Dr Thomas Ting is an entrepreneur, business leader, engineer, and researcher who has been involved with projects and enterprises internationally. He is the Deputy Director-Commercialisation in the newly formed Enterprise Hub at the University of South Australia and Director of UniSA Ventures and MPI Biotech. His career spans business, academia and its interfaces, grounded in his introduction to industry through the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program.
During his Bachelor of Engineering degree at Monash University, Thomas sought and took up opportunities to work with industry.
‘A number of my professors at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Monash University were undertaking consulting work with industry,’ he explained. ‘I was involved in their work. I enjoyed those projects immensely, where I could experience the application of my engineering knowledge.’
Seeing his enthusiasm, Emeritus Professors Rhys Jones and Robert Johnston and Professor Wing Kong Chiu of Monash University tapped him on the shoulder and invited him to complete his PhD in chemical engineering with the CRC for Hardwood Fibre and Paper Science. The CRC was co-located with the Australian Pulp and Paper Institute (APPI) based at Monash University.
‘The APPI was the industry’s training ground for pulp and paper engineers. It was the ideal environment to gain exposure to the industry, its current technology, and best practice.’
Thomas said that each PhD student paired up with at least one industry participant interested in their research. His partner was Amcor plc which had a paper division at the time.
‘They took a particular interest in my research and supported it with in-kind personnel such as access to engineers and plant managers, as well as access to their plantations and pulp and paper mills,’ he remarked, before going on to discuss the benefits of this industry collaboration.
‘I was also exposed to people who were running profitable businesses. They were the ones growing plantations, operating pulp and paper mills, and creating valuable products. They provided insights into their challenges and problems, and I then had the opportunity to help solve these through my research. This was a great impetus for me to find new knowledge and create solutions.
‘It was intellectually stimulating and professionally rewarding,’ he added.
Thomas found his research was having a tangible impact. His thesis, an investigation into the wood fibre morphology and how they affect the quality of paper, informed industry operations throughout the supply chain. For example, primary producers could now better ascertain the best species of trees to grow, and manufacturers improved the quality of their paper products as a result.
Thomas cited three benefits of pursuing an industry-focused PhD rather than going directly into industry as an engineer or pursuing an academic career.
‘One is that it gave me an appreciation and importance of knowledge and research. As researchers, we add and improve on the significant body of knowledge that was there already. I am grateful for the work of others who have come before me.
‘The second is realising the importance of understanding the industry problems in the marketplace, and the world. Connecting to people in the trenches who can explain their challenges. They certainly helped me comprehend and understand the industry context and informed me why research is important.
‘The third benefit is that it gave me additional career opportunities. Learning to navigate the intersection of industry and academia allowed me the flexibility to work in both.’
After his PhD, Thomas worked in diverse sectors and contexts – including start-ups, multi-national corporations, CRCs, and academia in Australia as well as Asia, Europe, South Africa, and North America. He is now the Deputy Director of Commercialisation of the Enterprise Hub at the University of South Australia and a Board Director of UniSA Ventures where he leads a team of Commercialisation Managers.
‘I found UniSA to be a university highly engaged with industry, which attracted me to their commercialisation area. Recently, UniSA established the Enterprise Hub, which engages in commercialisation, incubation, and business development. My team identifies investment opportunities, looks at licensing and assignment of IP for the university, and spins out companies which can employ university researchers,’ he said.
Thomas concluded the interview by sharing a few words for the next generation of people operating at the interface between industry and research.
‘I would encourage participation in a CRC. It gives you an excellent grounding with well-funded research and an effective introduction to one or more industries. You will begin to appreciate the interplay between academia’s needs from research and the outcomes that industry seeks.
‘Secondly, I would recommend those that are doing a master’s or PhD program to pursue diverse pathways after graduation. Spend the early part of your career exploring different opportunities and do not limit yourself to one area.
Innovation comes from the application of knowledge in new ways to drive new industries and new horizons. We need more people who can translate research into products and services for society’s benefit. We do that by building our understanding of the end users, supply chain and customers. That is a unique skill set, which develops with time and participation.
‘Lastly, if you have a great idea, discuss this with your supervisor or a confidant, and look for opportunities to support its translation or commercialisation. There are excellent support networks available within and external to the CRCs and universities. This journey is as exciting as the destination!’
Read more about Dr Thomas Ting here.
Read more about the UniSA Enterprise Hub here.
Read more about UniSA Ventures here.