Science and technology has been given a much-needed boost in the Federal Budget handed down today.
The peak body for Australian science, technology, engineering and mathematics – Science & Technology Australia (STA) – has welcomed the support at a time where Australian science and technology is at a crossroads.
Significant funding boosts for crucial scientific research infrastructure has been complemented by major new investments in medical research, and technology infrastructure.
STA CEO Kylie Walker said the 2018 Budget indicates the Government has moved towards positioning Australia as a leader in global science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and innovation.
“The new commitment to $1.9 billion ($1 billion over the forward estimates) in research infrastructure following the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap is very welcome,” Ms Walker said.
“And major commitments to technology infrastructure, medical research ($1.3 billion), the Great Barrier Reef, and space science ($50 million) further strengthen the positive investment for the future of Australia’s STEM sector,” Ms Walker said.
“A return to keeping pace with CPI is very welcome for the Australian Research Council and other research agencies like the CSIRO. We’re also pleased to see specific measures to support greater participation by girls and women in STEM, and ongoing investment in inspiring all Australians to engage with science.
“A refocus of funding for the Research and Development Tax Incentive is another important step in supporting Australia’s innovation future.”
Ms Walker said the investment in science and technology would bolster the capacity for Australian science to support a healthy population, environment, and economy.
“The return on investment for science and technology is solid, and internationally it has been proven to be an effective means of securing and shoring up the economy,” she said.
STEM highlights in the 2018/19 Budget include:
$1.9 billion for a national research infrastructure investment plan over 12 years ($1 billion committed for first 4 years);
$1.3 billion for medical research through MRFF including $500m for genomics, $240m for frontier medical research, $125m for mental health;
$536 million (about $150 million for research) for the Great Barrier Reef
Return to indexation for the Australian Research Council and other research agencies like the CSIRO
$70 million for the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre
$50 million for the Australian Space Agency
$29.9 million for Artificial Intelligence capabilities
$260 million for satellite positioning infrastructure and imaging
$4.5 million over four years for Women in STEM initiatives
Ms Walker said it wasn’t all good news though, with STEM graduate rates threatened by continued capping of commonwealth support for undergraduate places at Australian universities.
“Universities will need to find ways to meet growing demand, while dealing with stagnant funding in the years to come. As STEM degrees are some of the most expensive to run, we don’t expect universities will have the capacity to increase the number of STEM skilled graduates,” Ms Walker said.
“Australia will need many more people equipped with STEM skills in our workforce to compete internationally. This short-term saving will be a loss for future generations.”
Pipelines are not something at the front of everybody’s mind, but the crucial piping infrastructure that invisibly links our national, regional and city areas is an integral part of the energy industry and a key focus of the Energy Pipelines Cooperative Research Centre (EPCRC).
A return in excess of $4.50 for every dollar the EPCRC spends is a tangible measure of the success of this well-established CRC.
Now in its seventh year, the EPCRC is currently working on four key program areas: more efficient use of materials; life extension of new and existing pipelines; advanced design and construction; and public safety and security of supply.
“The suite of topics is quite broad. We cover projects from basic materials research, and welding, corrosion and crack management, through to age maintenance, quality of coatings of pipelines, and cathodic protection [a mechanism used to reduce and prevent corrosion]. And how you do that is a mixture of both science and real-world experience,” says EPCRC CEO David Norman.
“What we have set up to deliver is an agenda of applied research driven by industry needs.”
The National Facility for Pipeline Coating Assessment (NFPCA) is a perfect example of how the EPCRC works via research to assist industry. An initiative of the CRC, the NFPCA is an independent facility established to perform oil and gas pipeline coating testing services.
“One of the things that industry needed was an ability to test coatings and one of the things we’ve been able to do is to satisfy that local need,” Norman says.
Prior to the establishment of the NFPCA, companies had to send coatings overseas to have them assessed. Now samples can be sent to Victoria to be tested, saving shipping costs and wait times, as well as growing local industry.
The EPCRC is now planning its next 10 years and is looking at how it can continue to add value to industry and the nation through its research projects. The organisation is also reaching out to the broader industry to identify the new challenges for which targeted research can assist with solutions through to 2030.
“By pooling our resources more widely across a whole industry, we have achieved things that never would have occurred if left to just one or two companies,” Norman explains.
“The CRC Programme is an excellent mechanism to bring together groups to tackle challenges and deliver solutions,” he adds.
