Featured image above: Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis
1 THE CURE
TECHNOLOGY/PROGRAM: PRMT5 inhibitors
IMPACT: The Cancer Therapeutics CRC (CTx), with its UK-based commercialisation partner, Cancer Research Technology, has licensed rights to a program of small molecule drugs called PRMT5 inhibitors to MSD (Merck in the US and Canada) in a multimillion-dollar deal. PRMT5 drugs have clinical potential in both cancer and non-cancer blood disorders. The deal involved an upfront payment of $21 million and potential payments in excess of $700 million. A minimum of 70% of those payments will be returned to CTx.
IMPACT: The new RoXplorer® will help access previously hard to locate greenfields (unchartered) mineral deposits beneath the barren surface rocks, which obscure mineralised rocks in about 80% of Australia. RoXplorer® will drill at around one sixth the cost of conventional diamond drilling techniques and be much safer. This will help reverse a two decades old trend which has seen Australia’s share of the world’s expenditure on mineral exploration drop from one quarter to one eighth.
IMPACT: Each of the 44 homes in Australia’s first water sensitive community, Aquarevo, in Lyndhurst, Victoria, requires approximately 70% less mains water than a regular suburban house. The homes catch, filter and treat most of their own water supply. Houses are plumbed with three types of water – drinking, recycled and rainwater – which means drinking water won’t be flushed down the toilet. The project was developed in conjunction with Villawood properties and South East Water.
IMPACT: A partnership of the AutoCRC, Swinburne University of Technology’s Electric Vehicle Laboratory and Bustech (part of Transit Australia Group), this is the first electric bus to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia. The buses are, on average, 80% cheaper to maintain than the current diesel buses. Each seat has a USB charger for mobile devices and the buses seat 50 passengers. Late last year, Bustech signed a deal to produce buses for the South Australian government.
IMPACT: digi.cash is a system that allows the issuing and circulation of many different kinds of electronic cash. It can be stored on phones, computers or an external storage drive like a USB and can be sent the same way as any other file. The digi.cash founder Andreas Furche says it is “much faster than Blockchain-based so-called cryptocurrencies, and much better suited for centrally issued financial instruments, like national currencies, or shares”.
IMPACT: Multimedia communications encouraging specific behaviour during disasters can be challenging. The BNHCRC has proven that use of the right visual imagery in official emergency warning communications assist people to act appropriately. Early versions of the “If it’s Flooded, Forget it” preparedness campaign inadvertently showed people engaged in “exactly the activity that we are trying to prevent” according to QUT’s Professor Vivienne Tippett, who is a BNHCRC lead researcher. New versions of the campaign involve a 4WD coming to a flooded waterway and deciding not to drive through, “the behaviour we’re trying to encourage”.
IMPACT: Carp are one of the worst introduced freshwater aquatic species in Australia with an economic impact estimated at up to $500 million per year. A new carp bio-control virus with potential to kill up to 95% of individual carp is ready to be released. “Ten years of CRC research has basically given the answer the carp bio-control agent is safe and useable,” says Invasive Animals CRC communications manager, Ian McDonald. The virus will be most effective in the first couple of years of use.
TECHNOLOGY/PROGRAM: International collaboration on laser signals
IMPACT: In collaboration with the Japanese space agency, JAXA, researchers from the CRC for Space Environment Management sent a beam of light, via an electro-optic laser from Mt Stromlo in Canberra, 6.7 million km away to an accelerating Japanese satellite called Hayabusa 2. It showed that a laser of this capacity can reach space debris in near-Earth orbit and is a significant step towards being able to more accurately track and eventually manoeuvre space debris (see “Shining a light on space debris”).
TECHNOLOGY/PROGRAM: Assessing measurement of toxic chemicals
IMPACT: PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are common toxic synthetic fluorinated chemicals. While being phased out, they are still encountered in fire-fighting chemicals. The National Measurement Institute collaborated with EPA Victoria on a CRC CARE project to conduct Australia’s first proficiency studies for these contaminants. These studies are an important tool for assessing contamination.
IMPACT: Taking advantage of a long crack that opened up in sea ice (which is normally impenetrable to ships), ACE CRC researchers used Australia’s icebreaker Aurora Australis to confirm that the Totten Glacier, East Antarctica’s largest glacier, is melting from below as warm ocean water reaches the ice shelf. Totten has the highest basal melt rate among Eastern Antarctic ice shelves and contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by about 3.5m if it melted completely.
