Researcher rewards needed to fuel biotech boom

Melbourne, Australia, May 26, 2021 – Researcher rewards needed to fuel biotech boom

The newest board member of Australia’s largest life sciences fund says the country must develop ways to entice researchers to commercialise their work if the industry is going to produce future biotech giants like CSL and Cochlear.

Kylie Diwell, who has recently joined the board of the Medical Research Commercialisation Fund and works as a partner and intellectual property lawyer at MinterEllison, said the country needs to review its academic merit system to create more of a drive to spin out suitable research into viable companies.

“The focus of our researchers is still more on publication and grant funding than research commercialisation,” Ms Diwell said.

The Medical Research Commercialisation Fund is managed by Brandon Capital Partners and has $700 million under management, making it the largest investment vehicle for the sector in the country.

The fund is a collaboration between the Australian and New Zealand governments and major superannuation funds, with a portfolio of biotech startups that have already emerged from the lab and are ready to expand across the globe.

Ms Diwell said the current policy focus on local medical manufacturing was a win for the life sciences sector but early stage inventions needed specific support to grow.

Australian universities already encourage researchers to get to this commercialisation stage through policies such as revenue sharing agreements for locally-produced intellectual property, but she argued these don’t propel enough ideas into the business space.

“Those incentives aren’t enough to turn the dial on getting our research academics to focus on commercialisation in the life sciences sector.”

In the past year there have been a number of policies from state and federal governments to propel life sciences companies, but Ms Diwell said many firms creating local inventions face an uphill battle to bring them to market.

Among the challenges are a “one in 10 success rate, a long lead time and the need for significant co-investment”, she said. “We need a review of our academic merit system.”

Such a review could include creating priority research areas where funding was more closely tied to the commercialisation outcomes. Alongside manufacturing policies for more established companies, Australia needs to review how its research and universities are funded and how it can bring more researchers into incubators and accelerators, she said.

Chief executive of Brandon Capital, Dr Chris Nave, told this masthead earlier this week that “no amount could be enough” to support the sector given how important medical manufacturing is going to be beyond the pandemic.

Ms Diwell said that while the focus on the sector was positive, the community needs to understand that patience and luck are very important when it comes to launching the nation’s next big biotech success story. “Those [at] the coalface know the lead time is generally 10+ years,” she said. “The research sector needs to understand that, the government and investors.”

Last year the federal government announced plans for a $5.8 million ‘scoping project’ where biotech leaders would review and advise on how to better commercialise research out of universities.

Ms Diwell said she looked forward to the outcomes of that project, pointing to the importance of accelerators and university incubators to support the biotech boom.

However the government invests in commercialisation it must be prepared to help back many ideas that might not end up succeeding, she said. “All of that needs to be done with a recognition that you never know whether or not research is going to be successful.”

Sydney Morning Herald
Emma Koehn
26 May, 2021