The three key themes developing for the future are: life cycle management of pipelines, including research to better optimise how pipelines are designed and built, operated and decommissioned; security of supply with regards to urbanisation, public safety, and management by planning authorities; and future fluids and pipeline opportunities in the future energy transition.
As the world moves to lower carbon and potentially zero emissions, pipelines will have a critical role through their use for services other than for what they were originally designed – such as the role of storing gas in pipes rather than just transportation.
“We’ve been able to demonstrate that we provide in dollar terms in excess of what the average CRC provides for every dollar invested,” Norman says.
“We are excited for what the future holds as we continue to work closely with industry.”
This blog series describes five steps to build industry-research partnerships for successful technology transfer. If you missed it, you can learn about Step 1 – develop a culture and practices that promote partnership – in my previous post. When you’re ready, here’s Step 2…
2. Build a strong foundation for your partnership
This stage of the potential collaboration follows the introduction and is about getting to know each other and building trust and understanding. These intangible assets take time to develop and are essential for a positive, productive relationship. Therefore, spending time in regular contact with potential partners, especially face-to-face, is critical and will pay dividends.
While informal meetings help potential collaborators get to know each other at a human level, face-to-face time should not be entirely unstructured. Every interaction should work towards answering two critical questions about motivations and expectations:
What does the company hope to achieve through the industry-research collaboration?
What does the research organisation seek to accomplish?
Answering these questions will minimise the risk of disappointment and conflict later. Also, when the tech transfer office and other administrators step in to draft the contract, having a clear, shared understanding of the purpose of the collaboration will simplify their negotiations. It’s useful to have these parties meet face-to-face as early as possible, so that they have time to build empathy too.
At Cochlear, when my colleagues and I met face-to-face with potential research collaborators, we planned an agenda in advance, identifying the issues we needed to discuss. We also spent time over lunch or dinner getting to know each other personally.
When members of the research team visited our office to learn more about Cochlear’s operations, we invited them to explain their research interests, achievements and experiences to all staff in a lunchtime seminar. These interactions helped both parties and their wider organisations develop trust and understanding.
Industry-research collaboration brings a sudden injection of new colleagues. Before commitment, each party should understand the strengths and weaknesses of their potential co-workers, and what they would contribute to the collaboration, i.e:
Who is in each team and what is their role?
What is each team member’s experience and expertise?
How does each team measure up against their peers and competitors?
Has either team ever collaborated with others on the opposite side of the industry-research divide before? If so, what was the outcome?
As companies need to keep a watchful eye on their competitors, while sniffing out new market opportunities, they will also ask the research team the following questions:
Where is the science heading and on what timeframe?
What are the critical questions that remain unanswered in the field and what will it take to answer them?
What do the researchers know about any relevant industry collaborations involving their peers?
One of the best ways to understand technological trends and the R&D strategy of competitors is by analysing their patenting and publishing activities. At Cochlear, we readily shared knowledge of competitors’ activities with our research collaborators, so they could be our ‘eyes and ears’ in the research sector.
Potential collaborators must discuss the following:
What problem are we seeking to solve?
Who are the end users / customers and how can we improve value for them?
What are our time and budget constraints and what is achievable within them?
This phase of the industry-research collaboration is the time to identify any flaw in the research direction. In one case in my experience, the research had merit in its aims, but the proposed solution was impractical. Cochlear’s engineering expertise redirected the research, leading to a significant leap in the field and demonstrating the benefit of the collaboration.
By taking time: to build a personal relationship based on trust; to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses; to share information about threats and opportunities; to nail down the problem and how it may be solved practically; and above all, to clarify the expectations of each party; collaborators will lay down a solid foundation on which to build successful commercialisation projects.
The next steps in best practice industry-research collaboration for technology transfer are:
Use your teams to best effect and
Measure your impact
To learn more about these, please watch this space for subsequent posts.
Collaboration is a simple idea. You can teach it to a child: ask a child to share something and soon enough they will. Although they may initially react by turning away or looking down, given enough impetus they’re soon leaping around enjoying the benefits and challenges of shared play.
Scale it up to groups, organisations, industries, and academia, and it can seem complex. Industry has a commercial imperative; traditionally researchers sought more lofty goals or truths. Both universities and industry want to protect their IP. Working out the details is a legal wrangle; ensuring a shared vision when you don’t share the same location is a constant gamble.
