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Commercialising medical and science discoveries

13 July 2017
Leveraging discoveries for the knowledge and innovation economy

Starting today, the University of Sydney will host leading inventors and investors from across the globe for a two-day workshop on commercialising medical and science discoveries.

To be opened by the University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence AC and Hebrew University of Jerusalem President, Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson, the Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund Commercialisation of Science Workshop brings together high-achieving scientific and medical inventors, venture capitalists and young entrepreneurs.

Both universities have strong credentials in consulting, licensing and taking discoveries and inventions to market.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s tech transfer arm, Yissum Research Development Company, has an enviable research commercialisation record. Founded in 1964, it has registered 9,300 patents covering 2,600 inventions, licensed 800 technologies and spun-off 110 companies. Today, products based on Hebrew University technologies and commercialised by Yissum generate more than $2 billion in annual sales.

The University of Sydney's commercialisation performance is also impressive: it has been granted 1100 patents, produced 1200 inventions in the last 20 years, licensed 158 licensed patent families and spun-off 21 successful start-up companies in the past decade.

Only five per cent of all Australian businesses have any engagement with our universities. A lot of businesses don’t know where universities are.
Bill Ferris AC, Chair of Innovation and Science Australia

But with notable exceptions such as the Resmed sleep apnoea product, Cochlear’s bionic ear and CSIRO’s WiFi, the commercialisation of Australian university-based discoveries has not seen the same success as similar countries.

For example, last year the chair of Innovation and Science Australia, Bill Ferris AC told a business lunch hosted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia that, “only five per cent of all Australian businesses have any engagement with our universities. A lot of businesses don’t know where universities are.”

And despite ranking 12th in the world’s best 40 countries for science and first on a 2013 league table of the world’s most creative countries, Australia’s record for translating publicly funded research into commercial outcomes is poor.

“A major reason for this poor performance is inadequate collaboration between Australia’s business and research sectors,” Ferris said. “In 2013, Australia ranked last among 33 OECD countries for collaboration between researchers and business.”

Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has also acknowledged that other nations with similar research infrastructure are “well ahead” of Australia on industry engagement with university research.

"Australian researchers are sometimes discouraged by the 'tyranny of distance' being a hurdle to attracting major overseas funding so the fact we are now being supported by two overseas grants, at the same time as receiving Australian funding, is heartening.
Professor Anthony Weiss, University of Sydney

So why is the “clever country” less clever at translating university and publicly funded research and innovation into viable businesses and inventions in the market?

The Commonwealth Departments of Education and Innovation have pointed to a low proportion of Australian researchers working in business and academic-industry research publications and structural issues that limit research commercialisation. Australia’s Chief Economist, Mark Cully has blamed factors like poor management and networking, poor levels of venture and private equity capital, fragmented and obstructive government regulation, and risk aversion.

Despite the roadblocks, the University of Sydney can point to major commercialisation and consulting successes in health and medicine, aviation, robotics and automation, renewable energy, laser imaging, and plant breeding.

In June, its multidisciplinary Charles Perkins Centre announced a world-first air travel health and wellbeing partnership with Qantas to reshape its customers' experience of long haul flights. Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said the partnership has the potential to transform journeys for passengers on routes planned for its Boeing 787 Dreamliner that will commence later this year.

The University of Sydney also has major research and commercialisation ventures with companies like Rio Tinto, GE Healthcare, Sirtex, Allegra Orthopaedics, and Elastagen, which makes an injectable synthetic protein (tropoelastin) with applications in wound repair, scar remodelling, and surgical glues and implants.

Founded by the University of Sydney’s Professor Tony Weiss, the company last year won $4 million from the NSW Government’s Medical Devices Fund – its second funding success with the NSW government – and in 2015 Wellcome Trust invested $1 million in Elastagen to fast-track its technology to clinical trials within two years. The company has also raised $13 million in a Series B financing.

Synthetic skin that teaches the body to repair itself

Through separately funded research, Professor Weiss and his colleagues at the Weiss Lab are exploring other applications of tropoelastin, including how to repair and build blood vessels and other elastic tissues.

"Australian researchers are sometimes discouraged by the 'tyranny of distance' being a hurdle to attracting major overseas funding so the fact we are now being supported by two overseas grants, at the same time as receiving Australian funding, is heartening," said Professor Weiss.

The University of Sydney’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor Duncan Ivison, believes university-led innovation and the commercialisation of research is “critical” for Australia’s economic growth, given the rising importance of the knowledge economy, but says the federal government should set a clearer policy on research funding.

“In Australia, we have not invested in major research funding, he said this month. “We do not have a clear national research funding policy and that is a really significant challenge.”

Dan Gaffney

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