10 August 2020

Engineers will play a crucial role in Australia's economic recovery once the COVID-19 pandemic passes, by driving old-school infrastructure projects and also the push for innovation across a variety of industries to create new companies and jobs.

Australia's universities, reeling from a big financial hit from a sharp decline in international students attending their premises, are accelerating their efforts on a number of fronts. The spotlight isn't just on the traditional building of bridges, tunnels and new transport links, but relatively new sectors such as medical devices.

University of Melbourne Professor David Grayden, the Clifford Chair of Neural Engineering, is also a director of the Medical Technologies Research Platform at the university's School of Engineering.

"Australia’s economic recovery and growth into the future will be greatly enhanced by the development of even closer links between engineering researchers and the business sector,'' Professor Grayden said.

He said one of the major areas of focus was on setting up research platforms that forge close links with industry to solve real-world problems.

Professor David Grayden from University of Melbourne

He said that sharp focus on industry had been carefully woven through all of the teaching and learning happening in the engineering school.

The university has also been on the front foot with a bio-design innovation program.

Professor Grayden said it was a joint teaching program offered since 2016 at the University of Melbourne by the Melbourne School of Engineering and the Melbourne Business School.

It is based on the program initially developed by California's Stanford University and on the model adapted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"The program has been extremely successful since its inception, with 10 companies formed from 18 teams between 2016 to 2019,'' he said.

The aim of bio-design is to nurture high-quality founders to solve ambitious problems and form start-ups with valuable intellectual property and sound business models.

"Students in multi-disciplinary teams learn to identify unmet medical needs, develop and prototype concepts, and generate business plans to support the creation of medical devices,'' Professor Grayden said.

Students learn the process of medtech innovation though project-based learning over two consecutive semesters and there is a big practical push.

They work in hospitals and speak first-hand to those doctors working at the frontline who might be frustrated at a gap in the existing highly specialised tools of the trade.

Doctor holding stethoscope

Professor Grayden said the idea was to produce rigorous ideas and processes ,which meant prototypes and business plans were ready for commercialisation. Weaker concepts didn't make it that far and were weeded out.

He said a key area of research with a strong focus on real-world problems and translation to clinical practice is “electric medicine”. The university has led research in devices for conditions including epilepsy, blindness and paralysis.

Professor Emily Hilder from the University of South Australia's Future Industries Institute says tighter links between researchers and the business sector "have been shown to drive new discoveries through to impact''.

"These close links allow for much more targeted and rapid translation of new engineering discoveries as well as the opportunity to solve key engineering challenges for businesses,'' she said.

The pandemic had brought a rethink in the way Australia's economy operated.

"One of the biggest challenges into the future is that we now see an increasing reliance on having a local supply chain and in many cases this will require rebuilding this in Australia, and needing the appropriate research and development base to do that,'' Professor Hilder said.

With so much of the business sector in the small-to-medium sized category, they often don't have the internal capacity to take it on.

"Many businesses do not have internal R&D capacity to do this but can access that through partnerships with researchers, in our universities and public-funded research agencies such as the CSIRO,'' she said.

She said the University of South Australia tried to partner with businesses as early as possible and often at conception of a project.

Drilling rigs at a Boart Longyear storage yard

She said the first question to those businesses was to ask "what keeps them awake at night" and to tackle those challenges, rather than arrive with a pre-developed solution.

Professor Hilder said since 2016 the university had run a program supported with $7.5 million funding from the SA Government, to engage with businesses.

More than 200 businesses had engaged through the Future Industries Accelerator.

She said the university had fostered a 17-year partnership with Motherson Innovation, primarily an automotive manufacturer but now diversified into other areas including medical devices.

Another project involved the university, Laserbond and Boart Longyear for the development of new additive manufacturing technologies that can be applied to drilling systems to improve wear life and productivity.

"This is a critical issue for the mining industry with high-wearing components being the primary driver of drilling costs,'' she said. Elizabeth Croft from Monash University

The basics, though, still have appeal to prospective students. Professor Hilder said the most popular strand of engineering was civil engineering.

"In good economic times, private activity is strong, and in slow economic times, governments usually use the sector to stimulate the economy,'' she said.

Closer links between universities and business is also an important element at Monash University in Victoria.

Professor Elizabeth Croft, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University says researchers have to have one eye on commercial applications.

"It is crucial for Australia’s economic recovery and future growth that we continue to build stronger partnerships between engineering researchers and the business sector,'' Professor Croft said.

She cites Woodside Energy's push to become a leader in clean hydrogen.

Monash has partnered with Woodside Energy to co-develop and deliver the technology, and train the workforce that will hopefully eventuate as Australia searches for more clean energy.

Professor Croft said Monash also has partnerships in other areas such as biomedical technology, agriculture, and smart manufacturing.

She said the university was working with a number of companies, including Ionic Industries, to develop the next generation of Lithium-ion batteries. "This battery technology has the potential to disrupt the energy storage market by providing long lasting and high density battery storage,'' she said.