|This is an article in our nine-part series on Australia Asia innovation.
Swinburne University physicist Professor Erol Harvey was told he was making a serious mistake by starting a commercial company without patents or intellectual property in 2002.
But he and his business partner, Michael Wilkinson, persevered. Today, that company, MiniFAB, is a testimony to the foresight of their approach.
They have more than 200 clients on their books covering the USA, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and have completed more than 900 projects, including sensor diagnostic tests for cancer and eye disease.
Consider the TearLab card: roughly the size of a thumbnail, it analyses tear fluid and allows doctors to diagnose dry eye disease in their consulting rooms.
Every year, MiniFAB produces millions of these tiny smart cards for their client, TearLab Inc in San Diego. Other MiniFAB projects include disposable miniature cards and cartridges that can detect pathogens in saliva or read DNA from blood. These microfluidic lab-on-a-chip devices are “the heart of what we do”, says Harvey.
MiniFAB HQ: Melbourne
R&D: 900+ projects
Reach: Asia-Pacific, Europe, USA
At a glance: Set up in 2002, the company now has more than 70 staff in multidisciplinary teams whose specialities include physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, manufacturing, and material sciences and who develop and manufacture custom, disposable, micro-engineered products for clients.
MiniFAB has also created small diagnostic sensors to monitor stresses and fatigue during Airbus A380 flight tests. The company is involved in the design and fabrication for Monash Vision Group’s breakthrough bionic eye.
This chip, which contains a tiny wireless receiver, is to be implanted in patients in 2015, with the aim of directly stimulating their visual cortex with image data.
“Our clients include Fortune 500 multinationals in the health and
medical field. Their own product development teams recognise and
use our specialist knowhow and
micro-engineering capabilities to turn their intellectual property into products,” says Harvey.
“Effectively, we have built a service company for clients globally, with satellite offices in the US and Europe.”
Clients – who come from medical, food packaging and aerospace industries, among others – receive a full service, from concept design to prototyping, right through to manufacturing.
The ability to manufacture goods from the molecular to the macroscopic scale arose out of links with the CRC for microTechnology (which ran from 1999 to 2006), which Harvey says was the perfect vehicle to bring together universities with user-focused partners like Cochlear, Bosch and the Australian Institute of Sport.
Since starting from scratch in 2002, MiniFAB’s contract revenue has increased an average of 20% each year, adds Harvey.
“This is the sort of clever design and manufacturing the nation is capable of and must pursue.”
— Paul Hendy