Science is fundamental for our future social and economic wellbeing.
In Western Australia we’re focusing on areas where we have natural advantages, and an appropriate base of research and industrial capacity. Western Australia’s Science Statement, released by Premier Barnett in April 2015, represents a capability audit of relevant research and engagement expertise in our universities, research institutes, State Government agencies and other organisations. Mining and energy, together with agriculture, are traditional powerhouses, but the science priorities also reflect the globally significant and growing capabilities in medicine and health, biodiversity and marine science, and radio astronomy. It’s a great place to begin exciting new collaborations.
The Science Statement has also helped to align efforts across research organisations and industry. For instance, in 2015 an industry-led “Marine Science Blueprint 2050” was released, followed by the Premier commissioning a roundtable of key leaders from industry, Government, academia and community to develop a long-term collaborative research strategy. These meetings highlighted critical areas of common interest such as decommissioning, marine noise, community engagement and sharing databases.
“Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes.”
Science, innovation and collaboration are integral to many successful businesses in Western Australia. In the medical field, a range of technological innovations have broadened the economy and created new jobs. Some of these success stories include Phylogica, Admedus, Orthocell, iCeutica, Dimerix, Epichem and Proteomics International. Another example in this space is the Phase I clinical trial facility, Linear Clinical Research, which was established with support from the State Government – 75% of the trials conducted to date come from big pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the USA.
Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes. For example, the field of big data analytics is rapidly permeating many sectors. Perth’s Pawsey Centre, the largest public research supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, processes torrents of data delivered by many sources, including radioastronomy as the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, is being developed in outback WA. In addition, local company DownUnder GeoSolutions has a supercomputer five times the size of Pawsey for massive geophysical analyses. In such a rich data environment, exciting new initiatives like the CISCO’s Internet of Everything Innovation Centre, in partnership with Woodside, is helping to drive innovation and growth.
Leading players in the resources and energy sector are also taking innovative approaches to enhance efficiency and productivity. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton use remote-controlled driverless trucks, and autonomous trains, to move iron ore in the Pilbara. Woodside has an automated offshore facility, while Shell is developing its Prelude Floating Liquefied Natural Gas facility soon to be deployed off the northwest coast. Excitingly, 3 emerging companies (Carnegie, Bombora and Protean) are making waves by harnessing the power of the ocean to generate energy.
This high-tech, innovative environment is complemented by a rapidly burgeoning start-up ecosystem. In this vibrant sector, Unearthed runs events, competitions and accelerators to create opportunities for entrepreneurs in the resources space. Spacecubed provides fabulous co-working space for young entrepreneurs, including the recently launched FLUX for innovators in the resource sector. The online graphic design business Canva, established by two youthful Western Australians epitomises what entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude can achieve. In this amazingly interconnected world, the sky’s the limit.
Read next:Professor Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University and Dr Andy Marks, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Policy) of Western Sydney University on Making innovation work.
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Featured image above from the Australia’s STEM Workforce Report
Australians with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are working across the economy in many roles from wine-makers to financial analysts, according to a new report from The Office of the Chief Scientist.
Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel says Australia’s STEM Workforce is the first comprehensive analysis of the STEM-qualified population and is a valuable resource for students, parents, teachers and policy makers. The report is based on data from the 2011 Census, the most recent comprehensive and detailed data set of this type of information. The report will serve as a benchmark for future studies.
“This report provides a wealth of information on where STEM qualifications – from both the university and the vocational education and training (VET) sectors – may take you, what jobs you may have and what salary you may earn,” Finkel says.
“Studying STEM opens up countless job options and this report shows that Australians are taking diverse career paths.”
The report investigates the workforce destinations of people with qualifications in STEM fields, looking at the demographics, industries, occupations and salaries that students studying for those qualifications can expect in the workforce.
The report found that fewer than one-third of STEM university graduates were female, with physics, astronomy and engineering having even lower proportions of female graduates. Biological sciences and environmental studies graduates were evenly split between the genders. In the vocational education and training (VET) sector, only 9% of those with STEM qualifications were women.
Finkel says that even more worrying than the gender imbalance in some STEM fields, is the pay gap between men and women in all STEM fields revealed in the report. These differences cannot be fully explained by having children or by the increased proportion of women working part-time.
The analysis also found that gaining a doctorate is a sound investment, with more STEM PhD graduates in the top income bracket than their Bachelor-qualified counterparts. However, these same STEM PhD holders are less likely to own their own business or work in the private sector.
Finkel says that preparing students for a variety of jobs and industries is vital to sustaining the future workforce.
“This report shows that STEM-qualified Australians are working across the economy. It is critical that qualifications at all levels prepare students for the breadth of roles and industries they might pursue.”
Click here to download the full Australia’s STEM Workforce report.
Click here to read Alan Finkel’s Foreword, or click here to read the section of the report that interests you.
1. Make sure there is a viable, readily accessible market that is sufficiently large to support a spin-off company.
2. The actual invention is only the trigger to start a company – you are establishing a company that will need to innovate on an ongoing basis if it wants to be successful. Make sure that innovation capability and desire exists and thrives in the spin-off.
3. Identify competent board and management capability to direct the business and generate revenue for the company. Most often the management capability is not the same people who carried out the research, but sometimes it can be. Without the right people running the show, the spin-off will not be successful.
4. Make sure you have sufficient funding available to get the company through to a viable revenue stream, and ideally flexible funding arrangements. Unexpected things will happen and you need capability to accommodate those changes.“
“Most start-ups are focused on development plans that contain binary events and marginal financing. This makes them vulnerable to unforeseen delays and additional development steps that require additional funding.
I believe that we should be looking to generate portfolios of innovation under experienced management teams that give our projects the best chance of success – and adequate funding to reach proof of concept in whatever market we are targeting – but at the same time help to spread risk.“
“Ensuring a strong board, CEO, and a quality management team will be critical to success. The availability of funds for programs is an often-discussed barrier to rapid progress. Underfunded companies and poorly thought-out product concepts or technologies are more likely to fail early.“
“1. For biotechnology R&D spin-off start-ups in Australia, major hurdles are the dearth of seed capital as well as access to large follow-on venture funds that are needed to build successful biotechnology companies.
2. There is a mismatch between the 10-year life span of a venture capital fund in Australia and the 15+ years needed to translate research findings into a novel drug or biologic product for improving human health.
3. Hence, these systemic issues are major impediments to building successful biotechnology companies in Australia and these issues need to be addressed.”
– Professor Maree Smith, Executive Director of the Centre for Integrated Preclinical Drug Development and Head of the Pain Research Group at The University of Queensland
There are two potential ‘valleys of death’ for R&D spin-off companies. One is in translating their research concepts into prototype products. The other is in maturing from prototype to full commercialisation.
“Taking the prototype through to full commercialisation was probably more difficult for us due to the complexities involved.
This included high-tech scale-up manufacturing, which we do at our bio-manufacturing facility in Malaga. Today, we have the ability to expand production as necessary, as well as refine and develop our processes in-house to accommodate new products and product improvements.
There was also a focus on generating sales once CardioCel was commercialised. Just because a product is approved doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be used straight away by the intended customers.
We’ve focused on educating the market about the benefits of CardioCel, such as its biocompatibility and lack of calcification (hardening) at the site of surgery. We’ve also built a strong global sales and marketing team who work closely with our customers to understand their needs.
As a result, we’ve seen continued quarter-on-quarter growth in CardioCel sales, and the product is now used in over 135 heart centres globally.“
“For pharmaceuticals the so called ‘second valley of death’ is by far the most significant.
Lack of funding often prevents companies from attempting to cross this valley and causes them to license their technology at an earlier stage and to realise rewards as the licensor takes their innovation to market.
For a small company with limited resources, the key to success here is to understand the commercialisation risks, link the higher-risk projects with partners and try to make that step themselves for markets with lower entry costs and higher clinical need.
If done well, they should end up with a portfolio approach with the risks mitigated but still significant opportunity for value appreciation.”
“SmartCap Technologies had substantial industry support to develop the prototype products, however even with this it was a very challenging process to deliver working prototypes.
SmartCap was exceedingly fortunate in that CRCMining provided substantially more financial support for SmartCap than originally envisaged, enabling it to finally deploy the prototype products. Those prototypes were sufficiently effective to generate commercial interest from some large mining companies.
So despite having robust plans in place, it always helps to have access to further funding, via investors or other stakeholders with a high level of commitment as well as deep pockets, to overcome unforeseen eventualities.”
“The biggest hurdle may be the combination of the two – translating research concepts (i.e. technical information associated with the technology) following commercialisation into an immature market.
Catapult‘s technology is not a consumer product and therefore is very high touch in terms of its service and client support. Due to the perceived complexity of the information obtained from the technology, part of the trick is to simplify the underlying research concepts to new markets that need a low touch product.”
“I would argue that you should have a prototype – before any spin-off. That way you can at least prove technical viability of your concept. Ideally you would also have done some level of customer validation.
The next step of full commercialisation is definitely the hardest.
In our case it was a matter of finding early customers that were willing to spend time assessing the product and its benefits – even though it was too early to commit to a purchase and full roll-out. This phase was key to understanding the market and adjusting our path.”
“The first phase is the most difficult – a poor prototype will show its deficiencies later in development. A prototype needs to demonstrate a safe and efficacious profile, and that it will meet the need you have defined in the target market.”
“We are in the middle of our valley of death translating our platform into the clinic and we have not yet overcome it. Data is key, but one needs the funds to produce the results! So, we are seeking investors wherever we can find them and buddying up to big pharmaceuticals who have the muscle to progress our technology.”
