UNSW is joining forces with China’s innovation system to develop a science and technology precinct in the heart of Sydney in one of the biggest innovation initiatives by Chinese companies outside China.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang unveiled the partnership at a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in April.

Backed by leading Chinese companies and the Ministry of Science & Technology’s flagship “Torch” high technology industry development program, the partnership will deliver a major boost in research and development funding for Australian research through a new science and technology precinct at UNSW. An initial $30 million investment has been secured by eight Chinese companies to support Australian research in advanced materials, biotechnology, energy, and environmental engineering.

The precinct will give researchers access to new R&D funding to work in Australia to translate local breakthroughs into commercially viable technologies. Deloitte Access Economics has estimated it could boost GDP by $1.1 billion in its first decade alone.

“This partnership is a global first and has the potential to reset the Australia-China bilateral relationship and boost the nation’s innovation system,” Professor Jacobs said from Bejing shortly after the signing ceremony.

“This is about future proofing our national competitiveness by strategically positioning Australia as China becomes the world’s largest investor in R&D and the 21st century’s science and technology superpower.”

China’s Torch program has been successfully co-locating Chinese businesses, universities and research organisations in science and technology precincts to drive innovation since 1988. The 150 Torch precincts in China now generate some 7% of GDP, 10% of industrial output and 16% of export value.

“This partnership is a global first and has the potential to reset the Australia-China bilateral relationship and boost the nation’s innovation system"

“The Torch partnership is an important milestone in the further development of Sydney as Australia’s global innovation city. It’s an example of UNSW proactively taking the initiative to put some real momentum behind Australia’s National Innovation and Science Agenda,” Professor Jacobs said.

Initially, the first group of UNSW Torch industry partners will set up incubator spaces on the Kensington campus in close proximity to researchers and a growing community of student entrepreneurs. Investment is expected to build to $100 million, enabling the construction of a new purpose-built, globally connected UNSW innovation precinct by 2025.

“The statistics are staggering,” said Laurie Pearcey, UNSW’s International Executive Director and former Chief Executive of the Australia China Business Council. “In China, Torch zones are home to over 50,000 tenant companies and invest RMB 347 billion ($A70 billion) in R&D. The OECD forecasts China will overtake the US as the world’s largest investor in R&D by 2019. This is a major shift in the global knowledge economy and Australia must be strategically positioned.”

With two-way trade worth $160 billion annually, China is already our largest trading partner, Pearcey said. “Although China will continue to value us as a quarry and a food bowl, our once overwhelmingly dominant iron ore exports have fallen in value from 62% of our earnings from exports to China in 2010-11, to 23% last year.

“As mining investment contracts and commodity prices cool, Australia has an opportunity to leverage its world-class universities, the tens of thousands of Chinese students studying here and our strong links to Asia to meet the challenges of the ideas boom,” Pearcey said.

“The UNSW Torch Innovation Precinct is one approach to building partnerships. We need as many initiatives and ideas like this on the table as possible if we are to redraw the Australia China paradigm.”