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Training industry-ready researchers for increased societal impact a key focus for universities of the future

Rachel Wells

It’s 3.30 on a Thursday afternoon in mid-July and 30 PhD and Masters students from RMIT and the University of Melbourne have come together online to pitch their healthtech and sportstech startup ideas to dozens of their fellow researchers, supervisors, academics and business and industry leaders dotted around the country.

“So, just to start, I’d like everyone to close their eyes and take a big, deep breath in through your nose, and a deep breath out,” says PhD student Caoimhe Moran, as she goes on to spruik the benefits of her team’s startup idea, Recharge – a mindfulness program designed specifically for the workplace to enhance employee wellbeing and boost productivity.

“Hi, I’m Dr Joy Hussein, I’m a GP and also the founder of SkinsScape.My team and I are on a mission to get you to explore the frontier of skin health,” says Dr Hussein, an RMIT PhD student, when it is her turn to pitch her team’s startup idea – a concept, which  would enable consumers with skin conditions to take a swab of their skin and have its microbiome analysed.

Caoimhe and Dr Hussein are part of the inaugural cohort of the 12-week Open Talent Pathways (OTP) program, an entrepreneurial initiative launched by the Melbourne Innovation Districts and co-developed by MID partners, RMIT, the University of Melbourne and the City of Melbourne, which gives Masters and PhDstudents at both universities the opportunity to develop their own startup idea and grow their network in the innovation ecosystem.

OTP program manager. Dr Max Theilacker, says  Open Talent Pathways is part of an important and growing movement that focuses on “better preparing researchers for the commercial world.”

“I think in the past what we tried to do a lot was to entice industry to simply use the research results that come straight out of universities, but often what we find is this unsatisfied need for translation between the scientific community and commercial entities, who tend to look at things very differently.”

“What we’re trying to do now, with programs like OTP, is flip that a bit and equip researchers with the skills to think about their own research in more commercial or applied terms,” he says.

Dr Theilacker says such an approach, which is growing globally, helps to create greater translation between research and industry by “providing pathways or structures that allow researchers to go straight to a market and solve a problem.”

“OTP takes a bit of a two-pronged approach to this, in that we’re not trying to advise people on their research projects, we just show them a different way of looking at markets and impact, and hopefully in the longer term, help them to think in somewhat more commercial structures or more impact driven structures.”

“It’s something I think we should be doing more of if we want our research to have a greater impact,” he says.

Boaz Kogon, Innovation and Research Associate at RMIT Europe, agrees there needs to be a far greater focus on researcher training and preparing researchers for careers beyond academia in the years to come.

“When it comes to research, I believe that a university’s role is not just in doing research, but also in training researchers, and I think that’s becoming more relevant and more recognised than ever,” Mr Kogon says.

“So, increasingly I think we need to be thinking about, ‘so, how do we prepare researchers for different careers and how do we do that in different ways?”

“Because if we train a PhD student, we’re not just training them to be a university lecturer, we are training them to be a researcher in a pharmaceutical company, or an innovation director in a public policy unit of a government agency, or someone working in an NGO trying to meet the sustainable development goals. So, I  sort of see that we have a really important role to play there.”

Mr Kogon says RMIT is already leading many programs and initiatives aimed at further developing the capabilities of its researchers and their potential for creating even greater impact.

He points to projects such as ECLAUSion – a prestigious PhD program for nanotechnology research delivered by Ecole Centrale de Lyon in France and RMIT  in Australia to support early career researchers to take on transformational research projects with strong links to industry; and EINST4INE – a PhD training network designed to develop a cohort of leaders in research and business, and equip them with a unique set of hybrid tech-digital behavioural skills and cutting-edge knowledge.

Led by Professor Anne-Laure Mention, Director of RMIT’s Global Business Innovation Enabling Capability Platform, EINST4INE belongs to a portfolio of projects, which focus on open innovation, including OpenInnoTrain –  a global network of researchers and industry practitioners working together to help embed research-generated knowledge into practicce.in the sectors of FinTech, Industry 4.0, CleanTech and FoodTech.

Professor Mention believes an increased focus on both promoting the translation of research between university and industry through co-operative networks and open innovation, along with greater investment in researcher training, will become an increased focus of universities and the wider research community into the future.

“Certainly. the global research funding landscape has been heading in this direction for a while already, and it seems reasonable to expect this trend to further amplify in the future, for many reasons, including resources scarcity in a pandemic and post-pandemic context,” she says.

“But beyond contextual elements, a structural evolution of how research is conducted is foreseeable. Increasingly, it will need to be actionable, applied, and usually involve multiple stakeholders early in the process, so as to ensure a faster and wider uptake of the research outputs,” she says.

“That does not prevent blue sky research, and in my view, it should not, but it provides a frame of action that fosters stakeholder engagement, co-design, co-creation and the early and iterative identification of impact pathways.”

Professor Mention believes RMIT’s existing strong connections to industry means it is well-placed to further strengthen its ability to create societal impact through its research and researchers.

“RMIT’s connection to industry is widely praised and this represents a key advantage that we should further pursue, both from a practical perspective, such as through additional cooperation with industry partners, and from a research perspective, such as leading the research agenda from an open innovation, university-industry cooperation perspective.”