Training the first generation of bench-to-boardroom scientists would create a seismic shift and levelling up of the economy, STA President Professor Mark Hutchinson writes.
The jobs and skills summit is a golden opportunity to put science at the centre of Australia’s economic growth strategy.
It can help to create a future workforce for an economy which is, in the words of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, “powered by science”.
The key to such a science-powered future is to generate even more science breakthroughs – and then turn more of this great Australian science into the products, services, and technologies of tomorrow.
Supporting more of our scientists to commercialise their work will strengthen Australia’s economy, build stronger sovereign capability, and create many more new Australian jobs.
Australia produces world-leading science and research. But in recent decades, we’ve only had modest success at commercialising that research.
We can, and must, commercialise our research more consistently, and on a far greater scale.
So how do we powerfully shift the dial on research commercialisation to achieve stronger success at scale? The answer is we need two things: strategic investment, and specialised skills. Both are key.
In recent years, Science & Technology Australia has made a powerful case for Australia to create a new research commercialisation fund that would deliver strong returns on investment to the nation.
The announcement of a $2.2 billion investment in a new fund in February, with bipartisan support, is a game-changer. This strategic investment will turbo-charge Australia’s research commercialisation success. We need to see those measures confirmed in the October Budget currently being shaped by Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher.
To maximise the success of the new fund, we need to equip Australia’s researchers with the skills to become connectors of commercialisation – people as comfortable talking to CEOs and venture capital funds as they are to their laboratory colleagues.
The way to do this is to create a new breed of ‘bench-to-boardroom’ scientists.
We don’t need every researcher in Australia to become a commercialisation expert. But if we can instead equip up to 2000 of our leading scientists and engineers with the specialist skills they need to champion the translation of technologies, we can turn more of Australia’s ‘nearly there’ research into ‘really there’ products and services.
This small investment would generate vast economic and social benefits for the country.
We know this because Australia already has researchers who have successfully trained themselves to be bench-to-boardroom scientists. Indeed I am one of them.
As the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, I’ve led a team of researchers that have so far created 16 startups with a combined market capitalisation and market value of nearly $520 million.
These new companies have created 70 new jobs across Australia – and counting.
Imagine the potential of an Australian economy powered by 2000 more bench-to-boardroom scientists.
If just five per cent – a very conservative figure – of those bench-to-boardroom scientists achieve that same level of success and follow the skills playbook of our team and our nation’s other brightest commercialisation stars, it would generate $52 billion for the Australian economy.
That level of income generation would not just create a wealth of new jobs for Australians, it would kickstart whole new industries and be transformative for society.
It would create an economy powered by science.
This seismic shift and levelling up of the economy is possible through training the first generation of bench-to-boardroom scientists. But how would you design a program to teach researchers those skills? Well, Australia already has a model for that as well.
Since its launch in 2017, Science & Technology Australia’s game-changing Superstars of STEM program has fast-tracked the profile and careers of 150 brilliant Australian women in science. Superstars of STEM is a world-leading program which has smashed gender stereotypes of what a scientist looks like, and inspired tens of thousands of school children to consider studying science and technology.
In just one year – from July 2020 to June 2021 – the Superstars of STEM made 4000 media appearances reaching a cumulative media audience of 83 million people. That’s a lot of minds changed about what a scientist looks like, and a lot of young people who have been given diverse role models.
We want to take the proven success of our acclaimed Superstars of STEM program and apply a similar approach to help supercharge research commercialisation through a bench-to-boardroom training program.
We can train these scientist-entrepreneurs for the specialist roles to propel the translation of promising discoveries into technologies, and show them how to become linchpins liaising between industry and university research.
We have a vision, and we have a proven model of success.
And with just a small investment of seed capital, we can equip a diverse and talented generation of bench-to-boardroom scientists with the skills to create an economy truly powered by science.