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Innovation has been a driving force behind the Newcastle region's dynamic transformation from industrial economy to knowledge economy over the last decade. As Australia's largest regional city, and home to almost 15,000 small and medium sized businesses (SMEs), it's a region that has embraced collaboration, creativity and resourcefulness to drive its diversification and growing vibrancy.

It's no surprise then the University of Newcastle is the leading university when it comes to collaborating with SMEs to drive innovation, through CSIRO SME Connect programs.

A testbed for innovation

As the number one collaborating university for SME Connect projects, the University of Newcastle's researchers have delivered 167 projects with SMEs over the past eight years, equating to more than one new project per month and injecting around $15.5million of funding into local industry innovation.

For Mr Warwick Dawson, Pro Vice-Chancellor Industry and Engagement at the University of Newcastle, the university’s top performance is thanks to the region’s unique set of attributes, plus SME Connect playing a pivotal role in enabling them to actively collaborate.

"The University of Newcastle and the regions we serve have always been looking ahead. With roots in steel and coal, our communities have become resilient evolvers, keen to embrace new industries and new possibilities, including renewable energy. This foresight has helped our regions become places where people of all ages and backgrounds want to live, work and play," Warwick said. 

"But we cannot go it alone. We need to collaborate with industry to take our research expertise and translate it into new products, services and processes that deliver positive impacts for our communities. [SME Connect] has been hugely valuable in that process – and we keep coming back to it again and again."

Professor Vijay Varadharajan, Global Innovation Chair Professor in Cyber Security, is one researcher at the University of Newcastle who has been involved in six SME Connect projects so far. He believes knowledge and technology transfer to SMEs is critical to enhancing capabilities in regional areas.

"[SME Connect] is an excellent initiative that provides the opportunity for industry partners and academia to come together to solve practical problems they are facing. This is even more important when it comes to the SME sector, which is both resource poor and time poor," Vijay said. "In the Hunter region in particular, there is a growing number of SMEs who are developing new products and services across different sectors, all who could strongly benefit from our cybersecurity expertise via these types of programs."

Building strong networks

In 2020 local IT company Strategic Group did just that, when they identified a clear need for enhanced cybersecurity measures for their agribusiness customers' growing adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. As farms and agriculture producers increase their use of smart technologies to improve productivity – think sensors to monitor soil moisture and PH levels – there is increased risk of vulnerabilities in information and cyber security.

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

"It has been well publicised how easy it can be to hack into different IoT devices, which leaves these agribusinesses open to having their data stolen or accessed for nefarious purposes," Strategic Group's Director of Business Development Aron Robertson said.

Strategic Group partnered with Vijay and the team at the Advanced Cyber Security Engineering Research Centre (ACSRC) at the University of Newcastle, to develop a novel approach for centralised and secure data collection, maintenance and management of a fleet of IoT devices in smart infrastructure environments.

The research outcome has given Strategic Group a significant edge in its capacity to service its customers' needs in this emerging and growing market.

"To be able to conduct research into a solution which can offer the wider business community a safe and secure way to manage a range of different IoT devices and third-party software has been extremely exciting for our team," Aron said.

"We were grateful to work with the University of Newcastle. Having access to their world-class facilities gave our team access to research and development technologies that we would not normally have, and bolsters the credibility of the professional services that we can offer our customers," he concluded.

Lasting partnerships

CSIRO SME Connect facilitator Dave Fleming said that SME Connect programs often set up businesses and researchers on a pathway for on-going collaboration and success.

"One of the key benefits of my job is being able to connect small companies with first-class research expertise, and then watching those partnerships grow from strength to strength," he said.

That is certainly true for two local companies Steber International and Norris Industries who have continued to partner with researchers at the University of Newcastle following the successful completion of their projects.

For Greg Gates, Managing Director of Norris Industries, the network of expertise he established through SME Connect was central to the success of his business's swift pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The partnerships we established through SME Connect have been significant for our business," Greg said.

"At the start of the pandemic, our business faced a significant challenge with the closure of hospitality. Without the connections we had to Dave Fleming and the University of Newcastle, our business would have seen a very different outcome."

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