Home to more than 570,000 small to medium enterprises (SMEs), Sydney is Australia’s small business capital. In fact, 24 per cent of all Australian SMEs are based in the Greater Sydney region. The city also boasts some of the country’s top universities and research institutions, encompassing expert knowledge across all disciplines.
The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is one of the top collaborators with SMEs through the Federal Government’s Innovation Connections (IC) program. This free service, facilitated by CSIRO, helps Australian SMEs establish research priorities, partner with research organisations, and fund collaborative research projects.
For the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), collaboration and innovation are deeply ingrained. UTS’s world-class facilities are located within downtown Sydney’s Tech Central innovation precinct, perfectly positioned to collaborate with businesses on research and development projects.
SMEs account for around 99.8 per cent of all Australian businesses, yet many lack the resources to undertake research and development projects alone. Through mutually beneficial partnerships with research institutions like UTS, SMEs work with researchers to develop new products and solve industry challenges, delivering wider economic, societal and environmental benefits. SMEs who take part in such collaborations also tend to be more successful overall. Understanding this, UTS and CSIRO are dedicated to helping SMEs solve research challenges and transform great ideas into real outcomes.
“Collaboration between the research sector and small to medium enterprises is crucial to Australian innovation,” said Professor Kate McGrath, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), University of Technology Sydney. “As an institution dedicated to innovation, UTS is committed to applying our research excellence to help Australian companies overcome challenges and develop the products, services and technologies that will shape our future industries and secure Australia’s place at the forefront of the knowledge economy.”
“Through participation in programs like Innovation Connections, we collaborate with SMEs to solve real-world problems and deliver substantial positive economic, social and environmental impacts. These projects often result in lasting research partnerships, leading to even more ambitious projects.”
Over nine years, UTS has undertaken 126 projects with 84 different businesses via Innovation Connections. These partnerships have injected more than $13 million into industry innovation – including over $6 million in Innovations Connections grants and over $7 million invested by the SMEs.
Brewing up sustainable solutions
Environmental and social responsibility are increasingly high priorities for many companies and their customers. For independent Australian beer company Hawke’s Brewing Co., founded in partnership with former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, sustainability is a foundational principle. According to Hawke’s wishes, his share of royalties for each beer sold are donated to Landcare Australia.
When Hawke’s Brewing Co. sought to further improve sustainability and reduce the company’s carbon emissions, they partnered with UTS through Innovation Connections.
Together, they designed a system that captures the CO2 from fermentation and reuses it to enhance plant growth within a closed, self-sufficient, AI-enabled hydroponics system. In addition to preventing the CO2 from being released into the atmosphere, the company’s on-premises restaurant uses the lettuce.
“Our venue encompasses a full-scale brewery and a restaurant, with abundant solar electricity generation and a large roof to capture rainwater. This makes it well-suited for indoor farming and we use the lettuce in the restaurant,” said Hawke’s Brewing Co. Sustainability Manager, Sophie Gibson. “We chose lettuce because the lifecycle carbon costs of traditional outdoor lettuce farming are very high, with vast resources used to grow, irrigate, transport and refrigerate a product containing very few calories.”
“The plants grow faster in the CO2 enriched environment. We can reliably grow around 100 high-quality lettuces per month. The greatest carbon savings are made by avoiding the need to purchase traditionally farmed lettuce for our restaurant.”
The system is integrated with various sensors to collect data, with the view to train AI to automatically detect and optimise growing conditions.
“We can remotely control the light spectrum output, water pH, nutrient concentration, lighting movement, tank levels and water consumption,” said Sophie. “We are also monitoring system power draw, air quality, water usage, pH buffer solution usage, nutrient consumption, CO2 absorption and light intensity.”
The novel system is also a unique drawcard for the brewery and restaurant.
“We would absolutely recommend the Innovations Connections program to other businesses,” said Sophie.
Hawke’s Brewing isn’t the only independent Australian brewery to have called on Innovation Connections and UTS for help making their operations more sustainable. CSIRO has also facilitated IC projects partnering both Young Henrys and 4 Pines Brewing Company with researchers from UTS.
Young Henrys and UTS’s Climate Change Cluster facility have developed an ongoing research and development relationship since undertaking an IC project to grow algae using captured CO2 from beer fermentation. Together, they continue to work towards carbon-neutral brewing. IC linked 4 Pines Brewing Company with UTS’s Integrated Product Design Research team to explore the reuse of post-industrial waste to make a low-carbon cooler.
Growing great ideas through productive partnerships
Berto Pandolfo is an industrial designer and Senior Lecturer in Product Design at UTS. Over the years, he’s been involved in several highly successful Innovations Connections collaborations. One of these projects involved working with Lowes TC, an Australian agribusiness specialising in plant tissue culture (TC), to prototype a revolutionary new TC system. The new system has the potential to be highly disruptive in the agricultural space, bringing stronger, disease-resistant crops and other plants to growers sooner and at lower cost. In addition to massively increasing production and opening new markets for Lowes TC, the technology could enhance biosecurity and boost food security for communities.
“We know there are a lot of SMEs that want to explore new ideas and innovate, but need help, and Innovation Connections is a great model for that,” said Berto.
“Unlike large corporations, SMEs don’t have the resources to dedicate to the long and complicated processes often required to establish industry-research collaborations. So we risk leaving out the engine room of the economy – that is, the small to medium enterprise. One of the reasons the Innovations Connections scheme is fantastic is that it’s a relatively simple and quick process.”
“The keys to success in industry-research collaboration are meaningful communication and an understanding of your partners and their goals,” according to Berto.
“The IC facilitators play a crucial role in the success of these projects. They are mediators and mentors that share the passion to support SMEs in Australia. It’s not just an industry partner and a university – there’s the facilitator in the middle making sure everything runs smoothly.”
Berto finds collaborating with SMEs highly rewarding and considers such partnerships vital for our economy and society.
“We’re doing applied, hands-on research and it’s easy to see the value of what we're doing. Collaborating with SMEs on research projects is exciting, beneficial and an important activity that we need to be doing more of in Australia.”
Lowes TC founder and Director of Research and Development, Greg Lowe, is also passionate about the importance of SME-research collaboration. Greg believes the Innovation Connections program, UTS research and CSIRO’s facilitation were instrumental in the fruition of his vision for a better tissue-culture system.
“It would never have happened without Innovation Connections. We knew the concept was good, but as a small business we couldn’t do it all ourselves. I talk to heaps of growers in the industry who have great ideas that could have real benefits, but without programs like Innovation Connections they’ll never get developed.”
Interested to learn more?
Read more about some of the SMEs we've connected to UTS