The bigger picture

June 21, 2017

Growth Centres are drawing together multiple stakeholders to help commercialise groundbreaking research. The ingredients for successful collaboration are now emerging, Susan Hely reports.

growth centres

Featured image above: the Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals Industry Growth Centre, MTPConnect

The Growth Centres launched in October 2015 with $250 million in government funding to 2019/2020. With six now up and running, new collaborations, with the CRCs and others, are beginning to bear fruit.

Take the pioneering idea of using a 3D printer to build joints and limbs damaged through cancer or trauma. The Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals (MTP) Industry Growth Centre, MTPConnect, extended BioFab3D@ACMD a grant to set up Australia’s first robotics and biomedical engineering centre within a hospital.

A group of researchers, clinicians, engineers and industry partners will work together to build organs, bones, brain, muscle, nerves and glands – almost anything that requires repair – for patients based at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. One of the big benefits is that the 3D printing will be more cost-effective for patients.

The path for BioFab3D from clever research to commercial success is still a long, complicated one. Collaboration is key and BioFab3D is working with St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, University of Melbourne, University of Wollongong, RMIT University and Swinburne University of Technology.

According to Sue MacLeman, CEO of MTPConnect, Australia has many strong and innovative medical and health groups that are on the cusp of realising their full commercial potential.

This is where CRCs come in. “CRCs already have research before it is picked up by the multinationals,” she explains. MacLeman says MTPConnect works with 12 CRCs and aims to help drive their commercial success.

“The MTP sector is hindered by constraints including a lack of collaboration between business and research, skills shortages, the need for more focused investment, and the need for more streamlined and harmonised regulatory and market access frameworks,” says MacLeman.

To meet these challenges the Australian government has provided six Growth Centres (see “Six of the best” below) with funding to help smart projects realise their full potential.

“Growth Centres have an enormous range of things to do. Everyone wants them to do everything. They work in tight timeframes,” explains Professor Robert Cowan, CEO of The HEARing CRC, which has been meeting with MTPConnect.

“We have 48,000 people in our sector, but we can’t speak to all of those people,” explains MacLeman. The MTP is well served by membership organisations such as Medicines Australia, the Medical Technology Association of Australia, and ARCS Australia (previously the Association of Regulatory and Clinical Scientists), adds MacLeman. It has signed a number of memorandums of understandings (MOUs) with membership associations to appreciate what is important in the sectors, particularly global best practice.

But Growth Centres need to remain independent, not heavily skewed to certain groups, says MacLeman.

“What is important is that we don’t take paid membership. You can sign up and showcase your work, but we want to keep it independent and not to be seen as a lobby group.

“That is very powerful for us. To have a strategic voice and a lot of alignment.”

Collaboration was essential for The HEARing CRC when it recently trialled an electrode that released an anti-inflammatory drug into the cochlear post-implantation. The trial brought together devices, drugs, analysts and the ethical and regulatory approvals.

“This new electrode array helps reduce inflammation and the growth of fibrous tissue around the electrode array triggered by the body’s immune response,” says Cowan.

Unlike a drug trial that involves hundreds and thousands of patients, the trial could be tested on a small number of people undergoing surgery. The world-first study was only possible through an interdisciplinary team of researchers, engineers and clinicians from Cochlear, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children’s Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre, The University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong.

Cowan says he expects MTPConnect will provide assistance to med-tech companies and research institutes in finding and developing new markets, collaborators and investors for Australian medical technologies.

Growth centres for the future of mining

The mining industry is also tapping into groundbreaking research coming out of universities through CRCs and engaging with the new mining equipment, technology and services (METS) growth centre, METS Ignited.

Extracting minerals from the Earth has become much more challenging. Mineral grades are dropping as reserves are being used up and environmental issues are impacting on mining operations. As a result, mining companies are looking at new ways to extract minerals, using technology as cost-effectively as possible.

“The downturn in the mining market is really focusing the mind,” explains Clytie Dangar, general manager, stakeholder engagement at the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE). “We can’t afford to stand still.”

CRC ORE has around 20 active research programs that span robotics, mathematics, data science, predictive modelling as well as broad engineering that focuses on blasting techniques and efficiently extracting minerals from waste. Dangar says the CRC has total funding of $110 million up until mid-2020. This is made up of $37 million from the government and the balance from industry.

CRC ORE and METS Ignited signed a MOU in January to work together to improve commercialisation and collaboration outcomes for Australian METS companies.

Australia has the world’s largest reserves of diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, zinc and rutile (a major mineral source of titanium), according to METS Ignited. “Australia is at the forefront of mining innovation over the years. A lot of countries have looked at Australia, certainly over the boom years. The challenge is to stay there when the money isn’t there and the nature of the reserves has changed. One way is to utilise the skill set,” says Dangar.

With sharp falls in commodity prices, mining companies are keen to participate in game-changing technology, she says. CRC ORE is engaging with big miners, such as Newcrest and BHP Billiton. It’s also tapped into the $90 billion mining sector, together with universities and PhD students who are carrying out innovative research.

The role of the Growth Centre is to link up all the stakeholders and capture the research, says Dangar.

“It is important to be well engaged. Our job as a CRC is to translate the needs of the miners to the researchers and make sure the researchers are addressing those issues.

“It is very applied because we have a short timeline. We must meet our guidelines and we provide small buckets of funds in grants,” says Dangar.

The key is being nimble as well as courageous in supporting research, even though it may not always work, says Dangar. CRC ORE is not in the business of funding long-term research with a horizon of seven to 10 years, but prefers a two- to three-year timeframe.

“In the past, there was a natural tension between METS and miners, but now they can’t wait until it is up and running,” explains Dangar. “Miners need to support METS earlier.”

Some of Australia’s step-change advances in mining include flotation to separate materials, bulk explosives, mechanised mining and large mills. One of the biggest issues for miners is how to separate metal from rock more efficiently. Dangar says CRC ORE is working on solving this problem to lower unit costs, and reduce energy and water consumption. Some of these approaches helped Newcrest Mining get better mineral grades at a cheaper cost at its Telfer mine in Western Australia.

“A lot of mining companies had their own research departments, but some of the issues are industry-wide issues, and it is better to be collaborative than go it alone,” says Dangar.

Six of the best

1. The Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre Ltd (AMGC) is working with the Innovative Manufacturing CRC, which kicked off in the 2015 CRC funding round. In February, the AMGC funded Geelong’s Quickstep Holdings, a manufacturer of advanced carbon fibre composites, to the tune of $500,000. The AMGC believes the project has the potential to generate export revenue in excess of $25 million.

2. The Australian Cyber Security Growth Network is an industry-led organisation that will develop the next-generation products and services required to live and work securely in our increasingly connected world.

3. Food Innovation Australia Ltd (FIAL), based at the CSIRO in Victoria, works closely with the relevant CRCs. CRCs have a long history of work in food and agriculture and have included the Seafood CRC, Future Farm CRC, CRC for Innovative Food products and many more.

4. MTPConnect covers the medical technologies and pharmaceuticals sector and includes the Wound Management Innovation CRC, Cancer Therapeutics CRC and HEARing CRC as members, among others.

5. National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) is the Oil, Gas and Energy Resources Growth Centre, and will work with the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) to “encourage industry-focused research and unlock commercial opportunities”.

6. NERA also has links with the mining equipment, technology and services growth centre, METS Ignited, which works closely with the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE).

– Susan Hely

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