– Dr Jennifer Macdiarmid, pictured above with Dr. Himanshu Brahmbhatt, joint Chief Executive Officers and Directors
R&D company Fibrotech Therapeutics has the goal of treating fibrosis, which results from persistent tissue damage and leads to organ failure in more than 45% of diseases. Fibrotech develops orally active anti-fibrotic inhibitors designed to treat underlying pathological fibrosis in kidney and heart failure.
Their goal was to take compounds through early safety studies in animals and humans, before selling on to a pharmaceutical company. They designed compounds off the structure of tranilast, an anti-fibrotic compound, reducing its toxicity and increasing its potential.
Fibrotech was sold to global specialty biopharmaceutical company Shire in 2014 for an upfront US$75 million and further milestone payments of US$482.5 million.
In May 2015, Kelly launched OccuRx to develop drugs to treat ophthalmic disorders associated with retinal fibrosis and inflammation, and aims to take them to Phase 2 clinical trials. “We licensed the technology to administer anti-fibrotics to people with eye disease and fibrosis.”
“An excellent intellectual property position is a key starting point. This is in addition to having a proven concept or great technology. A quality team to back up project execution is paramount. Understanding and being able to explain where your commercialised projects will fit into a market segment in terms of the need they will meet is also important.”
“SmartCap Technologies is a spinoff from CRCMining. CRCMining carries out industry directed research, which ensured that the research into fatigue management technologies was a high priority for the mining industry at the project’s inception.
In SmartCap’s case, the industry support was sufficiently high that Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, in conjunction with CRCMining, co-funded the development of the prototype commercial SmartCap products.
This ‘incubation’ of the SmartCap technology by a significant end user was extremely important to advancing from research into prototype products.
The prototype products performed sufficiently well for SmartCap to be selected by two other large mining companies for large supply contracts for fatigue monitoring technology.
So the support of significant end users, along with the commercial contracts the company had in place at that time, provided potential investors with the confidence to invest in SmartCap Technologies.”
“Pharmaxis has been restructured following a regulatory setback for our lead product. Rebuilding investor confidence has been critical to our longer term success. To do this we focused on three things:
1. transparency – explaining the business model and being clear about the risks as well as the opportunity;
2. building in meaningful milestones which marked development steps that significantly reduced risk and provided opportunities to realise value;
3. hitting milestones and delivering realistic objectives.”
“I think there are a number of reasons investors are drawn to our business: Admedus has two technology platforms which diversifies the risk for investors; we have a product on market; and we are generating revenue.
The first of the two platforms is our regenerative tissue platform, where we use our proprietary ADAPT tissue engineering process to turn xenograft tissue into collagen bio-scaffolds for soft tissue repair. The second is our Immunotherapies platform, where we work with renowned scientist Professor Ian Frazer and his team to develop therapeutic vaccines for the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases and cancers.
Our lead regenerative tissue product CardioCel, which is used to repair and reconstruct congenital heart deformities and more complex heart defects, has made the journey from prototype to commercial product and is on the market in the USA, Europe and parts of Asia.
Frazer’s previous success with the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV) program that lead to the USD$2 billion product, Gardasil, is well-recognised and gives investors further confidence in our immunotherapy work.
As a result, Admedus has a good balance of validated science via approved products and an exciting product pipeline working with successful scientists. This balance, along with our diversified program portfolio, gives investors confidence in our business. “
Because the technology was engineered to take elite athlete monitoring from the laboratory to the field, value was seen in the data immediately as there was no precedent for this type of information. A new product category had been formed and Australian Olympians were now able to train in their performance sweet spot without getting injured because their coaches had objective data to guide their lead up to big events.
So this combination of pioneering a new industry in a popular space (elite sport), with the ability to create immediate value, certainly helped with the initial funding.”
“Neuropathic pain is a large unmet medical need because the currently available drug treatments either lack efficacy and/or have dose-limiting side-effects.
Due to this, my patent-protected angiotensin II type 2 (AT2) receptor antagonist technology – encompassing a potentially first-in-class novel analgesic for the treatment of often intractable neuropathic pain conditions – attracted initial seed capital investment from the Symbiosis Group, GBS Ventures and Uniseed Pty Ltd. In total $3.25M was raised and in mid-2005 the spin-out company, Spinifex Pharmaceuticals was formed by UniQuest Pty Ltd, the main commercialisation company of The University of Queensland.
The raison d’etre for Spinifex Pharmaceuticals at that time was to develop AT2 receptor antagonists as efficacious, well-tolerated first-in-class novel analgesics for relief of neuropathic pain.
In 2006, I discovered that AT2 receptor antagonists also alleviated chronic inflammatory pain in a rat model. This was quite unexpected as clinically available drug treatments for neuropathic pain, such as tricyclic antidepressants and newer work-alikes as well as gabapentin and pregabalin, do not alleviate chronic inflammatory pain conditions such as osteoarthritis. Thus the potential for small molecule AT2 receptor antagonists to alleviate chronic inflammatory pain conditions was patent protected by UniQuest Pty Ltd in 2006 and subsequently in-licensed to Spinifex Pharmaceuticals for commercialisation.
As both neuropathic pain and chronic inflammatory pain are large unmet medical needs, Spinifex Pharmaceuticals was able to raise additional venture capital from the initial investors as well as from Brandon Capital to fund Investigational New Drug (IND)-enabling Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) toxicology and safety pharmacology studies, as well as early phase human clinical trials. “
– Professor Maree Smith, Executive Director of the Centre for Integrated Preclinical Drug Development and Head of the Pain Research Group at The University of Queensland
“Investors understood that the intellectual property would be generated in-house and there was no “stacking” from the beginning.
We were fortunate at the outset to meet two venture capitalists and a number of high net worth individuals who saw the potential upside in our business plan, had already had some success with investing in biotech – e.g. Biota – and did not ask ‘who else is in?’.
That being said, we had very limited time and money to show proof of concept, and only after that and our first patent, did we convince those investors that we had something viable.”
– Dr Jennifer Macdiarmid, pictured above with Dr. Himanshu Brahmbhatt, joint Chief Executive Officers and Directors
Gaining industry experience and seeing how their research can have practical applications is important to early career researchers. Universities and industry are now working together to help provide graduates with the opportunity to work on commercial solutions for real-life problems.
“The partnership allowed me to do things that haven’t been done before, like use optical fibres as sensors instead of electrical sensors,” says Allwood, who will work with Bombora Wave Power to test the sensors.
There are other, similar Australian programs. CRCs offer a number of scholarships across 14 different fields of research, giving PhD students a chance to gain industry experience.
The Chemicals and Plastics GRIP has 20 industry partners offering training and funding, including Dulux and 3M. One student is treating coffee grounds to create a fertiliser to improve the soil quality of agricultural land.
The nanoscale is so tiny it’s almost beyond comprehension. Too small for detection by the human eye, and not even discernible by most laboratory microscopes, it refers to measurements in the range of 1–100 billionths of a metre. The nanoscale is the level at which atoms and molecules come together to form structured materials.
The Nanochemistry Research Institute — NRI — conducts fundamental and applied research to understand, model and tailor materials at the nanoscale. It brings together scientists – with expertise in chemistry, engineering, computer simulations, materials and polymers – and external collaborators to generate practical applications in health, energy, environmental management, industry and exploration. These include new tests for cancer, and safer approaches to oil and gas transportation. Research ranges from government-funded exploratory science to confidential industry projects.
The NRI hosts research groups with specialist expertise in the chemical formation of minerals and other materials. “To understand minerals, it’s often important to know what is going on at the level of atoms,” explains Julian Gale, John Curtin Distinguished Professor in Computational Chemistry and former Acting Director of the NRI. “To do this, we use virtual observation – watching how atoms interact at the nanoscale – and modelling, where we simulate the behaviour of atoms on a computer.”
The mineral calcium carbonate is produced through biomineralisation by some marine invertebrates. “If we understand the chemistry that leads to the formation of carbonates in the environment, then we can look at how factors such as ocean temperature and pH can lead to the loss of minerals that are a vital component of coral reefs,” says Gale.
This approach could be used to build an understanding of how minerals are produced biologically, potentially leading to medical and technological benefits, including applications in bone growth and healing, or even kidney stone prevention and treatment.
Gale anticipates that a better understanding of mineral geochemistry may also shed light on how and where metals are distributed. “If you understand the chemistry of gold in solution and how deposits form, you might have a better idea where to look for the next gold mine,” he explains.
There are also environmental implications. “Formation of carbonate minerals, especially magnesium carbonate and its hydrates, has been proposed as a means of trapping atmospheric carbon in a stable solid state through a process known as geosequestration. We work with colleagues in the USA to understand how such carbonates form,” says Gale.
Minerals science is also relevant in industrial settings. Calcium carbonate scaling reduces flow rates in pipes and other structures in contact with water. “As an example, the membranes used for reverse osmosis in water desalination – a water purification technology that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove salt and other minerals from saline water – can trigger the formation of calcium carbonate,” explains Gale. “This results in partial blockage of water flow through the membrane, and reduced efficiency of the desalination process.”
A long-term aim of research in this area is to design water membranes that prevent these blockages. There are also potential applications in the oil industry, where barium sulphate (barite) build-up reduces the flow in pipes, and traps dangerous radioactive elements such as radium.
Another problem for exploration companies is the formation of hydrates of methane and other low molecular weight hydrocarbon molecules. These can block pipelines and processing equipment during oil and gas transportation and operations, which results in serious safety and flow assurance issues. Materials chemist Associate Professor Xia Lou leads a large research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering that is developing low-dose gas hydrates inhibitors to prevent hydrate formation. “We also develop nanomaterials for the removal of organic contaminants in water, and nanosensors to detect or extract heavy metals,” she says.
