OPINION: If universities really want to drive innovation they must consider offering businesses access to much of what they discover and invent for free.

This may seem counterintuitive given that intellectual property rights aim to do much the same thing by barricading new knowledge behind costly patents and licences. Our complex IP rights systems have long been underpinned by the assumption that it is the profit incentive that the control of IP offers that fuels discovery and innovation.

The experience of many universities, including University of NSW, tells us something different. So does a new report by the Australian Industry Group that found IP rights can hobble the global knowledge system we rely on to solve complex problems and improve lives.

When new knowledge is excessively compartmentalised and restricted, promising results in a lab may prove too arduous and expensive to take on to application or commercialisation. Likewise, many researchers seeking to build on existing knowledge and discovery risk finding themselves blocked.

At the same time, the power of IP rights to lock away knowledge is under unprecedented attack. Globalisation, digitisation and rapid advances in communications technology are formidable tools for collaboration and innovation, but they are also proving useful to commercial pirates and copycat industries.

As far back as the mid-1980s, the first seeds of the open-source movement and its myriad new financial models emerged. While computer software was the first such free IP, similar initiatives have followed.

For public universities, there are two challenges. First, the cost of research is outstripping the funds available through grant schemes. Second, the remit of public universities is not to make money but to make a difference. There are many who argue that income derived from IP and commercialisation should be helping universities achieve their primary goal of transforming lives.

However, evidence from British universities backs the AI Group report, showing that IP commercialisation represents less than 5 per cent of their non-grant research income. UNSW data suggests much the same thing; celebrated Australian successes such as the Cochlear bionic ear, for example, are the exception, not the norm.

That’s why UNSW was an early adopter in freeing up access to IP: our Easy Access IP model has since been embraced by a modest global network of universities, including seven in Australia. This is part of our wider commitment to extending innovation to the way we operate.

The creation of a new division of enterprise is the latest step. Instead of focusing on a narrow IP income stream, the new division will enable us to foster and build on the 50 per cent of our knowledge exchange income generated via research partnerships and the 30 per cent that consultancies and training for industry brings in. Rather than seeking to protect and monetise every discovery and new idea, we are seeking to maximise the free flow of knowledge by prioritising new partnerships with businesses — large and small, mature or start-ups — and other research organisations, industries, government policymakers and communities. And, rather than seeking equity and income from start-up companies, we are encouraging entrepreneurial students and staff to build companies that generate socioeconomic returns.

This means instead of going it alone with one part of a solution, we can use our strategic research alliances to deliver solutions of real impact. We are confident that by sharing, not restricting, knowledge and by collaborating, we will double the revenue we generate through knowledge exchange in the next five years.

A decade-long study of university-industry partnerships and their impact in Brtiain supports this approach.

Nearly 7000 case studies were assessed, revealing a strong correlation between the quality of research and the impact of that research. Interestingly, only 6 per cent of the case studies featured IP commercialisation.

If universities open up high-quality research by promoting knowledge exchange and dismantling IP barriers, high-quality partnerships follow. Consequently, so do meaningful social and economic impacts and favourable financial returns.

Brian Boyle is UNSW’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (enterprise). Kevin Cullen is Chief Executive of UNSW Innovations.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.