The work to commercialise CSIRO's science and research relies on modern innovation,yet has its roots in the 1949 act that gave birth to the organisation in its modern form.
As well as decreeing that “there shall be a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation”, there’s a clause in The Science and Industry Research Act that shows particularly commendable vision, says CSIRO Commercial's Acting Executive Manager, Commercialisation, Dr Werner van der Merwe.
Clause 9.1(b) decrees that the organisation is to “encourage or facilitate the application or utilisation of the results of such research”.
Dr van der Merwe gets a kick out of the fact that “they wrote that all those years ago”.
“We’ve been on that mission ever since and recently really ramped it up: We’ve increased our equity portfolio tenfold in the past five years.”
To make it happen, business-development and commercial teams work closely with each of the 11 CSIRO business units.
“We provide support to the science teams to help them turn their work into products, services, and technologies that will make a meaningful impact through commercialisation” says Julian Reynolds, Director, Business Development and Global (BD&G) for Mineral Resources.
There are numerous carefully designed and complimentary commercialisation programs available in CSIRO to help ensure success.
An important part of that is Mr Reynolds and his team (and their equivalents across CSIRO’s business units) keeping close to the scientists and researchers they’re supporting.
“There’s no one size fits all, but a lot of it is about relationships, so that you know what’s going on and the more comfortable the science teams are in approaching our team for help,” says Mr Reynolds.
“And when you go through a commercialisation project together, those relationships get a lot closer. When scientists see a successful initiative, it helps foster a culture of collaboration that surfaces new commercial opportunities.”
The BD&G teams work with the science teams from the early stages of ideation.
“We can help test and validate ideas in the marketplace, and with help from CSIRO’s IP area check to see what else is out in the market, via patent landscape searches.”
It’s important to validate the novelty of the CSIRO research or technology and its market appeal in order to understand the value proposition.
“We define the problem we’re solving and put the idea or technology through its paces.
"Then we recommend the best way to proceed to get it out to market, by the various pathways we have available.”
Taking a wide view
A lateral approach is part of the process, too.
“We try to think beyond where the technology was born,” says Mr Reynolds.
For example, sometimes the research is a solution to a particular problem, but could well have wider applications. “You think more broadly and see where it could fit in other areas.”
Mr Reynolds points to a Mineral Resources example where the Hard Rock Mining Group’s 4D Internet team developed a novel way to “fuse big, clunky data sets and manipulate them so they are manageable”.
The work was to solve a problem for the mining industry.
“But when you think about where that technology can be applied, mining is only a small chunk of where it could go.”
The role of the BD&G teams and CSIRO Commercial is, he explains, “to help the teams look beyond what’s right in front of them in terms of the particular problem they’ve solve and open up opportunities in other markets or other industries.”
Mr Nick Pagett is Business Development & Global director, overseeing the BD teams across all of CSIRO’s business units.
“Together with the Commercialisation teams and industry, we work to take the world’s best science and technology that’s being created through CSIRO’s research activities and turn it into applied form, to create impact and value for communities, industry, governments, in Australia and globally,” says Mr Pagett.
“CSIRO Mineral Resources has a lot of great examples of doing just that; and they’re also investing directly with partners to create future disruptive technologies,” says Mr Pagett.
“They take a portfolio view of science capability and develop a strong pathway to take it to market. Is it a joint venture, a startup, a spin out, a pure licensing transaction?
"We have defined eight different pathways to market, and the Minerals team has done a really good job of identifying the best pathway to create sustainable and scalable returns.”
The journey to commercialisation
CSIRO employs various pathways to ensure that we maximise the impact from our research.
These include selling or licensing intellectual property rights, forming joint ventures with industry to bring the technology to market, or in some cases setting up new ventures that can grow into future industries.
CSIRO also has a bespoke model for employee founder led start-ups. There is also the possibility of a ‘spin-in’ to grow a proto-business.
If none of those pathways is quite right, a special-purpose vehicle can be designed to meet unique opportunities and take CSIRO’s ground-breaking science and research to market.