“To understand minerals, it’s often important to know what is going on at the level of the atom.”
The capacity to control how molecules come together and then disassociate offers tantalising opportunities for product development, particularly in food science, drug delivery and cosmetics. In the Department of Chemistry, Professor Mark Ogden conducts nanoscale research looking at hydrogels, or networks of polymeric materials suspended in water.
“We study the 3D structure of hydrogels using the Institute’s scanning probe microscope,” says Ogden. “The technique involves running a sharp tip over the surface of the material. It provides an image of the topography of the surface, but we can also measure how hard, soft or sticky the surface is.” Ogden is developing methods for watching hydrogels grow and fall apart through heating and cooling. “We have the capability to do that sort of imaging now, and this in situ approach is quite rare around the world,” he says.
“We’ve identified lanthanoid clusters that can emit UV light and have magnetic properties,” explains Ogden. “Some of these can form single molecule magnets. A key outcome will be to link cluster size and shape to these functional properties.” This may facilitate guided production of magnetic and light-emitting materials for use in sensing and imaging technologies.
“If you understand the chemistry of gold … then you might have a better idea of where to start looking for the next gold mine.”
The NRI is working across several areas of chemistry and engineering to develop nanoscale tools for detecting and treating health conditions. Professor Damien Arrigan applies a nanoscale electrochemical approach to detecting biological molecules, also known as biosensing. He and his Department of Chemistry colleagues work at the precise junction between layered oil and water.
“We make oil/water interfaces using membranes with nanopores, some as small as 15 nanometres,” he says. “This scale delivers the degree of sensitivity we’re after.” The scientists measure the passage of electrical currents across the tiny interfaces and detect protein, which absorbs at the boundary between the two liquids. “As long as we know a protein’s isoelectric point – that is, the pH at which it carries no electrical charge – we can measure its concentration,” he explains.
The technique enables the scientists to detect proteins at nanomolar (10−6 mol/m3) concentrations, but they hope to shift the sensitivity to the picomolar (10−9 mol/m3) range – a level of detection a thousand times more sensitive and not possible with many existing protein assessments. Further refinement may also incorporate markers to select for proteins of interest. “What we’d like to do one day is measure specific proteins in biological fluids like saliva, tears or serum,” says Arrigan.
The team’s long-term vision is to develop highly sensitive point-of-need measurements to guide treatments – for example, testing kits for paramedics to detect markers released after a heart attack so that appropriate treatment can be immediately applied.
Also in the Department of Chemistry, Dr Max Massi is developing biosensing tools to look at the health of living tissues. His approach relies on tracking the location and luminescence of constructed molecules in cells. “We synthesise new compounds based on heavy metals that have luminescent properties,” explains Massi. “Then we feed the compounds to cells, and look to see where they accumulate and how they glow.”
The team synthesises libraries of designer chemicals for their trials. “We know what properties we’re after – luminescence, biological compatibility and the ability to go to the part of the cell we want,” says Massi.
For example, compounds can be designed to accumulate in lysosomes – the tiny compartments in a cell that are involved in functions such as waste processing. With appropriate illumination, images of lysosomes can then be reconstructed and viewed in 3D using a technique known as confocal microscopy, enabling scientists to assess lysosome function. Similar approaches are in development for disease states such as obesity and cancer.
Beyond detection, this technique also has potential for therapeutic applications. Massi has performed in vitro studies with healthy and cancerous cells, suggesting that a switch from detection to treatment may be possible by varying the amount of light used to illuminate the cells.
“A bit of light allows you to visualise. A lot of light will allow you to kill the cells,” explains Massi. His approach is on track for product development, with intellectual property protection filed in relation to using phosphorescent compounds to determine the health status of cells.
Improving approaches to cancer treatment is also an ongoing research activity for materials chemist Dr Xia Lou, who designs, constructs and tests nanoparticles for targeted photodynamic therapy, which aims to selectively kill tumours using light-induced reactive oxygen species.
“We construct hybrid nanoparticles with high photodynamic effectiveness and a tumour-targeting agent, and then test them in vitro in our collaborators’ laboratories,” she says. “Our primary interest is in the treatment of skin cancer. The technology has also extended applications in the treatment of other diseases.” Lou has successfully filed patents for cancer diagnosis and treatment that support the potential of this approach.
Spheres and other 3D shapes constructed at the nanoscale offer potential for many applications centred on miniaturised storage and release of molecules and reactivity with target materials. Dr Jian Liu in the Department of Chemical Engineering develops new synthesis strategies for silica or carbon spheres, or ‘yolk-shell’-structured particles. “Our main focus is the design, synthesis and application of colloidal nanoparticles including metal, metal oxides, silica and carbon,” says Liu.
Most of these colloidal particles are nanoporous – that is, they have a lattice-like structure with pores throughout. The applications of such nanoparticles include catalysis, energy storage and conversion, drug delivery and gene therapy.
“The most practical outcome of our research would be the development of new catalysts for the production of synthetic gases, or syngas,” he says. “It may also lead to new electrodes for lithium-ion batteries.” Once developed, nanoscale components for this type of rechargeable battery are expected to bring improved safety and durability, and lower costs.
Atomic Modelling matters in research
Professor Julian Gale leads a world-class research group in computational materials chemistry at the NRI. “We work at the atomic level, looking at fundamental processes by which materials form,” he says. “We can simulate up to a million atoms or more, and then test how the properties and behaviour of the atoms change in response to different experimental conditions.” Such research is made possible through accessing a petascale computer at WA’s Pawsey Centre – built primarily to support Square Kilometre Array pathfinder research.
The capacity to model the nanoscale behaviour of atoms is a powerful tool in nanochemistry research, and can give direction to experimental work. The calcium carbonate mineral vaterite is a case in point. “Our theoretical work on calcium carbonate led to the proposal that the mineral vaterite was actually composed of at least three different forms,” Gale explains. “An international team found experimental evidence which supported this idea.”
NRI Director Professor Andrew Lowe regards this capacity as an asset. “Access to this kind of atomic modelling means that our scientists can work within a hypothetical framework to test whether a new idea is likely to work or not before they commit time and money to it,” he explains.
Formally established in 2001, the Nanochemistry Research Institute began a new era in 2015 through the appointment of Professor Andrew Lowe as Director. Working under his guidance are academic staff and postdoctoral fellows, as well as PhD, Honours and undergraduate science students.
An expert in polymer chemistry, Lowe’s research background adds a new layer to the existing strong multidisciplinary nature of the Institute. “Polymers have the potential to impact on every aspect of fundamental research,” he says. “This will add a new string to the bow of Curtin University science and engineering, and open new and exciting areas of research and collaboration.”
Polymers are a diverse group of materials composed of multiple repeated structural units connected by chemical bonds. “My background is in water-soluble polymers and smart polymers,” explains Lowe. “These materials change the way they behave in response to their external environment – for example, a change in temperature, salt concentrations, pH or the presence of other molecules including biomolecules. Because the characteristics of the polymeric molecules can be altered in a reversible manner, they offer potential to be used in an array of applications, including drug delivery, catalysis and surface modification.”
Lowe has particular expertise in RAFT dispersion polymerisation, a technique facilitating molecular self-assembly to produce capsule-like polymers in solution. “This approach allows us to make micelles, worms and vesicles directly,” he says, describing the different physical forms the molecules can take. “It’s a novel and specialised technique that creates high concentrations of uniformly-shaped polymeric particles at the nanoscale.” Such polymers are candidates for drug delivery and product encapsulation.
Australian scientists and science educators have been honoured at the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. The awards, introduced in 2000, are considered Australia’s most prestigious and highly regarded awards, and are given in recognition of excellence in scientific research, innovation and science teaching.
The awards acknowledge and pay tribute to the significant contributions that Australian scientists make to the economic and social betterment in Australia and around the world, as well as inspiring students to take an interest in science.
Previous winners include Professor Ryan Lister (Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year in 2014) for his work on gene regulation in agriculture and in the treatment of disease and mental health, and Debra Smith (Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools in 2010) for her outstanding contribution in redefining how science is taught in Queensland and across the rest of Australia.
This year’s winners were announced by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra yesterday, which was also attended by the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb.
Professor Farquhar’s models of plant biophysics has led to a greater understanding of cells, whole plants and forests, as well as the creation of new water-efficient wheat varieties. His work has transformed our understanding of the world’s most important biological reaction: photosynthesis.
Farquhar’s most recent research on climate change is seeking to determine which trees will grow faster in a carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere. “Carbon dioxide has a huge effect on plants. My current research involves trying to understand why some species and genotypes respond more to CO2 than others,” he says. And he and colleagues have uncovered a conundrum: global evaporation rates and wind speeds over the land are slowing, which is contrary to the predictions of most climate models. “Wind speed over the land has gone down 15% in the last 30 years, a finding that wasn’t predicted by general circulation models we use to form the basis of what climate should be like in the future,” he says. This startling discovery means that climate change may bring about a wetter world.
“Our world in the future will be effectively wetter, and some ecosystems will respond to this more than others.”
Professor Farquhar will also receive $250,000 in prize money. Looking forward he is committed to important projects, such as one with the ARC looking at the complex responses of plant hydraulics under very hot conditions.
“It’s important to understand if higher temperatures will negatively affect the plants in our natural and managed ecosystems, and if higher temperatures are damaging, we need to understand the nature of the damage and how we can minimise it.”
You can find out more about the 2015 winners including profiles, photos and videos here.
