Innovation continues to enjoy its moment in the spotlight as the Australian government pushes on with one of its key policy platforms since Malcolm Turnbull took over the leadership. But what does it all mean and has the government’s agenda realised any real impact?

There’s no straightforward definition of what has become the nation’s latest political buzz word – ‘innovation’. In its most basic form, innovation is the implementation of something new. Innovation can mean ‘invention’, something truly pioneering and unique. However, it can also mean working better and more efficiently. It means harnessing existing ideas, products and processes to gain commercial advantage in new ways. Innovation is smart business practice. But how well are we performing as a nation when it comes to sustainable innovation?

Despite unprecedented levels of attention across industry, government and media, independent reports indicate that innovation output in Australia is trending downwards.

According to the 2016 Global Innovation Index*, a report which ranks 128 countries based on their capacities and results for innovation, Australia has dropped two places since 2015 to now rank 19th.

And if we look at the World Economic Forum Competitiveness Report’s 2016-2017 rankings, Australia has slipped one place to 22nd indicating a slight deterioration in national business competitiveness compared with the previous year. Of particular note, Australia is falling behind developed nation peers in the SE Asia and the Oceania region.

One of the most powerful indicators of innovation output is the Australian patent system. According to IP Australia’s 2016 report, patent applications increased 10% from 2014 to 2015, however, this was largely due to non-resident applications. In fact, nearly all patent applications filed at IP Australia (92%) are filed by non-residents. The statistics indicate that Australian entities and individuals are not using our own patent system. The numbers are sobering, especially when we consider that Australia is starting from a very low base (just 28,605 standard patent applications in 2015).

Of the 8% of patents being filed by Australian entities each year, universities are some of the biggest local originators of Australian patent applications. Interestingly, however, WA universities lag behind relative to their east coast counterparts, with only the University of Western Australia appearing in the top 10 universities as patent filers.

There’s no doubt that researchers create a wealth of innovative solutions that could be implemented in the commercial world. Universities talk about collaborating with industry but do they really understand what that means or entails?

The reality is, connections between industry and university are nebulous at best. Universities already know that they need to connect with industry, but how? It’s no longer a case of just publish or perish. We’ve moved beyond that old adage. The Australian Government has announced in no uncertain terms that the higher education research sector in Australia will now be held accountable for improving their collaborations with industry to promote high quality research that will drive innovation and economic prosperity. In other words, universities will be expected to identify industry partners and match their research with a view to gaining a commercial outcome, the impact and success of which will be evaluated by the Australian Research Council. And all the while, they’ll need to continue attracting academics and students.

Just how do we create a culture of innovation and collaboration that serves the research community and attracts industry? And collaborating with industry to capture and commercialise research does not preclude publication of that research.

Edith Cowan University’s (ECU) TheLINK is an example of how some tertiary institutions are getting it right. Aptly named, TheLINK, which was launched in June 2016, is a strategic collaboration between ECU and the City of Joondalup. This digital platform reflects ECU’s commitment to developing strong relationships with industry, academia, local, state and federal government to enable business growth. TheLINK is part of a wider strategy, to build collaboration and innovation.

The future looks bright for universities who can foster an environment where innovation can thrive and be protected.

The difference between those who thrive and those who survive will depend on the individual university’s ability to protect their innovation, engage with industry and publish their work. Ultimately, success will be rewarded to those who do it right and create the right environment for innovation to thrive.

*The Global Innovation Index is produced by the UN agency World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), Cornell University and the international business school, INSEAD.