Pull up a stool – here’s how CSIRO commercialises its innovation
As executive manager of the Commercialisation team, Dr van der Merwe says the team operates like a three-legged stool.
The first is the team of Commercialisation managers who work with our researchers, BD managers, industry partners and entrepreneurs to originate new opportunities, and then helps to structure, execute and manage deals across the different business models described above.
Each manager is a specialist in one of CSIRO’s 11 business units; Dr van der Merwe, who has a PhD in engineering, doubles up as the Manufacturing commercialisation specialist.
“Fundamentally, they’re the people who guide the end-to-end process of how the deals are made,” he says.
The second leg is the Equity Portfolio Management team.
“We currently have 40 companies in that equity portfolio,” says Dr van der Merwe.
“Chrysos and NextOre both emerged from CSIRO’s Mineral Resources business unit.”
Equity Portfolio managers look after CSIRO’s shareholding in a company, and work closely on governance and administration, and when required finding and nominating a CSIRO director for a board.
“Sometimes we just take an observer seat,” explains Dr van der Merwe.
“We decide based on what’s best for the company and commercialising the technology.”
The final leg of the commercialisation stool is the Licence Portfolio team. “CSIRO has around 500 active licences.”
“So we have the deal-making team and then CSIRO collectively manages the portfolios that result from the deals.”
The revenue that flows from CSIRO commercialisation is reinvested into future science and commercialisation.
“CSIRO wants to grow its portfolio substantially, and we’re investing it back into more research and accelerated commercialisation,” says Dr Nick Cutmore, Commercial Advisor to CSIRO Mineral Resources and a director of NextOre.
“There are large amounts of money starting to flow.”
Supporting innovation all over
But wait, there’s more. CSIRO has a host of programs to help get novel science and technology to market, including SME Connect, for Australian companies that have a breakthrough idea but need some help – funding, resources, support or all three – to get it off the ground.
“It’s often the case that they need some R&D when they don’t have those resources in house,” says Mr Reynolds.
“They come to us with the problem and the opportunity and together we figure out something that they can take back into their business as part of their market offering. A great example of that from Mineral Resources is detectORE.”
Beyond SME Connect, there’s a variety of accelerators and innovation funds, including Main Sequence Ventures.
There’s also the CSIRO Market and Community Discovery program, “the high-level analysis, where teams are taken through a process to inform ideal pathways to impact,” says Mr Reynolds.
“It helps them think about the best way to take their technology to market. There’s such demand for these programs that we’re setting up more internally.”
One more step along is ON Prime.
“This is where we start to dig a bit deeper, build up value propositions and begin to look for potential partners in the market as we start the planning phase for commercialisation.”
For situations where there’s compelling technology but no clear pathway to market, there’s the Commercialisation Marketplace.
“It’s like a shopfront where we list all sorts of technologies that we’re looking for interest in,” says Mr Reynolds.
“Investors looking to back novel technologies can have a look on the website. A couple of recent examples from Mineral Resources are Vesi and MagSonic.”
Mr Pagett explains that cross-pollination and strong communication across CSIRO business units and strategic partnerships with industry are vital to the organisation’s fast-growing commercialisation ecosystem.
“We’re building a balanced portfolio that spans from the startup and spin-out commercialisation models all the way to sustainable, recurring long-term partnerships,” he says.
“There’s not always the required level of investment from the startup community available to develop a technology from scratch, which is when we partner with large organisations who have deeper pockets and for whom a particular solution is applicable.”
For the scientists, researchers and the BD teams that support them, the growing emphasis on commercialisation is inspiring.
“Helping the science teams to get their great work out to market and for them to see the impact it can have is really exciting,” says Mr Reynolds.
Dr van der Merwe adds that those sentiments hold true for him and his team, too.
“I cannot imagine a more exciting and more challenging job than being a commercialisation person for Australia's national science agency at this moment in time,” he says.
“There is a huge upswell of interest in the area, and there’s also an enormous level of support – from government through to our executive, through to our universities and to industry. They all want to see more of this activity, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”