Successful collaborations must have some form of flexibility or adaptability, yet large organisations can be slow in moving together, and in moving forward.
Technology has shifted the pace, as well as the level of expectation in terms of team collaboration. Tech companies have collaboration in their DNA, and cloud technology and automation are driving us faster towards collaborating closely – often with people we have never physically met.
Our level of trust is changing, and is threatened by a jumpy global attitude towards people who are different from us, and the prevalence in our lives of internet connected devices. Yet as the Hon Philip Dalidakis MP points out, cybersecurity is a collaboration opportunity as much as it is a shared risk.
To remain relevant, to keep pace in this shifting landscape – to compete in a global marketplace and as part of the world’s fast-moving network of research that forms the global brains trust – that will not happen unless we dramatically shift our perspective.
Technology has tethered us to the world and taken away the scourge of distance. Suddenly we’re accessible as a country in a way we have never been before.
Collaboration opens up opportunities as well as presenting challenges. It has long been happening at the level of individuals, as people from industry, research, community and government form alliances of interests. Our challenge is now to upscale. And it’s a tough one.
We may not have the same processes and infrastructure as other countries in developing the impetus to push our burden of change, Sisyphus-style, up this mountain. But as these thought leaders demonstrate, we are taking some great strides – and are at least like the reluctant child, now looking up towards the benefits of collaboration.
Collaboration has long been identified as an important requirement for success in business and indeed wider society. As the world changes, however, this requirement is changing too, and in many instances it is not just important, but vital for success.
Those organisations that struggle to make it central to their operations can be at a serious disadvantage. It is a case of collaborate or crumble.
We live in a world that is very complex and getting more so.This means today’s societal challenges are also getting harder to resolve. And as much as we would like simple solutions to complex problems, they usually don’t exist. Sophisticated, multi-faceted solutions are more often the only way to address complex challenges.
At Cochlear we are very familiar with such a challenge: hearing loss. Hearing loss is already a recognised global public health issue, with the World Health Organisation estimating that over 360 million people worldwide suffer from disabling hearing loss.
It is a health issue with significant medical, social and economic impacts. And with populations in many countries getting older, the problems are likely to get amplified.
Addressing the hearing loss challenge requires a sophisticated, multidisciplinary approach. The technology challenge alone involves over 30 different science and engineering specialities required to develop an implantable hearing solution that addresses severe to profound hearing loss.
And that is just the product, which on its own won’t do anything. It needs to be clinically validated for different age segments and approved by more than 20 regulatory bodies around the world. Policy makers and health insurers need to be convinced of the technology’s efficacy in order to improve access and funding. And we need to work with industry organisations, consumer groups, government and media to elevate the importance of hearing loss and the treatments available.
This of course can’t happen by a single person or team – it requires collaboration between numerous disciplines and professionals who contribute to different parts of the problem at different stages.
As we work to address more complex problems, we are also facing a paradox: on the one hand we need deeper and deeper expertise in specific areas because breakthroughs in one specialty area can have huge impacts on the total solution. And on the other hand we need some breadth too – specialists who can reach out from their niche to the broader teams that they are working with, both locally and globally, to understand the big picture problem and to help construct the end-to-end solution. Collaboration and being able to connect the dots are critical skills as they allow the solution to work in the real world.
Collaboration is vital in today’s world. It enables problem solvers to work together, extract value from diverse speciality areas and focus on large, important challenges. Without it we would crumble, but with it we can build a better future.
Australia’s future health and economy is a vibrant, interactive ecosystem with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at its core. STEM is central – and essential – to Australia’s ongoing success in the next 50 years. Australia is considered an incredible place to do cutting-edge research, pursue blue-sky ideas and commercialise innovative products. Pioneering discoveries fuel the innovation process. Students cannot wait to enrol in science and maths. Policies are developed using peer-reviewed evidence and broad consultation. Aspirational goals are backed by practical solutions and half of our STEM leaders are women – it’s the norm.
Sounds good doesn’t it?
To excel in science and innovation, however, Australia needs a major culture shift. We can all ‘talk the talk’, but as OECD figures demonstrate, we cannot ‘walk the walk’. Australia rates lowest compared to other OECD countries when it comes to business-research collaborations – not just large businesses, but small to medium-sized enterprises as well.
Academia blames industry. Industry blames academia. Everyone blames the government. It’s time to turn the pointing finger into a welcoming handshake and engage across sectors to actually make innovation happen.
