Commercialisation of knowledge to benefit society

Professor Anthony Butler is a founder of MARS Bioimaging Ltd, a New Zealand manufacturer of spectral CT scanners (colour x-ray scanners), and an academic at the University of Canterbury and the University of Otago. MARS Bioimaging is delivering the world’s first commercial pre-clinical spectral CT product. The MARS program recently won the award for best translational research project at the annual NZ HealthTech meeting.

Commercialisation is not a dirty word. For some types of research, commercialisation is the best way to ensure new knowledge advances our society’s health, environment, and economy.
When it comes to commercialisation, I believe we academics often fall into two problematic categories: trying to commercialise our research too early, or conversely waiting too long. Both of these can fail to realise all the potential benefits to New Zealanders from the transfer of our research to our community.

A historically common university commercialisation process is to license the new knowledge to an external company as early as possible, usually stopping further research. With this early disengagement from research, a common outcome is that a small license fee is obtained or a small New Zealand company is created. Often the main benefactor from this scenario is larger international companies with the funding and resourcing to continue the development, gaining most of the commercial benefits from the original innovation.
Alternatively, universities can be guilty of holding on to research with commercial potential for too long, solely keeping it as a research project. In doing so, no customer or user feedback is ever sought or received, making it difficult to really address any problem the research is trying to solve. The researchers continue to refine their concepts but delay the impact on society or allow international competitors to gain market share.

As a founder of MARS Bioimaging Ltd, I kept close ties with the University of Canterbury (UC). Our new small company was able to take advantage of the physics and engineering resources, and accelerate knowledge transfer, training our own workforce. I also maintained my links with Canterbury DHB and the University of Otago (UO). This allowed us to have good user feedback and for local medical researchers to demonstrate the benefits of the technology, accelerating exports. The local universities have benefited with dozens of students, hundreds of scientific papers, money from research grants, and prestigious international collaborations.

Over the past 12 years, we have essentially established a new industry in New Zealand for colour 3-D X-ray imaging. To date, we’ve had more than 35 current or completed PhDs students; worked with and upskilled many local New Zealand businesses; created dozens of international partnerships; and generated significant export revenue.

MARS Bioimaging’s journey to commercialisation is more akin to the process used by leading universities in the United States. We incubated the company within the UC system, allowing it to start performing normal commercial functions such as sales, while retaining access to UC and UO PhD students, research facilities and other resources. For example, we benefited from access to academics in different fields and UC facilities to develop the components we needed for prototyping.

For us, the Intellectual Property (IP) was put into a New Zealand company, MARS Bioimaging, but the research and development has remained within the universities. By choosing not to divorce from the university system, we have accelerated the knowledge transfer from research to product and into clinical applications with mutual benefits to the universities, the company, and New Zealand society.

For most academics I’ve met, the motivation is ultimately to improve society through your research. Commercialisation is one of the mechanisms likely to help you to have real impact on the world. I tell my students that it is fine to publish papers, but what they should really aim for is to turn their knowledge into something usable by others – this is an important way academics can truly advance humanity and make improvements to quality of life.

At the University of Canterbury, Professor Butler is a researcher in the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences and at the University of Otago, Christchurch he is Head of the Department of Radiology. In 2007 he founded MARS Bioimaging Ltd with his father, University of Canterbury Professor Phil Butler. In addition, he is an Associate Director of the NZ MedTech CoRE; a clinical radiologist at Canterbury District Health Board; and a member of several experiments at CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research).

By Aleisha Blake

Phil Butler demonstrating the prototype for upper extremity scanning.