Analysis and Commentary

Should Australia catapult its industry growth centres?

Analysis and Commentary

By Peter Roberts

Christian Porter has had a lot of stick in recent weeks, but there is no doubt the new industry minister needs to quickly put recent controversies behind him and get on top of critical decisions that must be made in the portfolio.

Not only must he implement the modern manufacturing initiative of his predecessor, Karen Andrews, but decisions await on the future of the critically important industry growth centres and the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC).

There are industry growth centres in advanced manufacturing (AMGC), cyber security (AustCyber), food and agribusiness (FIAL), medical technologies and pharmaceuticals (MTPConnect), mining equipment, technology and services (METS Ignited) and oil, gas and energy resources (NERA).

Acronyms abound but the growth centres are coming to the end of their planned lives.

The grants they have made direct to companies to support projects have spurred, to varying degrees of success, innovation in their fields.

The IMCRC’s model has been more focused on kick-starting collaboration between companies and with technologists and researchers – probably Australian industry’s weakest point.

IMCRC is part of the highly successful CRC model, co-funding, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, broad, multidisciplinary and industry-led research projects that deliver commercial outcomes.

As impactful as the growth centres have been, they have been they have neither the scale nor the mission of the two exemplars in the industry policy field worldwide – Germany’s 72 Fraunhofer Institutes which spend 2.8 million Euros annually on applied industry research, and the UK’s Catapult network which has seen 2.5 billion pounds of public and private sector investment.

The UK government’s just released review of the Catapult network reveals 2,000 academic collaborations, 14,750 industry collaborations with more than 8,000 SME’s involved.

Success has varied from centre to centre, with the greatest success in supporting innovation at mid-to-high technology readiness levels, growing sectors, providing expertise on private and public funding and establishing unique collaborations.

Much in the review was to do with governance, and this is a critical takeaway for Australia.

The Catapults are overseen by an independent body Innovate UK reporting to the minister, and not just by the minister’s office itself.

Australia has Industry Innovation and Science Australia which provides advice to government on industry, innovation, science and research – but it has no power to actually do anything.

This is the body that should be made truly independent and, with a revised structure and mission, oversee the development of a national network of Catapult-like centres. Which after all was the original intended operating model of the growth centres.

Certainly this network should draw on growth centre leadership, expertise and membership.

It would also benefit from the experience of the IMCRC and genuinely industry-led facilities such as the newly established Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Hub in Brisbane.

But most importantly it should evolve towards co-investment on projects involving research organisations and universities rather than today’s mainly grant funding improvement to a company’s capabilities, often with minimmal university involvement.

It is true that sometimes the growth centres’ funding has spurred this link with applied research – but this is the real core of the achievement of the Catapults and Fraunhofer Institutes.

Picture: IMCRC

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