Commercialisation of university research - a two-sided coin

Late in the spring of 1981, in a basement of the Australian National University, the first SHRIMP measured the isotope ratio 206Pb/238U in a mineral grain for the very first time. This milestone in in-situ U-Pb geochronology passed almost unnoticed by the ANU research community and was certainly far below the radar of the national media, but it marked the realisation of an idea born nearly 10 years earlier. Such is the time scale of scientific innovation.

The building of the SHRIMP (Sensitive High Resolution Ion MicroProbe) is one of the late-20th century success stories in Australian geoscience, an example of what can be achieved if a researcher of vision and conviction is supported by a department head prepared to take a risk.

In the early 1970s, when analyses of samples returned from the Moon were at their height, global competition between laboratories was intense, driving innovation in analytical procedures and instrumentation at a furious pace. Samples were scarce and valuable, so the pressure was on to learn more and more from less and less.

For most analysts engaged in measuring the ages of lunar samples this meant miniaturising chemical procedures, but physical chemist CA Andersen at Applied Research Laboratories in California thought outside the box. Instead of using wet chemistry to dissolve mineral grains and separate the elements required for isotopic analysis, he dated some samples using an ion microprobe. This new instrument operated by eroding the surface of a mineral grain with a high-energy ion beam and injecting the sputtered ions directly into a mass spectrometer.

Isotope geochemists at ANU saw the potential of the new technique immediately and lobbied to purchase such an instrument, but the cost was prohibitive. A fortunate outcome in retrospect, because it was soon realised that the ARL ion microprobe had a major deficiency: it had insufficient mass resolution to eliminate interfering signals and give accurate results, even on minerals with simple chemical compositions.

However, no high-mass resolution ion microprobe was available commercially. It was therefore decided, despite advice to the contrary from international experts, to custom- build a high-resolution instrument in Canberra. Key factors in the decision were a conviction that unique instrumentation would produce unique scientific results, the availability of machinists and electronics specialists at the ANU who could do the job, and support from the Australian Bureau of Mineral Resources.

The driving force behind the project was Bill Compston (now Emeritus Professor Bill Compston FAA FRS FTSE), aided by ion optics physicist Steve Clement and a small technical staff at the newly formed ANU Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES). After six years of multiple trials and tribulations the new ion probe, sporting a mass spectrometer more than three times the size of any commercial instrument (aptly christened the SHRIMP), produced its first ion beam, and two years later it measured its first mineral Pb/U age.

That first measurement was the beginning of a long and remarkably successful scientific ‘career’ for the SHRIMP. It also became a commercial success. Recognition of the commercial potential forced the RSES in particular to consider very carefully how, and to what extent, a university research school and its staff should become involved in commercial activities.

Should academic staff employed to carry out research devote their time instead to providing commercial analytical services? Should technical staff employed to support research be diverted to do the same? Should academic staff devote time to commercialising inventions developed using taxpayers’ money? Should such inventions be made available to competing organisations? Should universities be engaged in commercialisation at all?

RSES solved the first problems by employing a small group of academic and technical staff specifically to provide analytical services (PRISE – Precise Radiogenic Isotope Services). This self-funding group not only relieved the pressure on other staff but provided a well-defined portal for commercial services in the school. Good for the school, but not so good for PRISE, whose need to function under commercial imperatives continues to result in occasional tensions over timely access to RSES facilities.

Such was the demand for SHRIMPs that ANU established Australian Scientific Instruments to coordinate their manufacture. ASI was later launched as a proprietary company with ANU as sole shareholder, and has since become a major manufacturer of scientific instruments invented at the university and other publicly funded Australian research laboratories.

There are now 12 SHRIMPs in operation in six countries, and four more under construction. Many purchasers are government departments, alone or in consortia with universities – for example, Geoscience Australia, Curtin University with the Geological Survey of Western Australia, the Canadian Geological Survey, Stanford University in consortium with the US Geological Survey, the All-Russia Geological Research Institute, and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences. Most SHRIMP laboratories service not only the staff of their host institution but also a network of scientific collaborators and industry customers.

The close links between ASI and the RSES are of mutual benefit. The company benefits from the established high reputation of the university which, in turn, benefits financially from SHRIMP sales. Research at the university feeds back into the SHRIMP development and marketing by ASI, and developments by ASI feed back into university research. ASI has access to specialist university facilities and personnel and vice versa. Through the university, ASI has access to a global network of research scientists, and through ASI the university has access to a global network of SHRIMP researchers.

However, the link has not been without its complications. The initial excitement of RSES staff in participating in a commercial venture was gradually replaced by a realisation that with commercialisation comes a responsibility to the customer and, at times, the demands of customers and the manufacturing schedule are at odds with the academic expectations of the university.

My own experience was that, as the principal scientific liaison between ASI and RSES, these competing demands became increasingly difficult to balance. Eventually, I was forced to give up my full-time research position at RSES and take a 25 per cent appointment as Applications Scientist (and subsequently Chief Scientist) at ASI. In retrospect, this was a wise decision as it gave me a defined role in both organisations. I would encourage any other academic trying to bridge the divide between industry and academe to consider doing the same, although be prepared to become the ‘odd man out’ in both settings.

Commercialisation of the SHRIMP and its widespread application to dating Precambrian rocks has led to a huge increase in our understanding of continental geology and the early history of the Earth, and made a major contribution to the success of mineral exploration in Australia. Commercialisation has also greatly enhanced SHRIMP’s impact on international geoscience, and thereby Australia’s international standing as a source of scientific innovation.

This impact would have been much smaller had the instrument remained the sole possession of ANU. Although SHRIMP sales have deprived Australian researchers of a unique competitive advantage over their international colleagues, the pressure to be competitive has stimulated rapid development of the instrumentation and analytical techniques.

Driven by commercial imperatives, ASI responds much faster to research imperatives than is possible at RSES. Instrument testing, marketing and customer training can place heavy demands on university staff, but the international networks established through SHRIMP sales have opened doors to collaborations in research from which Australia has already gained substantial benefits.

Dr Ian Williams FTSE is a Senior Fellow at the Research School of Earth Sciences, ANU, and Chief Scientist at Australian Scientific Instruments. After completing his PhD at ANU, he spent three years at the California Institute of Technology before returning to ANU in 1981 to help develop the newly built SHRIMP ion microprobe and its geological applications. His research interests include instrumentation and techniques for ion probe analysis, and the age, origin and history of the Earth’s crust, particularly the early Earth, granite genesis, polymetamorphic terranes and the sedimentary record of tectonics. He joined ASI in 2002.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the February 2008 edition of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering's (ATSE) Focus Magazine (number 148, Innovation). This article is under copyright, for permission to reproduce please contact ATSE.