Literally thousands of researchers in this country want to see our academic and industry leaders reach across the divide and make change happen. With every decision made, their future is impacted.
Paradigm-shifting science and innovation takes time and requires a diverse workforce of highly-skilled researchers and professionals that specialise in these fields.
The lack of a skilled workforce and poor collaboration are significant barriers to innovation. As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the industry engagement and impact assessment aims to incentivise greater collaboration between industry and academia by examining how universities are translating their research into social and economic benefits.
Australian academic institutions have begun to break down silos within their own research organisations with some success. In medical research for example, the breadth and scale of interdisciplinary collaborative projects has expanded exponentially – spanning international borders, requiring a range of skills and expertise, terabytes of data, and years of research.
Research teams have become small companies with synergistic subsidiaries – diagnostic, basic, translational and clinical teams – working toward a common goal.
Yet their engagement with industry is low. Industry struggles to navigate the ever-changing complex leadership structures in higher education and research. When you speak one-on-one with researchers and industry leaders, however, they seem almost desperate to cross the divide and connect! It’s a detrimental dichotomy.
How can we harness the full potential of our research workforce?
We can energise innovation by fostering a culture that values basic research as well as translation of discoveries to product, practice and policy. A culture that opens the ivory tower and is not so sceptical of industry-academia engagement. That responds to failure with resilience and determination rather than deflating, harsh judgement. That sees the potential of our young researchers.
We need to lose the tall poppy syndrome and openly celebrate the success and achievement of others. We must hold ourselves to higher standards and in particular, women must be equally recognised and rewarded for their leadership.
As a nation, we must ensure we are prepared and resourced for the challenges ahead. Not only do we need the best equipment and technologies, but we also need a readily adaptable workforce that is highly-skilled to address these issues.
To facilitate a culture shift and increase engagement with business and industry, we need to provide researchers the skills and know-how, as well as opportunities to hone these skills. Young researchers are ready to engage and hungry to learn; and they must be encouraged to do so without penalty.
They then need to be connected with industry leaders to identify the qualities and expertise they need to strengthen, and to extend their network.
We can change this now. The solution is not expensive. It is simply about letting down our guard and providing real opportunities to meet, to connect, to network, to exchange ideas and expertise – and to share that welcoming handshake.
The most comprehensive review of the Australian innovation system ever conducted was released this week by Innovation and Science Australia (ISA). If it was your child’s school report, you’d be saying we better have a serious discussion over dinner.
The conversion might go something like:
ISA: “We’ve had this discussion before, Australia. We’ve got your report and it’s OK but when are you going to really step up?”
Australia: “It’s not bad though. The Knowledge Creation teacher likes me.”
ISA: “It’s not a matter of whether the teacher likes you, or you like the teacher. We just want the best for you and if you are going to have a great future, you’ve got to put in the hard work across the board, not just in the areas you enjoy. Everyone likes you, Australia, but that’s different to doing the best you can.”
Australia: “Yeah, I know I could do more in transfer and application, but you want me to be like Israel or Singapore and they never have any fun and just work all the time”.
ISA: “We’ve never said you can’t have fun. But at some stage you need to put your head down and get on with some serious work.”
Australia: “Yeah, yeah, I know….”
You get the picture. The full report on the Australian innovation system can be found here.
The report concentrates on the three areas of knowledge creation, knowledge transfer and knowledge application and establishes 20 measures across these. Clear benchmarks are set out between Australia’s performance and the average of the top five OECD performers, which gives a pretty clear guidance for future improvement.
The 20 measures were whittled down from an initial group of over 200 and they’ll be the basis for measuring the impact of future policy change. The report’s performance assessment is fairly general across the three key areas, rather than specific at the program level.
The rubber will hit the road during the coming phase as ISA pulls together a strategic plan for innovation and science in Australia to 2030. It’s hard to disagree at the moment when the conclusions are that we need to do better in a number of general areas. The contentious part will come much more in the strategic planning and implementation stage where change will be needed.
The performance review, which runs to over 200 pages and more than 700 references, provides an excellent baseline for future evaluation and Innovation and Science Australia deserves credit for publication of this important body of work.
It has the potential to become the reference material for judging performance of programs and their contribution to an overall Australian innovation strategy. At the very least, the assessment identifies which programs are regularly, thoroughly and transparently reviewed and those that are not.
