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By  Ashleigh Carraro Anna Daniel 24 May 2023 4 min read

Key points

  • Science, technology and research are key drivers of growth for small to medium enterprises (SMEs). However, many lack the resources to pursue research projects alone.
  • Our survey of 800 Australian SMEs found that businesses that collaborate were more successful than those that didn't.
  • There are five measures an SME can implement in their business to get the most out of their research and development collaborations.

Small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) are a major player in Australia’s business landscape. They employ over 7.4 million people and make up 98 per cent of all businesses. Understandably, a resilient and competitive SME sector has many flow-on impacts for our economy.

Australia is also home to many world-leading research organisations. Yet, data indicates that only a small percentage of SMEs look to our research organisations for support with innovation.

Collaborating with research organisations can give SMEs a competitive edge. Such partnerships help them tap into resources, skills, facilities and technologies they need to innovate and grow their business.

Still, there can be barriers to engaging in research collaborations. Our survey of more than 800 Australian SMEs explored the key challenges that SMEs face when starting such projects. Critically, the survey found those who collaborate on research and development (R&D) projects were more successful than those that didn’t. And some businesses were better prepared to collaborate than others.

So, how do you know if your SME is ready to work with a research organisation?

Research collaborations can give SMEs access to the resources needed to fast-track their ideas.

Five elements of successful R&D collaborations

Effective research collaborations require more than just the desire to work together.

We gathered insights from research partners at RMIT, University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology to identify what factors determined the success of a research partnership.

We found five, and together they contribute to the overall ‘Collaboration Readiness’ of a business.

Knowing your collaboration readiness level can help your business prepare for a successful research partnership. And whether you're a start-up founder or a seasoned entrepreneur, understanding and investing in these five factors can take your business to the next level.

  1. Find an executive-level champion: Having executive support is an important step in making sure a collaborative research project is well resourced. Businesses are better equipped for long-term research partnerships when they have one or more executive ‘collaboration champions’. A champion should be able to communicate effectively, have vision and be able to motivate others across the business.
  2. Focus on the end, at the start: Start by having a clear idea of what your business needs from the collaboration. How will a research project help to achieve your business goals? Do you need access to large-scale equipment to trial a new process with minimal business disruption? Or do you need specialist expertise to develop products faster? Businesses that ensure achievable outcomes and responsibilities are understood, and agreed upon, before starting a project are more likely to be successful.
  3. Be open with knowledge sharing: Partnerships work best when the SME and researchers work together to create, share and use knowledge. You can build trusted partnerships by communicating often. However, being open in your communication doesn’t mean you need to share everything. It is important that you understand how to protect all intellectual property (IP) that has commercial potential. You should explicitly address IP through co-signed agreements (such as a non-disclosure agreement) before you share information. At the very least, agree who owns the IP developed during a collaboration and how it will be licensed. Read IP Australia’s five tips for protecting your IP and IP Management for Business-Research Collaborations to learn more.
  4. Resources and capabilities: It is important you make sure that you have the funding, administrative support and staff available to support long-term research partnerships. You may decide to start with lower-risk, small, defined projects to trial a partnership. You could access funding opportunities or explore your eligibility for the Research and Development Tax Incentive to offset the financial costs of your investment. You may choose to explore free training programs to upskill your team, such as our Innovate to Grow program. After you have successfully delivered some smaller collaborations, you will be confident taking on longer, more ambitious collaborations backed by additional internal or external resources. This may even include cross-border collaboration to expand into new markets. The India Australia Rapid Innovation and Startup Expansion (RISE) Accelerator program for example, is purpose built to help Indian and Australian startups and SMEs on their commercialisation pathways to launch innovative technology solutions overseas. 
  5. Embed collaboration within the business via systems and processes: Are your business systems and processes set up to handle ongoing collaborations? You may need to make improvements in your systems such as setting up project management processes, developing standardised agreements and project templates, and monitoring and evaluation systems. These can all help fast-track future collaborations.

Partnerships work best when both the SME and researchers work together to create, share and use knowledge.

Taking steps to success

If this list feels a little overwhelming, don’t be put off!

You do not need to score highly in all these factors to have a successful research collaboration. In fact, many SMEs rank at different levels of ‘readiness’ against each of these factors at any point in time.

The key is to understand your business’ current state of ‘readiness’. This will allow you to identify the collaborative opportunities most suitable for you. You can also uncover the key areas to invest in developing the skills, mindset and systems to take your research collaborations further.

An example of a Collaboration Readiness Level 3 score.

Businesses will receive a Collaboration Readiness Level score, based on their ranking against five key measures. The five key measures are Leadership Capabilities, Business Resources and Capabilities, Knowledge Sharing, Systems and processes and outcomes.

Businesses can use this score to identify and understand the types of collaboration activities best suited to them at any one time.


Example of a Collaboration Readiness Level 3. Businesses can use their score to iunderstand the types of collaboration activities best suited to them.

Are you ready to get started?

Our Collaboration Readiness Index and Tool is an online self-assessment survey that can help you plan and implement a collaborative research partnership. By answering a series of quick questions, you will be provided with a collaboration readiness score. It will also offer suggestions on the types of collaborative activities, programs and contacts that are most suited to your business.

Completing the self-assessment is an ideal first step for any business that wants to move from 'not ready' through to 'ready' to 'fully ready' to collaborate on research.

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