Torch Innovation Precinct set to illuminate UNSW campus

In April this year, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang formed an unprecedented $100 million partnership connecting Australian researchers with Chinese companies. The partnership will create a new Torch Innovation Precinct hosted at UNSW’s Kensington campus, to support research into biotechnology, advanced materials, photovoltaics, energy storage as well as many other technologies.

UNSW Dean of Engineering, Mark Hoffman

The Torch Innovation Precinct is the first such precinct outside China. Since its genesis in 1988, the China Torch Program has built 150 precincts across China. These precincts are engines of economic growth, responsible for more than 11 per cent of China’s entire GDP, more than 10 per cent of total industrial value and close to 16 per cent of total foreign exports.

In Australia, the Torch Innovation Precinct is a perfect fit with the Commonwealth government’s innovation vision, says UNSW Dean of Engineering Professor Mark Hoffman, and advances UNSW’s 2025 Strategy.  “We want our research to grow on campus, have a greater impact on society and a much stronger focus on commercialisation,” he says.

In the first nine months since its launch, eight Chinese companies have invested $30 million in the precinct. The first step is well underway; providing office and laboratory space to enable several projects to begin.

These include a partnership between China’s Hangzhou Cables and a team of UNSW researchers headed by Professor Sean Li. The team is creating conductive electrical transmission cables and have already developed an initial prototype. The project aims to improve China’s power grid efficiency by five per cent.

UNSW's Associate Dean for Industry and Innovation, Ian Gibson

In a second project, five Chinese companies are partnering with UNSW researchers developing silicon solar cell technology. In the Solar Industrial Research Facility (SIRF) located on campus, the researchers have already built a pilot manufacturing plant to produce these cells.

“The SIRF enables us to take technology that starts off in the lab and demonstrate its application in a realisable production line,” says Professor Ian Gibson, Associate Dean for Industry and Innovation.

Chinese companies are also showing great interest in partnering with UNSW researchers in the biotechnology field, Gibson adds.

Simultaneously, the University is in the midst of a feasibility study to decide on a 20,000 square-metre site for the construction of the physical Torch Innovation Precinct, due to be completed by 2020.

The new building will house an Australian Research & Development base for up to ten large Chinese companies whose ongoing investment will drive the project, and also accommodate a Technology Business Incubator to support up to 100 Chinese and Australian small to medium enterprises (SMEs).

Supported by the Chinese and Australian government, the Incubator will also run Student Innofund, open to young Chinese student entrepreneurs currently studying in Australia (57,000 are in NSW), and Australian start-ups seeking to export ideas and products to China.

“This will be a great initiative for Australian start-ups,” Hoffman says. “It will provide incredible exposure for them to Chinese companies. There is a global trend that instead of investing in their own R&D, multinational companies are buying start-ups. We could also envisage involvement of other multinational companies in this space.”

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