Commercialisation Recommendations and Cautions for CRCs

This article is based on Natalie Chapman’s presentation at the annual conference of the Cooperative Research Centres Association in May 2018.

I’ve been commercialising innovations arising from research organisations for 17 years. Over this time, I’ve been involved with four Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs). I assisted the CRC for Welded Structures with a pitch presentation and later with commercialising software for the power industry. I helped the CAST CRC prepare a business strategy underpinned by solid market research, to attract customers and funding for their innovations in metal technologies. As General Manager of Commercialisation at the Smart Services CRC, I reviewed the intellectual property (IP) portfolio to determine the commercial potential of each innovation and helped launch two spin-off companies. Then I provided the Low Carbon Living CRC with marketing communications strategy and support.

Through these experiences and my involvement in many other commercialisation projects, I have gained plenty of insights and ideas.

Contract Rights Carefully

When organisations cooperate in research and development, they usually assume they should jointly own any IP that results, but this can make commercialisation much harder. The complexity of agreements between parties involved in a R&D project is often only appreciated too late, when commercialisation activities commence. ‘Clean’ ownership is essential for IP licensing or creating spin-offs. Untangling CRC IP ownership can take many months of negotiation.

My advice is to look to the future at the beginning of the collaboration. IP will probably arise from a small, highly specific part of a larger project, so try to determine upfront who’s most likely to (a) generate any IP and (b) commercialise it. Don’t automatically share ownership with all collaborators just to keep everyone happy.

Communicate Research Clearly

As a young scientist, I viewed commercialisation as the dark side of research and marketing as pretty, fluffy, unnecessary stuff. I have previously explained the serious flaws in this perspective. Here, I’ll provide just two examples to illustrate the vital role marketing plays in commercialisation.

(i) If you were ordering software online now, which of the two products above would you choose? Which could command a higher price?

  • The one on the left was originally designed by a brilliant researcher, who named the technology with an unpronounceable acronym derived from the first letters of its description. Which is common practice amongst STEM types, myself included. The label was printed at low quality in-house.
  • The packaging on the right was created by a professional, cost-effective graphic designer which we engaged and the reworked product name is easy to pronounce and remember. With this version of the product, we were able to negotiate licensing agreements worth hundreds of thousands into the coal-fired power stations in Australia. In addition, we sold $500k of support services in one year using the software.
  • Subsequent to this the researcher further improved the product by engaging a professional programmer to clean up the software code and redesign the software interface before it was sold to a large technical consulting company for a significant figure.

(ii) Software developed by the Smart Services CRC could share documents and images on any surface in the same room or across the world, but when I arrived, it was called ‘Tabletop’ and sat on a table in a wooden crate.  Customers often assumed the technology was the hardware and that it was unfinished. We renamed the software Cruiser and consistently described it as ‘connected surfaces software’. We invested in a futuristic purpose-built table to replace the wooden box, set up an interactive whiteboard and had professional photos taken. Sales kicked off and customers stopped asking if it was in beta!

Customers Rule Completely

Most researchers think the technology is the most important thing in commercialisation. It’s not; the customer is. If customers don’t want what you have, think it’s too expensive or too difficult to use or buy, if they don’t understand it, or if they’ve simply never heard of it, then you won’t make sales. Marketing is creating a product that customers will want, at a price they’ll pay, in a location (real or virtual) they’ll visit.

In Summary

Focus on the customer’s problem and build only what they need Focus on research challenges and build every possible feature into your product
Listen to customers early and use their input and feedback to refine your product Leave customers out of product development or ignore their feedback until it’s too late
View marketing as an investment View marketing as a cost
Use commercialisation/marketing experts Expect technical staff or marketing interns to lead commercialisation
Engage commercialisation/marketing staff at the start of a CRC Hire commercialisation/marketing staff at the last minute
Prepare commercialisation and marketing strategies and plans Conduct commercialisation and marketing activities ad hoc

And consider marketing from this perspective. You wouldn’t employ an honours student to run your research management, so don’t use a marketing intern to lead your marketing or commercialisation of your new technology.