An obvious part of the coming strategic plan will be to ensure all parts of the Australian innovation system are independently reviewed on a regular basis so their contribution to the overall strategy is maximised.
But this is not just a report for the government or ISA, where they should be tasked to simply fix things. It should be used across business, research organisations and all levels of government because it pulls together international data and lays out clearly where we stand as a country.
The assessment is a solid base to build on and could give the much needed longer-term vision needed for innovation in Australia.
– Dr Tony Peacock, CEO of the CRC Association
Click here to read the Performance Review of the Australian Innovation, Science and Research System 2016.
This piece on the Australian Innovation System was first published by the CRC Association on 7 February 2017. Read the original article here.
Featured image above: Dr Erik Shartner with the prototype optical fibre sensor, which can detect breast cancer during surgery. Credit: University of Adelaide
An optical fibre probe has been developed to detect breast cancer tissue during surgery.
Working with excised breast cancer tissue, researchers from the University of Adelaide developed the device to differentiate cancerous cells from healthy ones.
Project leader at the Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) Dr Erik Schartner said the probe could reduce the need for follow-up surgery, which is currently required in up to 20 per cent of breast cancer cases.
“At the moment most of the soft tissue cancers use a similar method during surgery to identify whether they’ve gotten all the cancer out, and that method is very crude,” he says.
“They’ll get some radiology beforehand which tells them where the cancer should be, and the surgeon then will remove it to the best of their ability.
“But the conclusive measurements are done with pathology a couple of days or a couple of weeks after the surgery, so the patient is sown back up, thinks the cancer is removed and then they discover two weeks later with a call from the surgeon that they need to go through this whole traumatic process again.”
The probe allows more accurate measurements be taken during surgery, with the surgeon provided with information via an LED light.
Using a pH probe tip, a prototype sensor was able to distinguish cancerous and healthy cells with 90 per cent accuracy.
The research behind the probe, published today in Cancer Research, found pH was a useful tool to distinguish the two types of tissue because cancerous cells naturally produce more acid during growth.
Currently the probe is aimed for use solely for treating breast cancer, but there is some possibility for it to be used as both a diagnostic tool and during other removal surgeries.
“The method we’re using, which is basically measuring the pH of the tissue, actually looks to be common across virtually all cancer types,” Schartner says.
“We can actually see there’s some scope there for diagnostic application for things like thyroid cancer, or even melanoma, which is something we’re following up.
“The question is more about the application as to how useful it is during surgery, to be able to get this identification, and in some of the other soft tissue cancers it would be useful as well.”
Earlier this year, researchers from CNBP also developed a fibre optic probe, which could be used to examine the effects of drug use on the brain.
Schartner said both probes were noteworthy because they were far thinner than previously developed models at only a few microns across.
“The neat thing we see about this one is that it’s a lot quicker than some of the other commercial offerings and also the actual sample size you can measure is much smaller, so you get better resolution,” he says.
Researchers on the probe hope to progress to clinical trials in the near future, with a tentative product launch date in the next three years.
Also in Adelaide, researchers at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute are developing tiny sensors that can detect the spread of cancer through the lymphatic system while a patient is having surgery to remove primary tumours, which could also dramatically reduce the need for follow up operations.
Video above: Murdoch University researchers Steve Wilton and Sue Fletcher discuss their new drug for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
The powerful US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light to a drug developed by Western Australia researchers Sue Fletcher and Steve Wilton for treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
The Murdoch University scientists developed an innovative treatment to help sufferers of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a crippling muscle-wasting disease that affects about one in 3500 boys worldwide.
The FDA decision is a huge win for the global pharma company Sarepta Therapeutics, which has developed the drug under the name Eteplirsen.
In their breakthrough research, Fletcher and Wilton had devised a way to bypass the faulty gene responsible for the disease, using a technique called exon skipping.
The FDA’s approval follows an emotional campaign by sufferers, their families, and supporters of Eteplirsen.
Earlier this year, some 40 sufferers in wheelchairs and their families flew to Washington from around the US, and from as far as the UK, to show their faith in the treatment after authorities questioned aspects of the drug’s clinical trial.
Fletcher’s and Wilton’s innovative discovery had already won the 2012 WA Innovator of the Year Award.
In 2013, the researchers, then with UWA, signed a multi-million dollar deal with Sarepta to develop Eteplirsen.