Featured image above: the Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals Industry Growth Centre, MTPConnect
The Growth Centres launched in October 2015 with $250 million in government funding to 2019/2020. With six now up and running, new collaborations, with the CRCs and others, are beginning to bear fruit.
Take the pioneering idea of using a 3D printer to build joints and limbs damaged through cancer or trauma. The Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals (MTP) Industry Growth Centre, MTPConnect, extended BioFab3D@ACMD a grant to set up Australia’s first robotics and biomedical engineering centre within a hospital.
A group of researchers, clinicians, engineers and industry partners will work together to build organs, bones, brain, muscle, nerves and glands – almost anything that requires repair – for patients based at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. One of the big benefits is that the 3D printing will be more cost-effective for patients.
The path for BioFab3D from clever research to commercial success is still a long, complicated one. Collaboration is key and BioFab3D is working with St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, University of Melbourne, University of Wollongong, RMIT University and Swinburne University of Technology.
According to Sue MacLeman, CEO of MTPConnect, Australia has many strong and innovative medical and health groups that are on the cusp of realising their full commercial potential.
This is where CRCs come in. “CRCs already have research before it is picked up by the multinationals,” she explains. MacLeman says MTPConnect works with 12 CRCs and aims to help drive their commercial success.
“The MTP sector is hindered by constraints including a lack of collaboration between business and research, skills shortages, the need for more focused investment, and the need for more streamlined and harmonised regulatory and market access frameworks,” says MacLeman.
To meet these challenges the Australian government has provided six Growth Centres (see “Six of the best” below) with funding to help smart projects realise their full potential.
“Growth Centres have an enormous range of things to do. Everyone wants them to do everything. They work in tight timeframes,” explains Professor Robert Cowan, CEO of The HEARing CRC, which has been meeting with MTPConnect.
“We have 48,000 people in our sector, but we can’t speak to all of those people,” explains MacLeman. The MTP is well served by membership organisations such as Medicines Australia, the Medical Technology Association of Australia, and ARCS Australia (previously the Association of Regulatory and Clinical Scientists), adds MacLeman. It has signed a number of memorandums of understandings (MOUs) with membership associations to appreciate what is important in the sectors, particularly global best practice.
But Growth Centres need to remain independent, not heavily skewed to certain groups, says MacLeman.
“What is important is that we don’t take paid membership. You can sign up and showcase your work, but we want to keep it independent and not to be seen as a lobby group.
“That is very powerful for us. To have a strategic voice and a lot of alignment.”
Collaboration was essential for The HEARing CRC when it recently trialled an electrode that released an anti-inflammatory drug into the cochlear post-implantation. The trial brought together devices, drugs, analysts and the ethical and regulatory approvals.
“This new electrode array helps reduce inflammation and the growth of fibrous tissue around the electrode array triggered by the body’s immune response,” says Cowan.
Unlike a drug trial that involves hundreds and thousands of patients, the trial could be tested on a small number of people undergoing surgery. The world-first study was only possible through an interdisciplinary team of researchers, engineers and clinicians from Cochlear, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children’s Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre, The University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong.
Cowan says he expects MTPConnect will provide assistance to med-tech companies and research institutes in finding and developing new markets, collaborators and investors for Australian medical technologies.
Growth centres for the future of mining
The mining industry is also tapping into groundbreaking research coming out of universities through CRCs and engaging with the new mining equipment, technology and services (METS) growth centre, METS Ignited.
Extracting minerals from the Earth has become much more challenging. Mineral grades are dropping as reserves are being used up and environmental issues are impacting on mining operations. As a result, mining companies are looking at new ways to extract minerals, using technology as cost-effectively as possible.
“The downturn in the mining market is really focusing the mind,” explains Clytie Dangar, general manager, stakeholder engagement at the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE). “We can’t afford to stand still.”
CRC ORE has around 20 active research programs that span robotics, mathematics, data science, predictive modelling as well as broad engineering that focuses on blasting techniques and efficiently extracting minerals from waste. Dangar says the CRC has total funding of $110 million up until mid-2020. This is made up of $37 million from the government and the balance from industry.
