University of Technology Sydney

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has collaborated with 84 different small or medium businesses on 126 projects, resulting in innovations ranging from faster crop cloning to a more sustainable pint. These partnerships have injected more than $13 million into the economy.

Brewing up more sustainable beer

If you’re one of the many Australians who enjoy a good beer, you might be pleased to hear that independent breweries and UTS research are working hard to bring you an eco-friendly pint.

Hawke’s Brewing Co., founded in partnership with former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, partnered with UTS researchers on a project to capture the CO2 produced in the brewing process. This is then used to grow produce in an AI-enabled hydroponics chamber that runs on solar power and rainwater. The brewery uses lettuce from the system’s high-tech green wall in their onsite restaurant, just metres from where it was grown.  

This is not the only sustainable brewing partnership the university has undertaken through SME Connect. UTS researchers have also worked with Young Henrys on multiple projects involving capturing carbon emissions for algae production. And with 4 Pines Brewing Company to build a recycled, low-carbon cooler.

Thanks to collaboration with UTS, Hawke's Brewing Co. is reducing their carbon-footprint through an AI-enabled hydroponics system.

Growing great ideas

Another partnership has enabled new technology with the potential to shake up the way we produce plants. It grew from a SME Connect collaboration between the Integrated Product Design Research team at UTS and Australian tissue culture plant producer, Lowes TC. This partnership developed a prototype for a new tissue-culture system which replicates plants at least 10 times faster than previous technologies, making onshore tissue-culture financially viable. It also allows the new plants to be hardened off to better adapt to life outside the lab.

Lowes TC’s new system could boost food security by cutting years off the timeline for bringing disease-resistant crops to growers around the world. The technology could also be used to help preserve and multiply rare and/or sensitive plants.

Lowes TC’s new tissue culture process is far more efficient than labour-intensive traditional techniques.

The University of Queensland

Our third prolific tertiary education partner is The University of Queensland (UQ). UQ has a long history of collaborating with SMEs via SME Connect. The university has delivered 121 research projects with more than 91 businesses, amounting to over $10 million of investment.

Hooked on sustainable innovation

Fishing bait wholesaler Tweed Bait is one of many businesses to benefit from partnering with UQ. The business worked with researchers to develop a new range of fully marine biodegradable film packaging for fish baits. Together they developed a packaging material from natural polyesters made by microorganisms metabolising waste. This material is water-resistant, but can be completely broken down by bacteria in seawater and soil. UQ's specialised facilities were used to test the material's biodegradability in real-life conditions, proving it will truly break down if it ever ends up in the ocean.

Manufacturing results

We worked with UQ researchers to help Australian Wood Fibre, a wood fibre product producer, to evaluate new product options. The project investigated different proprietary biopolymer products the company could produce to create new revenue streams.

The business is now planning to manufacture starch and cellulose-based polymers for use in agriculture, erosion and sediment control, mine rehabilitation, water purification and dust suppression.  

The tip of the collaborative iceberg

SME Connect has enabled thousands of collaborative research projects with SMEs across Australia. We help create innovation and support industry-research sector cooperation to solve practical problems.

If you’re an owner of a small or medium-sized business and are interested in exploring research and development opportunities, you can reach out to our SME Connect team to find out how we might be able to help. You can also use our Collaboration Readiness Tool to assess how ready your business is for research collaboration and find out which of our programs best suits your needs.

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