Photo from left: Refraction founders Heather Catchpole and Karen Taylor-Brown, with Production Manager Heather Curry and Publishing Co-ordinator Jesse Hawley.
Refraction Media, a Sydney-based publishing start-up, was announced Australia’s Best Small Publisher at the 2015 Publish Awards. Specialising in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), Refraction Media came out on top in a category that included sport, luxury and lifestyle at the industry’s night-of-nights.
The jurors at the 2015 Publish Awards said:
“Refraction Media outclassed the other entrants. For a start up operation that’s only two years old, the company has managed to capitalise on an untapped market with incredible skill and with many clever, innovative and successful media streams.”
Publishing’s leaders, representing titles such as Vogue, the Australian Women’s Weekly and Gourmet Traveller, competed for accolades at the 2015 Publish Awards alongside youth disrupters such as Junkee, Vice and Pedestrian.tv while business and industry like In the Black and Australian Pharmacist brought their A-game.
Amongst the glitz and glamour at the 2015 Publish Awards, science valiantly flew its flag with New Scientist‘s Australasia reporter Michael Slezak a finalist for Journalist of the Year (Consumer/Custom) and COSMOS magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr Elizabeth Finkel, a finalist for Single Article of the year for her piece ‘The buzz around brain stimulation‘.
With a strong presence on the main stage and by sharing the language and aesthetics of mass publishers, science publishers are taking science out of a niche audience and placing it firmly at the centre of a dynamic industry of interactivity, sharing and scrolling.
As science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) becomes more visual, accessible and dynamic, especially to Australia’s youth, engagement and participation rates will climb. This future STEM-skilled workforce is critical to Australia’s future prosperity. STEM graduates will facilitate innovation and collaboration.
Refraction Media fills a unique niche in the market that connects science and technology with the general public. Since its launch in 2013, Refraction has printed over half a million magazines across eight titles, shared 16 in-depth science study guides with schools, produced 13 3D animations, edited 17 scientific white papers, developed two e-learning platforms and created the worldwide, one-and-only virtual tour of a nuclear reactor.
Refraction produce two websites, for news at the nexus of research and industry, www.sciencemeetsbusiness.com.au; and careerswithcode.com.au, which aims to inspire high school students to combine their passion – whether it’s music, arts, business, sports or the environment – with STEM skills to create the careers of the future.
Refraction Media has demonstrated that rather than being ‘niche’, specialising in science uncovers a world of opportunity and discovery.
It’s easy to get lost in a sea of information when looking at cybersecurity issues – hearing about hacks and cyberattacks as they happen is a surefire way to feel helpless and totally disempowered.
What follows is a sort of future shock, where we become fatalistic about the problem. After all, 86% of organisations from around the world surveyed by PwC reported exploits of some aspect of their systems within a one year period. That represented an increase of 38% on the previous year.
However, once the situation comes into focus, the problem becomes much more manageable. There are a range of things that can we can easily implement to reduce the risk of an incident dramatically.
For example, Telstra estimates that 45% of security incidents are the result of staff clicking on malicious attachments or links within emails. Yet that is something that could be fairly easily fixed.
There is currently a gap between our confidence in what we can do about security and the amount we can actually do about it. That gap is best filled by awareness.
So here are some of the top things you can do to protect yourself from cyberattack:
1 Managed risk
First up, we need to acknowledge that there is no such thing as perfect security. That message might sound hopeless but it is true of all risk management; some risks simply cannot be completely mitigated.
However, there are prudent treatments that can make risk manageable. Viewing cybersecurity as a natural extension of traditional risk management is the basis of all other thinking on the subject, and a report by CERT Australia states that 61% of organisations do not have cybersecurity incidents in their risk register.
ASD also estimates that the vast majority of attacks are not very sophisticated and can be prevented by simple strategies. As such, think about cybersecurity as something that can managed, rather than cured.
2 Patching is vital
Patching is so important that ASD mentions it twice on its top four list. Cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs say it three times: “update, update, update”.
Update your software, phone and computer. As a rule, don’t use Windows XP, as Microsoft is no longer providing security updates.
Updating ensures that known vulnerabilities are fixed and software companies employ highly qualified professionals to develop their patches. It is one of the few ways you can easily leverage the cybersecurity expertise of experts in the field.
3 Restricting access means restricting vulnerabilities
The simple rule to protect yourself from cyberattack is: don’t have one gateway for everything. If all it takes to get into the core of a system is one password, then all it takes is one mistake for the gate to be opened.
Build administrator privileges into your system so that people can only use what they are meant to. For home businesses it could mean something as simple as having separate computers for home and work, or not giving administrator privileges to your default account.
It could also be as simple as having a content filter on employee internet access so they don’t open the door when they accidentally click on malware.
4 Build permissions from the bottom up
Application whitelisting might sound complicated, but what it really means is “deny by default”: it defines, in advance, what is allowed to run and ensures that nothing else will.
Most people think of computer security as restricting access, but whitelisting frames things in opposite terms and is therefore much more secure. Most operating systems contain whitelisting tools that are relatively easy to use. When used in conjunction with good advice, the result is a powerful tool to protect a network.
Protect yourself from cyberattack: Simple things first
Following these basic rules covers the same ground as ASD’s top four mitigation strategies and substantially lowers vulnerability to protect yourself from cyberattack. If you want to delve deeper, there are more tips on the ASD site.
There are many debates that will follow on from this, such as: developing a national cybersecurity strategy; deciding if people should have to report an incident; the sort of insurance that should be available; what constitutes a proportionate response to an attack; and a whole range of others.
Each of those debates is underpinned by a basic set of information that needs to be implemented first. Future shock is something that can be overcome in this space, and there are relatively simple measures that can be put into place in order to make us more secure. Before embarking on anything complicated, you should at least get these things right to protect yourself from cyberattack.
This article was first published by The Conversation on 16 October 2015. Read the original article here.
Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced what he calls a “21st-century government”. This article is part of The Conversation’s series focusing on what such a government should look like.
Change is in the air. According to our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, his will be a 21st century government. But what does this entail? And what is the role of science and innovation in such a government?
The challenge for a genuinely 21st century Australian government is how to wrap its arms around the future in such a way that it improves Australia’s ability to capitalise on its research capacity and create new jobs, industries and opportunities for the coming century.
A 21st century ministry
The expanded Industry, Innovation and Science portfolio will now encompass digital technology and engineering, which together comprise the engine that has driven explosive growth in Silicon Valley, Israel and other forward-looking places.
We need to invest broadly in science research to feed the technology and engineering engine. But how do we bridge the funding “valley of death” between research and industry, and convert our excellent research outcomes into proven technologies?
We have companies aplenty that can pick up and commercialise proven technologies, but they are rightly cautious about licensing the rights to research outcomes. To address this problem, the US government directly invests nearly ten times more than we do as a percentage of GDP to fund business feasibility studies intended to convert research outcomes into proven technologies.
To drive our innovation agenda harder, a 21st century government could consider grants and development contracts specifically to support the translation of research outcomes into proven technologies.
Private sector investment into Australian start-up companies is lacking. In the US and Israel, more than 10% of GDP derives from venture-capital backed companies. In Australia it is 0.2%.
If we could increase the contribution to the economy by these companies from 0.2% to, say, 2%, then the benefits would be significant. To do so we will need to encourage new domestic and international sources of private funding, teach skills in technology assessment, and give further consideration to the rules around employee stock options and crowd-sourced funding.
At the same time, the fresh line-up of political leaders can help advance the national psyche beyond a state of gloom. They can acknowledge the fantastic benefits innovation has already brought to established industries.
Banking and resources, for example, have invested heavily in innovation to improve efficiency, and the largest iron mining companies in Australia continue to operate with positive operating margins despite depressed international prices.
Science and technology advances operate across broad sectors of the economy, contributing to accelerated growth in major export industries such as agriculture. Improvements to farm machinery and practices will make our farming more efficient, while adoption of digital technology to track our goods from field to retail outlet will provide the proof of origin that will allow our exporters to charge premium prices.
To the extent that the government will invest in new programs to support innovation, they should be carefully conceived, long term and national in scope, and large in scale. At the same time, existing programs could be consolidated to focus on those that have the most impact.
Sink or swim
I sometimes hear criticism of the Australian workforce, but I strongly disagree with that criticism. I have employed many engineers and scientists in the US and in Australia, and the Australian staff have been every bit as talented and dedicated as their US counterparts.
Unfortunately, unlike in the US, a substantial fraction of our creative workforce is locked out of commercial development activities because of the lack of mobility between university and industry jobs.
A 21st century government could help by adopting ratings systems that measure and reward engagement between universities and industry, and value time spent by research staff working in industry as much as they value publications and citations.
Of course, like footballers, innovators thrive when the rules of the game are clear and consistently applied. Industry is as one with government in recognising the importance of strong regulations. What is needed in most industries is a lead regulator to coordinate the regulatory oversight.
This approach does not replace the expertise of the various regulators, it just coordinates them. The key is for regulations to enable rather than stifle innovation while ensuring that community concerns and safety requirements are properly addressed.
We are already operating in an era of digital disruption. Science and technology will further dominate our future as we build a world ever more like those imagined by science fiction. In this world, machines offer their services to each other, buy and sell products and exchange information in real time. Manufacturing and service provision will be highly flexible and products will be individualised to customer needs.
Our industries must be agile and ready to transform, so that they will add value in a complex global supply chain, thereby creating new wealth that will be invested in services, health and other industries, with net creation of jobs.