CRC ORE and METS Ignited signed a MOU in January to work together to improve commercialisation and collaboration outcomes for Australian METS companies.
Australia has the world’s largest reserves of diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, zinc and rutile (a major mineral source of titanium), according to METS Ignited. “Australia is at the forefront of mining innovation over the years. A lot of countries have looked at Australia, certainly over the boom years. The challenge is to stay there when the money isn’t there and the nature of the reserves has changed. One way is to utilise the skill set,” says Dangar.
With sharp falls in commodity prices, mining companies are keen to participate in game-changing technology, she says. CRC ORE is engaging with big miners, such as Newcrest and BHP Billiton. It’s also tapped into the $90 billion mining sector, together with universities and PhD students who are carrying out innovative research.
The role of the Growth Centre is to link up all the stakeholders and capture the research, says Dangar.
“It is important to be well engaged. Our job as a CRC is to translate the needs of the miners to the researchers and make sure the researchers are addressing those issues.
“It is very applied because we have a short timeline. We must meet our guidelines and we provide small buckets of funds in grants,” says Dangar.
The key is being nimble as well as courageous in supporting research, even though it may not always work, says Dangar. CRC ORE is not in the business of funding long-term research with a horizon of seven to 10 years, but prefers a two- to three-year timeframe.
“In the past, there was a natural tension between METS and miners, but now they can’t wait until it is up and running,” explains Dangar. “Miners need to support METS earlier.”
Some of Australia’s step-change advances in mining include flotation to separate materials, bulk explosives, mechanised mining and large mills. One of the biggest issues for miners is how to separate metal from rock more efficiently. Dangar says CRC ORE is working on solving this problem to lower unit costs, and reduce energy and water consumption. Some of these approaches helped Newcrest Mining get better mineral grades at a cheaper cost at its Telfer mine in Western Australia.
“A lot of mining companies had their own research departments, but some of the issues are industry-wide issues, and it is better to be collaborative than go it alone,” says Dangar.
Six of the best
1. The Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre Ltd (AMGC) is working with the Innovative Manufacturing CRC, which kicked off in the 2015 CRC funding round. In February, the AMGC funded Geelong’s Quickstep Holdings, a manufacturer of advanced carbon fibre composites, to the tune of $500,000. The AMGC believes the project has the potential to generate export revenue in excess of $25 million.
2. The Australian Cyber Security Growth Network is an industry-led organisation that will develop the next-generation products and services required to live and work securely in our increasingly connected world.
3. Food Innovation Australia Ltd (FIAL), based at the CSIRO in Victoria, works closely with the relevant CRCs. CRCs have a long history of work in food and agriculture and have included the Seafood CRC, Future Farm CRC, CRC for Innovative Food products and many more.
4. MTPConnect covers the medical technologies and pharmaceuticals sector and includes the Wound Management Innovation CRC, Cancer Therapeutics CRC and HEARing CRC as members, among others.
5. National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) is the Oil, Gas and Energy Resources Growth Centre, and will work with the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) to “encourage industry-focused research and unlock commercial opportunities”.
6. NERA also has links with the mining equipment, technology and services growth centre, METS Ignited, which works closely with the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE).
Industry placements for CRC students have been an integral part of the CRC Programme since it began in 1991. While students contribute to solving real-world problems of industry, industry partners mentor students on the commercial side of their field and help produce industry-ready graduates who can hit the ground running.
Rebecca Athorn did a PhD, supported by the Pork CRC, investigating increased feeding and progesterone in young pigs during their first pregnancy and the effects on embryo survival. Part of her project was conducted in a commercial piggery owned by Australian pork producer Rivalea.
Athorn’s work showed that feeding the first-time mothers more didn’t affect the size of their litters, but did make the mothers healthier and live longer.
As well as delivering a practical improvement to commercial piggery practices, the study put Athorn in the spotlight for potential employers.
“I was approached by Rivalea as to my interest in working for them after I finished my PhD,” says Athorn. Several of her colleagues also partnered with Rivalea for their Honours projects before joining the company as employees.
“Having been known to the company and having positive references from those they worked with definitely helped,” says Athorn.
Even students with previous work experience in the field can benefit from an industry placement, says Tracy Muller. She worked with the CSIRO and the Prairie Swine Centre in Canada on pig welfare before entering the Pork CRC’s Industry Placement Program (IPP) at SunPork Farms and starting a PhD to identify and reduce lameness in pigs.
