Co-founder of a successful textile technology business, Murray Height, shares some insights from his collaboration with researchers. According to Murray, the relationship is more important than an agreement on intellectual property (IP). Of course, it is still fundamental.
The idea for his company, HeiQ, came after a 2004 weekend hiking in the Swiss Alps with his friend, and later business partner, Carlo Centonze. The pair were lamenting the problem of their smelly hiking shirts. They wondered if there was a business opportunity to create a new (and less pungent) material for clothing.
Fast forward 10 years and the friends, in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, launched their start-up, HeiQ a leading provider of textile innovation. They have created some of the most high-performance textiles in the market (and odour-free technology!).
After their success in Switzerland, Murray and Carlo decided to open a subsidiary of the business in Geelong, with Murray heading up operations. Murray knew he would need to find ways to keep innovating to succeed in Australia. This is something that is at the core of HeiQ’s success.
With this in mind, Murray attended Deakin University’s ‘Innovation Showcase’. He discovered that Deakin researchers had developed a technology to produce short polymer fibres in a way that could be scaled-up. The fibres were novel cylindrical microstructures that offered a unique platform for functionalising surfaces such as textiles. It was just the kind of thing he’d been looking for.
Murray approached the inventors and discovered they were open to collaboration. He then undertook his due diligence.
'Once I had established that the researchers were open to collaborating, I invested a lot of time in due diligence to... understand the technology. In the very early phases, I had to consider the economic potential and novelty of the technology and how it could be used by HeiQ.'
To gain this level of understanding, Murray said it was essential that he interact directly with the research team.
‘Working directly with the researchers... allowed me to get the detail of the technology which I needed to understand its application. The researchers were very open to sharing because they had already sought patent protection, so disclosure was not a concern. Had I not had that direct contact and ability to talk openly, and understand how the researchers operated, it would have been very difficult.’
Expectations and intellectual property
With confidence that the technology had potential, HeiQ and Deakin established a collaborative research agreement. It included:
- clear and shared goals
- a clear understanding of IP ownership
- funding sources
- initial timeframes.
Murray explains that although the research agreement was important, there was something even more fundamental to the success of their collaboration.
‘The relationship we developed with the research team has been pivotal to our mutual success. Having an open dialogue, clear understanding and shared expectations... underpinned everything else.
If your interests aren’t aligned, then it’s... not the right collaboration. We’ve found that being able to test new ideas with a university partner is a great starting point but working collaboratively to develop something is... where the value lies.’
It’s a deceptively simple concept that collaboration relies on relationships. Murray insists this was fundamental to their success.
‘The nature of the collaboration and the dynamic behind it is so fundamental to success and continued collaboration.’
The initial collaboration was a short-term pre-project to test a couple of ideas and further vet the technology. This lead to a multi-year program to advance the development and commercialisation of the short fibre technology platform and products.
The first product which HeiQ was able to take to market was HeiQ Real Silk. It reproduces the luxurious tactile properties of silk using jointly developed technology. Murray believes that the collaboration between Deakin and HeiQ made commercialisation possible.
‘Intellectual property... has no value until it’s used to create something. Collaboration allowed us to test the technology and... solve problems. While the initial idea or invention is important, the real value is in collaboration and creating something usable and marketable – then it becomes innovation.’
The team has now developed many products through collaboration. Each of these products draws upon the IP of more than 5 patent families developed jointly with Deakin researchers. They all had a clear framework and pathway to commercialisation.
Advice for others looking to collaborate
HeiQ had extraordinary success in fostering its relationship with Deakin University. We asked Murray for his advice to other businesses considering a collaborative journey.
‘If you have curiosity and a desire to change or to do things differently, then consider who can help you get there and don’t be afraid to have those conversations. Explore possibilities, find points of alignment. There are times when a potential collaboration won’t be right, but if you keep exploring you could find a... great partner to help you advance to where you need to go and stay a step ahead of the pack.’