The only thing we know for sure is that the next ten years will change more rapidly than the past ten years. I am confident that as the newly appointed Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Christopher Pyne, recognises the urgency to embrace these changes and will introduce policies and practices to capture the opportunities in what is proving to be a sink or swim world. The latter is preferable.
“These awards recognise research organisations’ success in creatively transferring knowledge and research outcomes into the broader community,” said KCA Executive Officer, Melissa Geue.
“They also help raise the profile of research organisations’ contribution to the development of new products and services which benefit wider society and sometimes even enable companies to grow new industries in Australia.”
Details of the winners are as follows:
The Best Commercial deal is for any form of commercialisation in its approach, provides value-add to the research institution and has significant long term social and economic impact:
University of Melbourne – Largest bio tech start-up for 2014
This was for Australia’s largest biotechnology deal in 2014 which was Shire Plc’s purchase of Fibrotech Therapeutics P/L – a University of Melbourne start-up – for US$75 million upfront and up to US$472m in following payments. Fibrotech develops novel drugs to treat scarring prevalent in chronic conditions like diabetic kidney disease and chronic kidney disease. This is based on research by Professor Darren Kelly (Department of Medicine St. Vincent’s Hospital).
Shire are progressing Fibrotech’s lead technology through to clinical stages for Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which is known to affect children and teenagers with kidney disease. The original Fibrotech team continues to develop the unlicensed IP for eye indications in a new start-up OccuRx P/L.
Best Creative Engagement Strategy showcases some of the creative strategies research organisations are using to engage with industry partner/s to share and create new knowledge:
Defence Science and Technology Group –Defence Science Partnerships (DSP) reducing red tape with a standardised framework
The DSP has reduced transaction times from months to weeks with over 300 agreements signed totalling over $16m in 2014-15. The DSP is a partnering framework between the Defence Science Technology Group of the Department of Defence and more than 65% of Australian universities. The framework includes standard agreement templates for collaborative research, sharing of infrastructure, scholarships and staff exchanges, simplified Intellectual Property regimes and a common framework for costing research. The DSP was developed with the university sector in a novel collaborative consultative approach.
The People’s Choice Awards is open to the wider public to vote on which commercial deal or creative engagement strategy project deserves to win. The winner this year, who also nabbed last years’ award is:
Swinburne University of Technology – Optical data storage breakthrough leads the way to next generation DVD technology – see DVDs are the new cool tech
Using nanotechnology, Swinburne Laureate Fellowship project researchers Professor Min Gu, Dr Xiangping Li and Dr Yaoyu Cao achieved a breakthrough in data storage technology and increased the capacity of a DVD from a measly 4.7 GB to 1,000 TB. This discovery established the cornerstone of a patent pending technique providing solutions to the big data era. In 2014, start-up company, Optical Archive Inc. licensed this technology. In May 2015, Sony Corporation of America purchased the start-up, with knowledge of them not having any public customers or a final product in the market. This achievement was due to the people, the current state of development and the intellectual property within the company.
Upgraded bio-security measures to combat fruit fly will be introduced in Australia, bringing added confidence to international trade markets.
South Australia is the only mainland state in Australia that is free from fruit flies – a critical component of the horticultural industries’ successful and expanding international export market.
A new national Sterile Insect Technology facility in Port Augusta, located in the north of South Australia, will produce billions of sterile male fruit flies – at the rate of 50 million a week – to help prevent the threat of fruit fly invading the state.
The new measures will help secure producers’ access to important citrus and almond export markets including the United States, New Zealand and Japan, worth more than $800 million this year.
The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) introduces sterile flies into the environment that then mate with the wild population, ensuring offspring are not produced.
Macquarie University Associate Professor Phil Taylor says the fly, know as Qfly because they come from Queensland, presents the most difficult and costly biosecurity challenge to market access for most Australian fruit producers.
“Fruit flies, especially the Queensland fruity fly, present a truly monumental challenge to horticultural production in Australia,” he says.
“For generations, Australia has relied on synthetic insecticides to protect crops, but these are now banned for many uses. Environmentally benign alternatives are needed urgently – this is our goal.
The impetus behind this initiative is to secure and improve trade access both internationally and nationally for South Australia.
It will increase the confidence of overseas buyers in the Australian product and make Australia a more reliable supplier. Uncertainty or variation of quality of produce would obviously be a concern for our trading partners.”
South Australia’s Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell says the $3.8 million centre would produce up to 50 million sterile male Qflies each week.
LANDTEM, an Australian invention that creates a 3D map of underground ore bodies has uncovered deposits worth A$4 billion in Australia and A$10 billion globally. The technology development was led by CSIRO scientist Dr Cathy Foley and is a great example of the commercial application of scientific research.
In some ways it was a stroke of good fortune that set Dr Cathy Foley and her colleagues on the path to inventing LANDTEM, a device that has revolutionised the way mining companies detect ore underground and uncovered deposits worth billions of dollars around the world.
The story of the invention begins in the mid-1980s, when the discovery of high temperature superconductors opened the way for superconductivity to be used in everyday applications instead of only at extremely low temperatures.
The discovery provoked huge excitement around the world among scientists and engineers who set about seeking practical applications, no less so in Australia.
BHP Billiton held an internal meeting about the technology and it was there that some of the company’s geologists said that measuring subtle magnetic fields would be very valuable to them, providing the spark of the idea for LANDTEM.
Foley describes the moment as “serendipitous”, but says it’s also a reflection of the way CSIRO interacts with industry.
“Quite often when you’ve got something which is a platform technology that can be used in a lot of different ways, you start off thinking in a very diverse way or very open ended way so you’re not really sure where you’re going. And that’s why one of the things that differentiates the CSIRO from any other research organisations and particularly universities: we talk to industry a lot and get guidance from them,” she says.
“We might come up with the original science but then we engage with industry to say, ‘we’ve got this great idea, we think it could be useful there’. And they’ll say, ‘well, actually no, we think it could be useful over here’.”
LANDTEM consists of a big coil of wire placed on the ground above a potential ore deposit. It pulses a large changing current through the wire to create a magnetic field, and this in turn creates what’s known as an Eddy current in any conducting material nearby, such as an ore body underground.
Then the current is turned off, but an ore body’s current lingers for a tiny fraction of a second longer and by measuring this, LANDTEM can determine if there is an ore body and where it is. Crucially, it can discriminate between an actual ore body and the conducting soil that is so prevalent in Australia and that in the past would have led to muddled results.
Foley says the invention has helped mining companies find things they wouldn’t have found otherwise and find deeper ore bodies. It can also tell them whether it is worth the expense of putting a bore hole down to analyse the quality of the ore and where to put it.
Not all ore bodies are conducting, so LANDTEM is mainly used for finding silver, nickel and gold.
It’s one of a series of tools geologists use to find an ore body, and Foley says it has allowed many mining companies to cut out several of the steps needed in mineral exploration.
For instance, in Canada, Xstrata Nickel has bought three LANDTEM systems and is so confident about the technology that once it has located an ore body they don’t do much drilling at all and move straight on to mining instead.
When recognising the work of Foley and her colleague CSIRO engineer Keith Leslie at the Clunies Ross awards, the chair of the awards’ organising committee Professor Mike Hood said: “Their story demonstrates the importance of unwavering dedication in bringing a scientific discovery to market. Over the coming years LANDTEM will continue to play a major role in the worldwide discovery of new mineral deposits.”
Foley studied physics and education at Sydney’s Macquarie University with the intention of becoming a high school science teacher. “But I fell in love with research and I did my PhD in nitride semiconductors and did a smidgen of the early work that led to the white LED,” she says.
Having decided to pursue a career in research, Foley joined CSIRO as a post-doctoral fellow working in magnetics and was asked to join the team working on applications for the new high temperature superconductors.
Along with taking the new technology to industry to see how it could be used, another factor in the successful development and commercialisation of the LANDTEM is CSIRO’s ability to pull together a multidisciplinary team when an opportunity arises, in this case researchers in mineral resources, electrical engineering, devices, materials and cryogenics, and finally at the end, lawyers and business people.
“In order to be a survivor and also to really be profitable and commercially successful, you’ve got to recognise just how the world is changing and that you’ve got to be innovative, not just in your products but also in your business model and how you see yourself getting into the manufacturing world,” she says.
“Australia is at a really interesting point where the current Government has recognised this and I think got a whole lot of things in place.”
Foley says the Federal Government’s recently-announced Industry Growth Centres, which aim to forge better links between industry and Australia’s top researchers, are a promising start.
She sees potential in agile manufacturing, where the manufacturers make small numbers of specialised and customised products and can quickly re-conform to make another product.
“Instead of being a manufacturer who has a big factory, you actually buy time in a factory to do a certain thing, part of it, and then you might even ship it to somewhere else to get another bit done where there’s a specialist and so you end up with products which are done more in smaller batches rather than mass market because they’re more customised,” she says. “These days successful societies have to keep reinventing themselves and recognising where you can you use intellectual approaches rather than just brute labour.”
As a senior CSIRO executive, Foley is less involved in hands-on research than she used to be, but still finds it an exciting environment.
“It’s pretty exciting to think that the work you do actually has an enormous impact and can make a difference. And I think if you ask people I work with, they all say that’s what they love about working at CSIRO. We do things that actually change the world and I think that’s a nice thing to do,” she says.
– Christopher Niesche
This article was first published by Australia Unlimited on 20 August 2015. Read the original article here.
This article is part of The Conversation’s series on the Science and Research Priorities recently announced by the Federal Government. You can read the introduction to the series by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, here.
Chief Defence Scientist, Defence Science and Technology
The national science and research priorities have been developed with the goal of maximising the national benefit from research expenditure, while strengthening our capacity to excel in science and technology.