“The IPP has positively impacted on my ‘entry’ into the industry,” says Muller. “Together with the support of SunPork Farms, it has certainly progressed my career in the past four years, since graduating from university 14 years ago.”
Disruption can mean a lot of things. Dictionary definitions include “a forcible separation” or division into parts. More recently it has come to mean a radical change in industry or business. This brings to mind huge technological innovations. But what if it’s as simple as realising that a handheld device for detecting nitrogen could also be used to gauge how much feed there is in a paddock; that drones can be adapted to measure pest infestations; that communities can proactively track the movement of feral animals.
These are just some of the projects that Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are working on that have the capacity to change crop and livestock outcomes in Australia, improve our environment and advance our financial systems.
Data and environment
Mapping pest threats
Invasive animals have long been an issue in Australia. But a program developed by the Invasive Animals CRC called FeralScan is taking advantage of the widespread use of smartphones to combat this problem.
The program involves an app that enables landholders to share information about pest animals and the impacts they cause to improve local management programs.
Peter West, FeralScan project coordinator at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, says the team wouldn’t have thought of a photo-sharing app without genuine community consultation.
The project has been running for six years and can record sightings, impacts and control activities for a wide range of pest species in Australia, including rabbits, foxes, feral cats, cane toads and myna birds. West says that it now has 70,000 records and photographs, and more than 14,000 registered users across the country.
“For regional management of high-impacting pest species, such as wild dogs, what we’re providing is a tool that can help farmers and biosecurity stakeholders detect and respond quickly to pest animal threats,” says West.
“It enables them to either reprioritise where they are going to do control work or to sit down and work with other regional partners: catchment groups, local biosecurity authorities and the broader community.”
The app won the Environment and Energy Minister’s award for a Cleaner Environment in the field of Research and Science excellence at the Banksia Foundation 2016 Awards in December. Recent improvements to the app include the ability to monitor rabbit bio-control agents.Plans for the future include upgrading the technology to alert farmers to nearby pest threats, says West.
Also in the information space, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC (BNHCRC) is investigating reasons we don’t pay attention to or ignore messages that notify us of an impending fire or floods. Researchers are using theories of marketing, crisis communications and advertising to create messaging most likely to assist people to get out of harm’s way.
“The way we personally assess risk has a big impact on how we interpret messages. If I have a higher risk tolerance I will probably underestimate risk,” says Vivienne Tippett, BNHCRC project lead researcher and professor at Queensland University of Technology. “We’ve worked with many emergency services agencies to assist them to reconstruct their messages.”
Instead of an emergency message with a brief heading, followed by the agency name and then a quite technical paragraph about weather conditions and geography, Tippett’s team has worked on moving the key message up to the top and translating it into layperson terms. For example, a message might now say something like: “This is a fast-moving, unpredictable fire in the face of strong winds.”
Tippett’s team is constantly working with emergency services to make sure their findings are made use of as quickly as possible. “The feedback from the community is that yes, they understand it better and they would be more likely to comply” she says.
The Plant Biosecurity CRC is using unmanned aerial systems (UAS or drones) to improve ways to detect pest infestations in vast crops. Project leader Brian McCornack is based at the Kansas State University in the US.
“The driver for using unmanned aerial systems has been in response to a need to improve efficiency [reduce costs and increase time] for surveillance activities over large areas, given limited resources,” says McCornack. “The major game-changer is the affordability of existing UAS technology and sophisticated sensors.”
The project is now in its third year and adds an extra layer of data to the current, more traditional system, which relies on a crop consultant making a visual assessment based on a small sample area of land, often from a reduced vantage point.
The international collaboration between the US and the Australian partners at QUT, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the NSW Department of Primary Industries means the project has access to a wide range of data on species of biosecurity importance.
The CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI) has also been working on repurposing an existing gadget, in this case to improve the accuracy of estimating pasture biomass. Currently, graziers use techniques such as taking height measurements or eyeballing to determine how much feed is available to livestock in a paddock. However, such techniques can result in huge variability in estimates of pasture biomass, and often underestimate the feed-on-offer.
Professor David Lamb, leader of the Biomass Business project, says graziers underestimate green pasture biomass by around 50%. There could be a huge potential to improve farm productivity by getting these measures right.
