Industry-led collaborative research enabled through Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) and Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-Ps) is an Australian success story that we should all be proud of. They have become a bedrock of our national innovation system.

We know what the measures of impact tell us. While are waiting on the release of the latest Impact Assessment, conducted this year by John Bell and his team at Acil Allen, we know their last assessment conservatively estimated that between 1991 and 2017, more than $14bn was generated in direct economic benefits to the nation from CRC-produced technologies, products, and processes. They estimated that CRCs had provided a net benefit to the economy of around 0.03 percentage points of additional GDP growth.

We also know the headline success stories, including: CRC-developed technology underpinning the Cochlear ear implant; advanced composite materials used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner; Tooth Mousse Plus, the treatment your dentist applies to prevent dental decay; the development of Australia’s first National Guideline for the Assessment and Diagnosis of Autism, and; extended wear soft contact lenses, now the leading multifocal lens in the United States.

The current crop of CRCs and CRC-Ps leverage the support of the Australian Government to bring together Australian business and research institutions to create new industries, businesses and products. Right now, there are 27 CRCs and more than 40 CRC-Projects working on everything from honeybees to concrete, from transport systems to food agility, mining transitions to future fuels and renewables, and keeping the nation safe online by improving cybersecurity.

The impact of CRCs though goes well beyond the directly measured impacts. They have had a profound impact on Australia, and there is a bigger story – one that’s hiding in plain sight: the so-called legacy spinout companies.

Many former CRCs continue to have an impact as new organisations and entities. Vision CRC spinout, the Brian Holden Vision Institute (BHVI) creates commercially relevant technologies that help people see better. HEARing CRC’s government funding ended in 2019. It hasn’t skipped a beat though, continuing with high-end commercial testing for the likes of Cochlear and other major companies. HEARing CRC’s spinout activities include licensing technologies to SMEs which  have leveraged these tools to acquire and maintain market share in a hugely competitive industry.

A wonderful example of an Australian SME winning big on the world stage with CRC technology is Perth-based company Nuheara which use CRC-developed software in its IQbuds earbuds range, rated one of the best innovations of 2020 by Time Magazine. It doesn’t get any better than this: home-grown family businesses tapping into government-funded, industry-led research and technology breakthroughs to transform their enterprises from small to big, local to global. That’s real impact at ground-level.

The CRC model is further validated by the rise of collaborative research entities and programmes that seek to emulate the CRC success story. From a Defence CRC through to the Australian Government’s Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hubs, we see the model that Chief Scientist Ralph Slatyer envisaged more than 30 years ago replicated and modified to bring industry and research institutions together to create the future.

We in Australia point to the UK’s Catapult Network, or Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes as great examples of fostering industry-research collaboration. Those overseas point to Australia’s Cooperative Research Centres as a great mechanism for fostering industry-research collaboration.

Then there is the skills base that has grown from cooperative research. It includes a workforce of some 5000 people who are experienced in working at the interface of industry and universities, including more than 4000 graduates of industry-focused PhD programmes. Many include long-running partnerships that have their origin in a CRC or CRC-Project. Beyond question, there is a depth of knowledge in Australia of how to make industry-university research cooperation work. The skilled workforce is here – ready, willing and able.

The CRC Programme is an Australian success story that has for more than 30 years translated research into action. CRCs place industry at the heart of the research enterprise, tapping into the world-leading research capacity of Australia’s universities and research institutes to solve real-world problems, create new products and new industries that Australia exports to the world. CRCs create commercial, economic and social benefit.

That wider impact means there is more to CRCs than meets the eye. That is why we are changing our name to coincide with our Collaborate Innovate 2021 conference this week, better reflect the breadth of the cooperative research community.  From Tuesday, the CRC Association becomes Cooperative Research Australia, and we aim to be a significant voice for industry-research collaboration in Australia and a champion of the achievements and lessons learnt that extend way beyond the lifetime of any single CRC.

Jane O’Dwyer is CE of Cooperative Research Australia



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