Cybersecurity has been identified as a research priority due to Australia’s increasing dependence on cyberspace for national well-being and security. Cyberspace underpins both commercial and government business; it is globally accessible, has no national boundaries and is vulnerable to malicious exploitation by individuals, organised groups and state actors.
Cybersecurity requires application of research to anticipate vulnerabilities, strengthen cyber systems to ward off attacks, and enhance national capability to respond to, recover from, and continue to operate in the face of a cyber-attack.
Cyberspace is a complex, rapidly changing environment that is progressed and shaped by technology and by how the global community adopts, adapts and uses this technology. Success in cyberspace will depend upon our ability to “stay ahead of the curve”.
Research will support the development of new capability to strengthen the information and communications systems in our utilities, business and government agencies against attack or damage. Investment will deliver cybersecurity enhancements, infrastructure for prototype assessment and a technologically skilled workforce.
Accordingly, priority should be given to research that will lead to:
Highly secure and resilient communications and data acquisition, storage, retention and analysis for government, defence, business, transport systems, emergency and health services
Secure, trustworthy and fault-tolerant technologies for software applications, mobile devices, cloud computing and critical infrastructure
Director of the Centre for Crime Policy and Research, Flinders University
Sensible science and research on cybersecurity must be premised upon informed, rather than speculative, “what if”, analysis. Researchers should not be beholden to institutional self-interest from whichever sector: government; business; universities; or security/defence agencies.
We need to be clear about what the cybersecurity threat landscape looks like. It is a variable terrain. Terms such as “cyber-terrorism” tend to get used loosely and given meanings as diverse as the Stuxnet attack and the use of the internet by disenchanted converts to learn how to build a pipe bomb.
References to “warfare” can be misleading. A lot of what we face is not “war” but espionage, crime and political protest. More than two decades into the lifecycle of the internet, we have not yet had an electronic Pearl Harbour event.
Cybersecurity depends upon human and social factors, not just technical defences. We need to know our “enemies” as well as ourselves better, in addition to addressing technical vulnerabilities.
We should be sceptical about magic bullet solutions of any kind. Good defences and secure environments depend upon cooperation across units, a degree of decentralisation, and built-in redundancy.
Director, Security Business Team at NICTA
Cybersecurity is an essential underpinning to success in our modern economies.
It’s a complex area and there are no magic bullet solutions: success requires a range of approaches. The national research priorities for cybersecurity highlight key areas of need and opportunity.
The technologies we depend on in cyberspace are often not worthy of our trust. Securing them appropriately is complex and often creates friction for users and processes. Creation of secure, trustworthy and fault-tolerant technologies – security by design – can remove or reduce security friction, improving overall security posture.
Australia has some key capabilities in this area, including cross-disciplinary efforts.
The ability to detect and monitor vulnerabilities and intrusions and to recover from failure is critical, yet industry reports indicate that the average time to detect malicious or criminal attack is around six months. New approaches are needed, including improved technological approaches as well as collaboration and information sharing.
Success in translating research outcomes to application – for local needs and for export – will be greater if we are also able to create an ecosystem of collaboration and information sharing, especially in the fast-moving cybersecurity landscape.
Director, Advanced Cyber Security Research Centre at Macquarie University
Cyberspace is transforming the way we live and do business. Securing cyberspace from attacks has become a critical need in the 21st century to enable people, enterprises and governments to interact and conduct their business. Cybersecurity is a key enabling technology affecting every part of the information-based society and economy.
The key technological challenges in cybersecurity arise from increased security attacks and threat velocity, securing large scale distributed systems, especially “systems of systems”, large scale secure and trusted data driven decision making, secure ubiquitous computing and pervasive networking and global participation.
In particular, numerous challenges and opportunities exist in the emerging areas of cloud computing, Internet of Things and Big Data. New services and technologies of the future are emerging and likely to emerge in the future in the intersection of these areas. Security, privacy and trust are critical for these new technologies and services.
For Australia to be a leader, it is in these strategic areas of cybersecurity that it needs to invest in research and development leading to new secure, trusted and dependable technologies and services as well as building capacity and skills and thought leadership in cybersecurity of the future.
Director of Security Research Institute at Edith Cowan University
ICT is in every supply chain or critical infrastructure we now run for our existence on the planet. The removal or sustained disruption of ICT as a result of lax cybersecurity is something we can no longer overlook or ignore.
The edge between cyberspace and our physical world is blurring with destructive attacks on physical infrastructure already occurring. The notion of the nation state, and its powers and its abilities to cope with these disruptions, are also significantly being challenged.
The ransacking of countries’ intellectual property by cyber-enabled actors is continuing unabated, robbing us of our collective futures. These are some of the strong indicators that currently we are getting it largely wrong in addressing cybersecurity issues. We cannot persist in developing linear solutions to network/neural security issues presented to us by cyberspace. We need change.
The asymmetry of cyberspace allows a relatively small nation state to have significant advantage in cybersecurity, Israel being one strong example. Australia could be the next nation, but not without significant, serious, long-term, collaborative investments by government, industry, academy and community in growing the necessary human capital. This initiative is hopefully the epoch of that journey.
Professor of Computing and Information Systems, and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Collaboration and Infrastructure) at University of Melbourne
There are more than two million actively trading businesses in Australia and more than 95% have fewer than 20 employees. Such businesses surely have no need for full-time cybersecurity workers, but all must have someone responsible to make decisions about which IT and security products and services to acquire.
At least historically, new technologies have been developed and deployed without sufficient attention to the security implications. So bad actors have found ways to exploit the resulting vulnerabilities.
More research into software design and development from a security perspective, and research into better tools for security alerts and detection is essential. But such techniques will never be perfect. Research is also needed into ways of better supporting human cyberanalysts – those who work with massive data flows to identify anomalies and intrusions.
New techniques are needed to enable the separation of relevant from irrelevant data about seemingly unconnected events, and to integrate perspectives from multiple experts. Improving technological assistance for humans requires a deep understanding of human cognition in the complex, mutable and ephemeral environment of cyberspace.
The cybersecurity research agenda is thus only partly a technical matter: disciplines such as decision sciences, organisational behaviour and international law all must play a part.
Professor of Physics and Program Manager at the Centre for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology at UNSW
Cybersecurity is essential for our future in a society that needs to safeguard information as much as possible for secure banking, safe transportation, and protected power grids.
Quantum information technology will transform data communication and processing. Here, quantum physics is exploited for new technologies to protect, transmit and process information. Classical cryptography relies on mathematically hard problems such as factoring which are so difficult to solve that classical computers can take decades. Quantum information technology allows for an alternative approach to this problem that will lead to a solution on a meaningful timescale, such as minutes in contrast to years. Quantum information technology allows for secure encoding and decoding governed by fundamental physics which is inherently unbreakable, not just hard to break.
Internationally, quantum information is taking off rapidly underlined by large government initiatives. At the same time there are commercial investments from companies such as Google, IBM, Microsoft and Lockheed Martin.
Due to long term strategic investments in leading academic groups Australia remains at the forefront globally and enjoys a national competitive advantage in quantum computing and cybersecurity. We should utilise the fact that Australia is a world leader and global player in quantum information science to provide many new high technology industries for its future.
The money will be used to develop a remote animal behaviour monitoring system, an improved climate control system, and upgrades of the free-range poultry facility.
Professor Wayne Hein, Dean of Roseworthy campus, welcomed the grant.
“We have an outstanding collaborative hub at Roseworthy with some of the best animal science researchers in the country working at this site,” says Hein.
“Roseworthy is also the headquarters of the Pork Cooperative Research Centre. The strong alignment with the CRC on campus means that industry engagement in the research undertaken on the campus is seamless and beneficial to all parties.
“This funding will help establish the highest standards of animal welfare in animal production systems.”
This article was first published on The Lead on 30 July 2015. Read the original article here.
The four main areas the Growth Centre will be focusing on will be reducing regulatory burden, commercialising new products and services, engaging with global markets and supply chains, and improving workforce skills. Food Innovation Australia Ltd (FIAL) will receive $15.4 million from the Australian Government for the first four years of its operation as a Growth Centre, and look to increase this investment from industry and other sources.
The new Growth Centre board met for the first time on 29 June 2015, and various strategic issues relating to the food and agribusiness sector were discussed. Details about the forthcoming sectoral strategy that will be used to align the Growth Centre activities will be shared over the coming year.
This information was shared by the CRC Association Newsletter on 29 July 2015. Read the newsletter here.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries has also been extensively involved throughout the development of the app, providing expertise from the initial concept to the final product.
During the final test runs before launch, approximately 20 sheep breeders, commercial producers and advisers previewed the system, which they say will dramatically simplify the ranking and purchase of rams, based on Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs).
Leading farm adviser Craig Wilson, of Craig Wilson & Associates, NSW, says RamSelect.com.au will take the hard work out of using ASBVs when searching for the right genetics to improve flock productivity. “RamSelect.com.au will be a game changer,” Wilson says. “We have known for a long time that ASBVs allow us to compare animals on genetic merit, without the effect of feeding or environment. The RamSelect app makes it quick and easy to rank animals against individual breeding objectives.
“For a lot of commercial producers, sifting through long lists of objective data was time consuming and difficult work – they can now find the genetics they need in a matter of seconds, and know that the recommendations are supported by objective data from Sheep Genetics.”
Sheep CRC chief executive James Rowe said RamSelect.com.au would also be an important marketing tool for breeders assisting clients to select ram teams.
