In some cases, our partnerships have more in common with matchmaking than deep exploration and co-creation. The problem or need is well defined, external solutions exist or are in development and the business has an expectation of the value to be created. In these cases, a technology transfer model is more appropriate and our role is to match the specified needs with the best solution, both in terms of technology and research team. We also work with the team to access funding and to develop a market and commercialisation strategy which maximises value and returns. This may involve a technology license or a new venture.
The challenge for our research team was to translate over 25 years of sleep research into a tangible new “wearable light” technology. To take a working prototype from the Flinders Sleep Research Laboratory to market required the expertise of an industry partner who could engineer and manufacture the product at scale and to exacting technical and quality standards.
At the same time our commercial partner, SMR Technologies, was facing a number of business challenges, in particular, how to migrate the company out of the declining automotive manufacturing industry and into new markets and applications with potential to deliver growth and a return on their investment in advanced manufacturing, design and engineering expertise and assets.
Over the course of two years (2010 – 2012), a team of seven engineers, two ophthalmic experts and two sleep psychologists worked to convert 25 years’ of research into a validated and successful wearable device which involved 1,900 hours of work time on computer-aided design alone, 160 logged design changes and four design iterations.
To manage the commercialisation process and facilitate the recruitment of commercial partners, Flinders Partners created a spin-out company, Re-Time Pty. Limited
Early collaborations and investment partnerships saw Re-Timer win a “Commercialisation Australia” government grant in June 2010 and Ben Olsen was recruited as Managing Director in 2011 to attract and manage seed investors and design and manufacturing partners for the device.
Drawing on its extensive networks, Flinders Partners worked closely with Re-Time Pty. Limited to identify prospective commercial partners and facilitated an introduction to SMR Technologies.
SMR Technologies had traditionally been an automotive manufacturer with strong capabilities and an asset base supporting manufacturing in lighting, electric drive units, coating and mouldings. The company was actively pursuing an innovation and diversification strategy and, when presented with the opportunity to contract manufacture and invest in the Re-Timer device, were immediately interested.
There followed a period of intensive due diligence on both sides, to ensure strategic fit and validate the opportunity. Subsequently a project team was selected and the project moved into a development phase which included design of a consumer wearable device, producing a new manufacturing cell with new tests, developing new quality processes and engaging new parts suppliers and, ultimately, the development of a new, controlled environment, manufacturing facility, purpose built for the device. The project team included about 20 – 25 SMR staff from boardroom to shop floor and across multiple disciplines, including design, manufacturing, quality and testing, marketing, scheduling and procurement.
SMR Technologies invested in Re-Time Pty and is a key shareholder with Board membership. Just 13 months following the completion of seed investment, SMR Technologies saw the Re-Timer device successfully launched on the market in November 2012 as a world first in wearable sleep technology. Within two years it has become a market-leader in wearable light therapy devices, is an export success, with 85% of sales shipped outside Australia to 40 countries, and is profit generating. The combination of a strong industry partner with world-class research and an experience commercialisation team highlights the potential of innovation partnerships.
For SMR Technologies, in addition to a new, high-value, revenue stream the business has built expertise and proven its capabilities in the medical devices sector and continues to pursue a range of opportunities in these new and attractive markets.
The project has had a deep and positive impact on the culture at SMR. As a large organisation, with a long legacy in the traditional automotive industry, a significant shift in culture was needed to manage a transition from embedded processes and systems to new, innovative and unfamiliar approaches. The success of the Re-Timer project has helped to showcase the opportunities available and to prove the company’s ability to move into new products and markets.
SMR technologies has applied for global certification as a medical device manufacturer, a move that will support its ongoing diversification and which will open up more innovation and partnership opportunities and, ultimately, secure the future of 500 staff.
From a broader perspective, disturbed sleep or insomnia is common, with up to 20% of Australians suffering the condition sporadically and 10% suffering chronic sleeplessness. As sleep is fundamental to our health and wellbeing with a lack of, or poor quality sleep affecting motor skills, memory and mental health, this was a problem worth tackling and solving. After 25 years, the research team have the satisfaction of seeing their efforts bear fruit and are rewarded with a stake in the spin-out company. Re-Time Pty continues to collaborate with them to investigate further research and commercialisation opportunities.