Driven by their passion to help combat climate change, three chemical engineers commercialised their ground-breaking methane capture technology. To help others along the commercialisation way, they recently shared their learnings in the prestigious journal Nature.
The world needs new technologies for tackling challenges such as climate change. Yet, getting innovations to market requires many skills far removed from university research. Dr Kevin Gang Li and Dr Guoping Hu from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, and Professor Eric F May
from the University of Western Australia managed to commercialise their innovative methane-capture technology from the lab to market in only 10 years – a success story for the world of industrial chemistry.
The researchers developed a new type of adsorbent material (ionic liquidic zeolites) that removes methane – a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions – from streams of mixed waste gases. The material has potential in locations such as liquified natural gas refineries,
coal-gas enrichment plants and landfill sites, and renewable bio-gas production facilities. It is now being produced via the spin-out company Gas Capture Technologies P/L.
However, beyond an exciting product, the authors say it takes “time, money, business management and collaboration across many sectors” to successfully commercialise a product. They suggest that “clear identification of the market position of a product, strategic collaboration with
key partners, and access to excellent manufacturing and engineering capabilities make a new technology more likely to cross the finish line”.
Identify the product
Start with the ‘5W’ questions. What is the product, who are the customers, what are the competing technologies, what is the product’s economic value, and what are its social and environmental impacts? The answers will direct you to the right industries, sources of finance and marketing messages.
At each step, listen to what customers, partners and other stakeholders say. The product might not be what the market needs right now. The business model might not be profitable. Answers to the ‘5W’ questions might change during the journey, as the technology and supply chain develop. Gather data to define the answers more precisely. Keep an eye on global shifts, in technology, economies and policy.
Protect intellectual property
Should you patent your technology or use trade secrets, or do a combination of both? What aspect do you patent and do you have the funds required? This lengthy and expensive process must be factored into your journey and can cause dilemmas for academics who feel conflicted about limiting access to their work. It might require walking a narrow line, but it is possible to publish journal articles and patent your discoveries without disclosing sensitive manufacturing information.
Secure funding and partnerships
It could take millions of dollars to move a technology from laboratory research through industrial demonstration to commercial-plant trials. While obtaining research funding from bodies such as the Australian Research Council is familiar to most researchers, the time when the pool of research funding has depleted is when most projects stall.
The next stage of accessing funds beyond research grants is all about building partnerships with industry and other specialist groups, such as mechanical and electrical engineers, business managers, economists, legal consultants and accountants. Building these connections can make all the difference.
Further, seek strategic partnerships as soon as the product is identified. Smaller and medium sized enterprises may be less risk averse. Forge international links to open up funding channels, areas of expertise, potential markets and find collaborators where conditions are most favourable. Find grants that boost collaboration such as the Australian Government’s Global Innovation Linkages Program.
Engage good engineers
Good engineering is crucial. Working closely with production engineers can speed things up. Using established facilities, engineers and support teams will probably be faster and cheaper than starting from scratch.
To build trust and avoid delays and tension, effective communication is crucial. While broad teams of accountants, scientists, engineers and salespeople are essential, they often speak a different ‘language’. A balance needs to be found to engage the whole team and achieve efficiency. This applies equally for communication across disciplines.
Government and institutional support for commercialisation is crucial. (At the University of Melbourne, the Translating Your Research at Melbourne (TRAM) program is a good place to start).
Be proactive, patient and persevering
Lab researchers who are feeling entrepreneurial and believe they have a great product or solution should feel encouraged to embrace the journey, with patience, perseverance and a proactive approach.
‘We commercialized a methane capture technology in ten years — here’s how.’ Nature, 604, 242-245 (2022): https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00999-3
First published on 24 May 2022.
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