“More and more commercial breeders are demanding objective ASBV data when shopping for rams,” says Rowe. “RamSelect.com.au ensures ram buyers can quickly check rams on offer against their breeding objective and prepare a ranked list prior to sale day. On sale day the buyer only needs to check the visual traits before making their purchase decisions.”
RamSelect.com.au is accessible on a computer, tablet or phone. It will search the Sheep Genetics databases – MERINOSELECT, LAMBPLAN and DOHNE MERINO – to quickly identify and rank rams for a defined breeding objective.
This article was first published on 23 July 2015 by the Sheep CRC. Read the original article here.
Using miniaturised wine fermentations in 96-well microplates, the Tecan EVO 150 robotic system is screening bacteria for MLF efficiency and response to wine stress factors such as alcohol and low pH.
The bacteria are sourced from the AWRI’s wine microorganism culture collection in South Australia and elsewhere.
The robot can prepare and inoculate multiple combinations of bacteria strains and stress factors in red or white test wine, and then analyse malic acid in thousands of samples over the course of the fermentation.
In one batch, for example, 40 bacteria strains can be screened for MLF efficiency and response to alcohol and pH stress in red wine, with over 6000 individual L-malic acid analyses performed.
The AWRI says that this high-throughput approach provides a quantum leap in screening capabilities compared to conventional MLF testing methods and can be applied to a range of other research applications.
Additionally, the phenotypic data obtained from this research is being further analysed with genomic information, which will identify potential genetic markers for the stress tolerances of malolactic strains.
Scientists have identified two microbes that build bigger and more resilient feed crops, potentially boosting farmers’ bottom lines by millions of dollars.
The biotechnology research conducted at Flinders University in South Australia identified two strains of microbes that dramatically increase the ability of lucerne to fix atmospheric nitrogen, boosting the feed crop’s early growth and resilience, and ultimately its yield.
Research by medical biotechnology PhD student Hoang Xuyen Le drew on the hundreds of strains of endophytic actinobacteria, which grow naturally within legume roots. His research isolated and identified two strains of microbes that in laboratory and glasshouse trials were shown to promote growth in the shoots of the legume plants.
Nitrogen is absorbed by the plants through the formation of external nodules by symbiotic rhizobium bacteria that grow in the nodules. Franco says that following the inoculation of the lucerne seeds with spores of the actinobacteria, the nodules grew significantly larger, fixing greater amounts of nitrogen.
“Up to 50 or even 70 per cent more nitrogen was fixed,” says Franco.
The effect was to substantially improve the establishment of the lucerne, increase its resilience in drought conditions and also boost its yield.
“We found that our two main strains gave us a crop yield increase of 40 to 50 per cent in the glasshouse, and we would look for at least a 20 per cent improvement in the field,” says Franco.
He says as much as 25 per cent of the higher levels of nitrogen persisted in the soil, improving the growing conditions for subsequent crops.
The Flinders biotechnologists will now expand their trials on lucerne in the field, and will also look for similar effects in other legume crops, including peas, chick peas and faba and soya beans.
Further research is required to understand the underlying mechanism of the bugs: while it is likely that their natural propensity to produce bioactive compounds is partly responsible for increasing the general robustness of the inoculated lucerne by reducing disease, they may also be encouraging the growth of rhizobium bacteria in the soil.
Franco says that actinobacteria offer an environmentally friendly way of controlling disease, especially fungal root diseases such as Rhizoctonia, reducing the need for fossil-derived pesticides and fertiliser.
The potential to capture atmospheric nitrogen offers a major environmental benefit.
The legume seed crop, based in the South East of South Australia, is the basis of a national feed industry worth close to $100 million a year.
“This is very good news all round,” says Franco.
This article was first published by The Lead on 22 July 2015. Read the original article here.
ARRB Managing Director Gerard Walton said that automated vehicles are a short-term reality that Australia needs to be prepared for.
“The South Australian Government has been quick to recognise this,” he said.
“ARRB will establish how driverless technology needs to be manufactured and introduced for uniquely Australian driving behaviour, our climate and road conditions, including what this means for Australia’s national road infrastructure, markings, surfaces and roadside signage,” said Waldon.
The Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill said the technology promises to not only improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, but also to provide a real opportunity for South Australia to become a key player in the emerging driverless vehicle industry.
“This trial presents a fantastic opportunity for South Australia to take a lead nationally and internationally in the development of this new technology and open up new opportunities for our economy,” he said.
The driverless car trials will take place on an expressway south of the capital city of Adelaide on 7–8 November 2015.
Multiple vehicles will conduct manoeuvres such as overtaking, lane changing, emergency braking and the use of on and off ramps.
The International Driverless Cars Conference will be hosted at the Adelaide Convention Centre and Tonsley precinct on 5–6 November 2015.
This article was first published by The Lead on 21 July 2015. Read the original article here.
Australia’s renewable resources include wind, solar, wave and geothermal energy, and there’s significant research happening to improve generation and storage technologies to overcome the inherent disadvantage of intermittent flow.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has completed 32 projects and is managing more than 200 others, including several large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) plants and wind farms, which are considered the most advanced technologies in terms of making a short-term impact on our renewable electricity generation.
Australia’s CRC for Renewable Energy (ACRE), which operated 1996–2004, developed a state-of-the-art facility for testing grid-connected renewable energy systems, as well as small-capacity wind turbines for remote generation.
Australian scientists at the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P) have made big strides in the development of flexible, lightweight solar cells, which CEO Dr Ian Dagley describes as the “antithesis” of rigid rooftop solar cells. These lightweight cells offer intriguing possibilities: their flexibility means they can be placed on a variety of surfaces, from walls to windows, and they can operate indoors to help charge electrical devices.
They’re also attractive because they’re considerably cheaper to manufacture than silicon solar cells. Dagley says his CRC-P team has been working on refining the manufacturing technique, which uses low-cost components and reel-to-reel printers. One of the goals is to increase the lifespan of the cells, which is about five years, whereas rigid cells last roughly 30 years.
Meanwhile, the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) is looking at ways to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing smarter, more energy efficient buildings and cities. CEO Dr Deo Prasad says lower carbon buildings can be realised by optimising design to ensure maximum energy efficiency, through integration of next-generation technologies, such as solar PV cladding and heat and electricity capture systems for on-site energy offsets, and by using more sustainable building materials that need less energy to extract, process and manufacture. At the suburb and city scale, Prasad says decentralised renewable energy generation, reliable storage and smart grids, linked with information and communications technology-based intelligence, will lower carbon impacts.
“We recognise there is not going to be a silver bullet solution to carbon reductions,” says Prasad. “The approach needs to be holistic and driven by industry and governments.”
There are challenges associated with increased renewable energy levels, but Australia’s National Electricity Market seems to be handling integration well so far, says Dr Iain MacGill, joint director of the UNSW Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets. Studies by the Australian Energy Market Operator show it’s possible to operate the national grid with 100% renewables. “It won’t be cheap – just a lot cheaper than unchecked climate change,” MacGill says.
Russell Marsh, director of policy for the Clean Energy Council, emphasises the importance of commitment. “Investors need long-term certainty to ensure a rate of return,” says Marsh. “The Federal Government needs to lock in a firm, long-term target.”
MacGill agrees that the right policies can incentivise investment, but adds that it requires leadership and social consensus. “Australia is contradictory on clean energy. We have an early history and remarkable success in renewable energy deployment, and fantastic renewable resources. But we are also among the world’s largest coal and gas exporters,” he says.
“Will we take a leadership role, or do all we can to keep our international coal and gas customers buying from us?”
While coal and gas continue to be our dominant energy sources, the once-burgeoning renewables industry has been hindered by the Federal Government’s recent review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET). The review recommended scrapping the 20% target for renewable electricity generation by 2020, resulting in political deadlock and investor uncertainty across the renewable energy sector.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Australian head, Kobad Bhavnagri, says the review was especially damaging because it came “very close to making retroactive changes to a policy”.
“Whenever retroactive changes are made to policy it becomes, essentially, Ebola for investors,” he says. “When governments act unpredictably and destroy the value of existing assets, it scares people – for a long time.”
Australia generates more carbon emissions per person than any other OECD country. One-third are generated by the electricity sector, in which coal and natural gas account for roughly 85% of generating capacity. Renewables, mostly from hydropower, account for about 15%.
Reaching the 20% target during the next five years will not be cheap. At the time of the review it was estimated that another $18 billion of investment would be required to reach the target.
But the costs associated with increased generating capacity are yet to be weighed against the costs of potentially catastrophic climate change. Scientists have warned a 2°C increase in overall average temperatures from pre-industrial levels is the limit our planet can withstand before the effects of climate change become irreversible.
In December 2014, following the release by the International Energy Agency (IEA) of its report World Energy Outlook 2015, the agency’s chief economist and director of global energy economics, Dr Fatih Birol, told Bloomberg’s Business Week that global investment in renewable energy needs to quadruple to a yearly average of $1.6 trillion until at least 2040, to stay below that warming threshold.
Some of the world’s biggest economies have taken note. Estimates by the Climate Interactive indicate the US-China emissions deal, if implemented in full, could keep some 580 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere between now and 2030 – more than all global fossil fuel emissions from 1990 to 2013.
In 2014 – while China spent US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects, increasing its 2013 total by about US$10 billion – the USA spent nearly US$13 billion on utility-scale renewables and continued to expand production of its almost carbon-neutral shale gas reserves (see here for Australia’s progress).
Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found Australian investment in large-scale renewable energy in 2014 was US$223 million – the lowest in more than a decade. 2014 saw Australia nose-dive from 11th largest investor in commercial clean energy projects to 39th, behind developing nations such as Honduras and Myanmar.
