We talk with Mark Orams, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, about how Auckland University of Technology (AUT) identifies and nurtures the commercial potential of research projects.
What makes AUT’s commercialisation programme unique?
We’re New Zealand’s sole university of technology – and with our polytechnic roots, we have an applied mindset, which drives our commercialisation activity. We work closely with industry, and with the health and not-for-profit sectors.
Naturally, we are careful to retain credibility in terms of the quality of the work that we do – but we try also to be nimble and innovative, often stepping outside the norms of academia.
Can you describe your process for commercialising research?
It starts with our highly diverse range of researchers – which includes, for instance, over a thousand postgraduate students, as well as hundreds of academic staff, who are typically conducting their own research and supervising postgraduates. If a researcher’s work has potential commercial value, we will connect them to a partner within our wholly owned commercialisation entity, AUT Ventures Ltd, to collaborate.
They’ll look at everything together – from the basics, such as how to identify potential commercial value, to protecting intellectual property, identifying markets, and developing a brand and product. They also identify potential investors and provide legal expertise and financial planning to nurture projects. Of course, not every creative idea will be commercially successful – but we do want to give it every opportunity.
That partnership is vital, because it links research-focused people with AUT Ventures staff who have a commercial and entrepreneurial creative mindset.
We also work with the researchers, helping them recruit skilled employees and build a team. For an international market, that might mean bringing in overseas people.
We don’t just look at a spinout company as an option. Sometimes we go for a licensing agreement, where we’ve decided to protect intellectual property (IP), develop it to a prototype or proof of concept level, and license it out to other parties. That returns us a fee or royalty.
Looking now at wraparound support: which services are in-house, and what do you pull in?
We import external expertise where it’s needed. One area is legal, given that IP protection is a relatively specialised area, particularly around patents and international protection. With global markets, too, we might contract overseas advisors to help us.
With brand and marketing, we can provide some fundamentals in-house; but for more specialised ad campaigns, for example, we might bring in specialist support.
Because most of our researchers lack the capital to bring in those services, we have a very close relationship with KiwiNet, which can fund commercialisation opportunities. AUT Ventures, working with the researchers, will pitch for the different degrees of funding they require.
In some situations, we might find a better fit with an individual angel investor. Very occasionally, researchers will invest their own capital – if, for instance, they want to retain the majority ownership shareholding of a spinout company.
So, there is a range of options, depending on the project, the level of interest, and a researcher’s financial situation.
How do you support university spinouts post-investment?
Our basic approach could be described as nurturing, hatching, fledging, and then independent flight. Our strengths are in filtering and developing early-stage ideas, not launching products and marketing campaigns.
If, at the end, there’s a successful spinout company, we may retain a shareholding of the company through AUT Ventures. The company continues with other shareholders – usually investors with the principal inventors.
So, where a company becomes successful and independent, AUT is no longer actively involved, but reaps the benefit as a shareholder. Prior to that, there are a number of stages when we may be actively involved.
What case studies stand out as great examples of what you’re up to?
One of the things we do well at AUT is research that has tangible and beneficial outcomes.
For instance, our Sport Performance Research Institute (SPRINZ), based at AUT Millennium - a world class environment for high performance sports training, community sport, health and wellbeing and related research and education - looks at how we monitor human physiology and measure human performance, particularly in a sporting context but also in relation to health and well-being. By monitoring, we can more accurately assess the effects of interventions, be they designed to make somebody go higher/stronger/faster, or to address “lifestyle diseases” like type 2 diabetes or obesity, or other chronic illnesses.
I can also give you an example of a licensing arrangement. In 2016, DPhil student Peyman Sabouri, under the supervision of Associate Professor Hamid Gholamhosseini, developed an app that can diagnose melanoma through a non-invasive process, minimising the need for biopsies. AUT Ventures led licensing negotiations with GP2U, the online telehealth service, which now has access to a custom-made, research-backed technology, and AUT has licensed its IP for public benefit.
How does the university measure the success of its spinouts, and how does that relate to your philosophy and values approach?
We measure impact in a multitude of ways. If an idea becomes commercially successful, great; but as a university, our primary purpose is to deliver research that expands our knowledge and understanding of the world around us, and to use our expertise as scholars and researchers to deliver outstanding educational programmes.
Successful commercialisation, through options such as spinouts, can provide exciting, impactful careers for AUT graduates, as founders and team members, which is a great outcome.
Although AUT is New Zealand’s newest university, we are highly regarded, not just because of our international rankings, but also in terms of our research with a very applied, real-world focus. This places commercialisation within the context of a broader ambition. Every time I see a student on the stage at graduation, or I listen to a graduate explain how they’ve achieved their aspirations and developed an idea that makes a positive impact, that makes me proud.
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DISCLAIMER: This article provides general information on potential investment opportunities in Auckland and is not intended to be used as a substitute for financial advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the relevant author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Tātaki Auckland Unlimited. Tātaki Auckland Unlimited disclaims all liability in connection with any action that may be taken in reliance of this article, and for any error, deficiency, flaw or omission contained in it.