Through case studies conducted on commercial farms in Victoria, Meat and Livestock Australia found that improving feed allocation could increase productivity by 11.1%, or up to $96 per hectare on average, for sheep enterprises, and 9.6% ($52 per hectare) for cattle enterprises.
The CRCSI and Meat and Livestock Australia looked at a number of devices that measure NDVI (the normalised difference vegetation index), like the Trimble Green Seeker® and the Holland Crop Circle®. The data collected by these devices can then be entered into the CRCSI app to provide calibrated estimates of green pasture biomass.
Graziers can also create their own calibrations as they come to understand how accurate, or inaccurate, their own estimates have been. These crowd-sourced calibrations can be shared with other graziers to increase the regional coverage of calibrations for a range of pasture types throughout the year.
In July 2016, the federal government announced funding for a partner project “Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture”. The Data to Decisions Cooperative Research Centre (D2D CRC) has partnered with all 15 rural research and development corporations (RDCs) on the project.
“The goal of the project is to help producers use big data to make informed on-farm decisions to drive profitability,” says D2D CRC lead Andrew Skinner.
He says that while the project may not provide concrete answers to specific data-related questions, it will provide discussion projects for many issues and concerns that cross different rural industries, such as yield optimisation and input efficiencies.
Collaboration between the 15 RDCs is a first in Australia and has the potential to reveal information that could shape a gamut of agricultural industries. “Having all the RDCs come together in this way is unique,” says Skinner.
The Capital Markets CRC, in conjunction with industry, has developed a system that allows it to issue and circulate many digital currencies, securely and with very fast processing times – and because it is a first mover in this space, has the potential to be a global disruptor.
Digi.cash is a spinoff of the Capital Markets CRC and is specifically designed for centrally issued money, like national currencies.
“Essentially we have built the printing press for electronic coins and banknotes, directly suited to issuing national currencies in digital form, as individual electronic coins and banknotes that can be held and passed on to others,” says digi.cash founder Andreas Furche.
A currency in digi.cash’s system is more than a balance entry in an accounts database, it is an actual encrypted note or coin. The act of transfer of an electronic note itself becomes the settlement. This is in contrast to legacy systems, where transaction ledgers are created that require settlement in accounts. So there is no settlement or clearing period.
“We have a advantage globally because we were on the topic relatively early and we have a group of people who have built a lot of banking and stock exchange technologies in the past, so we were able to develop a product which held up to the IT securities standards used in banking right away,” says Furche.
Digi.cash is currently operating with a limit of total funds on issue of $10 million. It is looking to partner with industry players and be in a leading position in the development of the next generation financial system, which CMCRC says will be based on digitised assets.
Passive radar, as developed by the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST), has been around for some time, but is being refined and re-engineered in an environment where radiofrequency energy is much more common.
As recognition of the disruptive capabilities of this technology, the Passive Radar team at DST was recently accepted into the CSIRO’s innovation accelerator program, ON Accelerate.
Active radar works by sending out a very large blast of energy and listening for reflections of that energy, but at the same time it quickly notifies anyone nearby of the transmitter’s whereabouts.
“Passive radar is the same thing, but we don’t transmit any energy – we take advantage of the energy that is already there,” explains passive radar team member James Palmer.
The technology is being positioned as a complement for active radar. It can be used where there are more stringent regulations around radar spectrum – such as the centre of a city as opposed to an isolated rural area. Radio spectrum is also a finite resource and there is now so much commercial demand that the allocation for Defence is diminishing.
Although the idea of passive radar is not a new one – one of the first radar presentations in the 1930s was a passive radar demonstration – the increase in radiofrequency energy from a variety of sources these days means it is more efficient. For example, signals from digital TV are much more suited to passive radar than analogue TV.
“We are at the point where we are seeing some really positive results and we’ve been developing commercial potential for this technology,” Palmer says. “For a potentially risky job like a radar operator the ability to see what’s around you [without revealing your position], that’s very game changing.”
There is also no need to apply for an expensive spectrum licence. The Australian team is also the first in the world to demonstrate that it can use Pay TV satellites as a viable form of background radiofrequency energy. The company name Silentium Defence Pty Ltd has been registered for the commercial use of the technology.