The 2040 outlook
If Australia is serious about boosting its capacity for renewable energy, 2040 is a good deadline, says Iain MacGill, joint director (engineering) for the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at UNSW Australia – by then we’ll need “a major infrastructure transition”.
Russell Marsh is Director of Policy for the Clean Energy Council, the peak body representing Australia’s clean energy sector. “With the right level of support we could see the deployment of renewable energy at least double between 2020–2040,” he says. “But if the target is not extended beyond 2020, it is unlikely that we will see further growth.”
This view is backed by the Australian government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE). In a November 2014 report looking towards mid-century electricity production, it reported “In the absence of potential new policy initiatives, the relative shares of fossil fuels and renewables in electricity generation are not likely to change significantly”.
In fact, BREE’s projections show renewable generating capacity remaining stable, meeting 20% of Australia’s total demand from 2020–2050. In this scenario, coal-fired power would still account for 65% of electricity by mid-century.
There are concerns that the current policy uncertainty is reaching a tipping point, which could see companies exiting Australia or going into distress.
In July 2014, RenewEconomy reported that Recurrent Energy, a US solar power plant developer being acquired by Canadian Solar, was planning to cease its Australian operations, citing concerns over policy uncertainty. Several other large international renewable energy companies, including Spain’s Acciona and US-based First Solar, have warned of possible exits, should the Renewable Energy Target be amended.
MacGill says exits are inevitable. “Why would an internationally focused renewable energy company stay if there is no prospect for their projects to go forward?
“They can, should and will depart at some point,” he says. “And with their departure, we will lose institutional capacity – such as people, money and industrial knowhow – which will inevitably
slow our ability to deploy clean energy, and increase its costs.”
Marsh agrees the risk to the industry is significant. “Every day, week and month that goes by with a cloud hanging over support for the renewable energy industry are days, weeks and months when our international competitors are racing ahead of us – and reaping billions of dollars in investment in this global growth market.”
Dr Deo Prasad, CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living, says that while the effects aren’t as dramatic, policy uncertainty also impacts the research community, especially “end-user driven projects where collaboration is essential”.
“Many a research direction and focus has had to change over the years, for the worse, due to policy uncertainty,” he adds.
When it comes to fostering innovation and the commercialisation of world class research, there is something the United States has that we lack. We ought to learn from the successes of the US in this area, and emulate one program they have pioneered to give our own innovative industries a much needed kickstart.
For dozens of Australian researchers returning to the country after working in the US, the lack of an equivalent to the US’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) scheme here reflects a major hole in our innovation ecosystem.
Charles Wessner, Professor at Georgetown University and Director of the Global Innovation Policy unit, says the SBIR scheme triggered a fundamental shift in attitudes in American universities when it was introduced in 1982.
According to Wessner, before SBIR, the Dean of a faculty would ask young academics how many publications were going to come out of their latest piece of research.
Thirty years on, the Dean is now asking whether the research can be converted into a product or service, and whether they should spin it out of the university to access SBIR funding. It has been a profound change of mindset, says Wessner.
Simple but effective
The SBIR scheme is a fairly simple design that hasn’t changed much since its introduction. US government agencies, which undertake more than US$100 million worth of R&D outside the agency, are required to allocate 2.8% of their R&D budget to these programs. Currently, eleven federal agencies participate in the program.
Each agency takes an active role in calling for R&D – “solicitations” is the term used in the US, and with a completely straight face – for areas of concern to them. For example, the US Department of Agriculture this year is calling for projects in 10 areas. They are unsurprising fields, like “aquaculture” and “biofuels and biobased products”, but with a bit more specificity under them.
Any small business (1–500 employees) can then bid to undertake projects against those solicitations. The US Department of Agriculture issues solicitations once a year, receives about 500 applications for “Phase 1” projects (those up to US$100,000 over up to eight months) and funds about 15–20% of them. If a project is success at Phase 1, they can apply for a Phase II award, which can be up to US$500,000 over two years. Some departments have further, larger Phase III stages, although the USDA doesn’t.
For the Department of Defense (DoD), 2.8% of its extramural R&D spend is a very large amount of money indeed. Moreover, if the Department of Defense is soliciting proposals for new work, it is very likely it’ll become the first customer of that small business if the project is successful.
The DoD already has a stake in the product, and is thinking about how it might work in its own ecosystem. Given the extreme complexity of military procurement procedures, having the DoD already staked in your product is a major advantage to a new company.
Carry on Phase II and then Phase III funding, sometimes in multiple series, are available in much larger amounts from the bigger agencies, and can run to tens of millions of dollars.
Don’t imagine that means all SBIR projects are short-term or lack scientific challenges. The US Navy uses about 1.4 billion tonnes of fuel annually, and the head of its energy program, Captain Jim Goudreau, said climate change transcends politics when you are talking about that much fuel.
He pointed out that the US military is already affected by climate change in many practical ways, like having less available live fire practice days each year in California. And as he said at the TechConnect World audience in Washington last week, the Navy is contracting for materiel to be delivered in 2040, which needs to be effective into the 2070s and 2080s. So it needs to cope with a changing climate.
Pull and push
At the TechConnect meeting in Washington last week, there were literally dozens of US federal groups talking to the science and business community about their innovation needs. Big departments, like defence and energy, are represented by many specialised teams seeking out companies to work for them.
It is “customer pull” in its rawest form. The science community is here in big numbers offering new technologies to the market. When “science push” and “customer pull” mix, then the chances of successful innovation rise to a new level.
At the same time in Philadelphia, the gigantic annual biotechnology conference, BIO, was underway with more than 15,000 participants from across the globe. The two big US science funding agencies – the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were there in force helping their SBIR companies meet up with big pharma and other collaborators to bring technologies to market.
It’s like a science festival writ large, but also in extreme detail, as companies search for new opportunities from the vast American research community.
Could it work in Australia?
The recent joint paper from Ian Macfarlane and Christopher Pyne, “Boosting Commercialisation of Research”, floated the idea that Australia needs an “SBIR-like” scheme. The Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) has often pointed out that the lack of such a scheme is a gaping hole in the Australian innovation ecosystem.
We do have some “customer pull” oriented schemes, though. The Rural R&D Corporations definitely fall into this category, as do many of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs).
The government’s response to the recent “Miles Review” of the CRC program was to push CRCs to be even more industry-led.
But none of these schemes are aimed at boosting innovation from small businesses. Or at least, not exclusively so. They are often encouraged to do so, and make sporadic attempts to improve their small business engagement, but it is clearly a weak spot in the Australian innovation context.
Small businesses that are trying to expand with innovative technologies constantly struggle to raise funds at early stages of development.
Bridging the gap
SBIR is not of itself a scheme for collaboration; the small businesses involved can undertake all the R&D themselves. But the experience in the US is that SBIR fosters collaboration as high technology start-ups seek to source expertise from universities and other research agencies.
Universities immediately increased their rate of spinning out companies on implementation of the scheme in 1982. The SBIR funding attracts further seed and venture capital funding, bridging that “valley of death” between early research funding and the business becoming self-sustaining.
Ultimately, many of the small businesses get bought out by large companies, particularly in the defense and pharmaceutical areas, where massive ongoing investment is needed to introduce new products.
There’s no doubt that an SBIR scheme would fill a major innovation gap in Australia, and no doubt we could make the necessary administrative arrangements. But for an SBIR scheme to truly succeed in Australia, there would be a few hurdles that I’d suggest must be overcome before we spent the first dollar. I call these the “Fair Dinkumness” tests to ensure an Australian flavour.
Fair Dinkumness test 1
Would there be true political support?
Unless a scheme enjoyed bipartisan support, there would be no point in introducing one. With one of the shortest electoral cycles in the world, Australia is at a major disadvantage in terms of stable policy in relation to innovation.
If the political support is there, then an SBIR scheme would need a significant investment of new money. Scrounging money off another under-funded program would simply be setting both up to fail. It takes some time for industry to become confident with new schemes and start to invest in a meaningful way. We’d need a real commitment.
Fair Dinkumness test 2
Would there be true bureaucratic support?
SBIR in the US works because it is a procurement scheme as well as an R&D scheme. The bureaucracy would need to seriously commit to using the scheme to improve its own departmental knowledge or services.
That means a solicited report to the Department of Environment on management of an endangered species would need to be implemented, not just sent to the library. That means the Army would need to buy the better boots from an Australian small business.
This is perhaps a bigger mindset change than either the politicians or the business community, and would need to be monitored closely, even if there was initial high level support.
For a small country such as Australia, it is often easiest to take the pathway of least risk – so Senate Estimates would need to cut bureaucrats some slack for backing Australian inventiveness too.
Fair Dinkumness test 3
Would Australian business truly back it?
If small businesses are formed just to access SBIR money, and want to survive on providing some research to government, then we are no better off. If peak industry bodies view the money as simply an entitlement for their members, then nothing new will happen.
The whole point of giving a big innovative boost to small businesses is to turn them into high-growth businesses. Existing bigger businesses would need to accept that they won’t be able to access the scheme, and they might even be faced with competition from those that do become successful innovators. An SBIR scheme by its very nature involves giving a leg-up to the new players in town, and the incumbent players need to accept that situation.
If the federal government did undertake to create an SBIR-like scheme in Australia, it would easily be the biggest reform of the innovation ecosystem in the country since the Hawke government’s raft of “Clever Country” policies.
It may not be the size of the Medical Research Future Fund as that scheme grows, but it is significantly more complex to implement. There is no doubt the government wants business and research agencies to come together much more closely. An SBIR scheme would be a massive step in that direction.