Under the deal, they would get up to US$7.1 million in upfront and milestone payments, as well as royalties on the net sales of all medicines developed and approved.
Read next: CtX forges $730 m deal for new cancer drug. A promising new cancer drug, developed in Australia by the Cancer Therapeutics CRC (CTx), has been licensed to US pharmaceutical company Merck in a deal worth $730 million.
Featured image above: (left) False colour reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait, created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps produced at the Australian Synchrotron (right) Portrait of a Woman by Edgar Degas (c). 1876–80 . Credit: Australian Synchrotron/National Gallery of Victoria.
An alliance of Australian scientists and conservators have made a quantum leap forward in the analysis of priceless artworks, revealing an earlier painting of a different woman beneath a French Impressionist masterpiece in unprecedented detail, using a technology combination unavailable anywhere else in the world.
Shedding light on a decades-old riddle through a unique technology pipeline, researchers from Australian Synchrotron, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and CSIRO published stunning images of what lies beneath Edgar Degas’ Portrait of a Woman (c. 1876-1880) in the journal Scientific Reports overnight, midway through the artwork’s display at NGV International as part of Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Degas: A new vision.
Dr Daryl Howard, scientist on the X-ray Fluorescence Microscopy (XFM) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron – the newest addition to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)’s world-class line-up of landmark research infrastructure – says the re-creation of the underpainting was achieved by first producing complex metal maps to highlight minerals in the many paint types.
“‘Paint from Degas’ period was primarily composed of ground-up rocks and early synthetic pigments – with copper creating green and mercury creating red, for example – and he swirled and mixed different paints from different tubes on his palette at different times, as did the restorers who touched up this painting into the early twentieth century.
“Placing the artwork in the path of the Australian Synchrotron beam, which is a million times brighter than the sun, we measured the exact location of different pigment mixtures in every one millimetre square pixel, and fed the vast volumes of data into a computer to reconstruct both the surface and underlying layers.”
Howard says the technique is an ‘order of magnitude’ improvement for non-intrusive art analysis, crucial when handling priceless artworks.
“Eight years ago, a low resolution three-element image, which revealed a face beneath Vincent Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass 1887, inspired us to refine and advance non-destructive imaging using some of the world’s most advanced scientific technology.
“This analysis takes this “hands-off” approach to the next level, producing enormous 31.6 megapixel images – beyond the resolution of most of today’s best digital cameras – while subjecting each part of the artwork to radiation for only a fraction of a second to ensure it is not damaged.”
CSIRO engineer Robin Kirkham says the powerful light of the Australian Synchrotron combined with a highly sensitive detector devised at CSIRO are behind the revolutionary new technique.
“Developed by CSIRO with US project partner Brookhaven National Laboratory over the past few years, the Maia detector can complete complex elemental imaging a hundred times faster than conventional systems.”
“Coupled with the brilliant synchrotron beam, in 33 hours the detector produced images with around 250 times more pixel definition than the far smaller 2008 Van Gogh images that took about two days to produce.”
It’s not the first time the NGV, Australian Synchrotron and CSIRO have joined forces to solve an art mystery. In 2010 similar techniques were used to find a hidden Arthur Streeton self-portrait buried under layers of lead paint and, in 2015, a major project helped uncover hidden secrets in Frederick McCubbin’s The North wind.
Degas: a new vision is exhibiting at NGV until Sunday 18 September.
Professor Fiona Stanley is well known for her work in using biostatistics to research the causes and prevention of birth defects, including establishing the WA Maternal and Child Health Research Database in 1977.
In 1989 Professor Stanley and colleague Professor Carol Bower used another database, the WA birth defects register, to source subjects for a study of neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is what forms the brain and spine in a baby. Development issues can lead to common but incurable birth defects such as spina bifida where the backbone does not close over the spinal cord properly.
The researchers measured the folate intake of 308 mothers of children born with NTDs, other defects, and no defects. They discovered that mothers who take the vitamin folate during pregnancy are less likely to have babies with NTDs. Their data contributed to worldwide research that found folate can reduce the likelihood of NTDs by 70%.
After the discovery Professor Stanley established the Telethon Kids Institute where she continued to research this topic alongside Professor Bower. Together they worked on education campaigns to encourage pregnant women to take folate supplements.
Their great success came in 2009 when the Australian government implemented mandatory folic acid fortification of flour. The need for such legislation is now recognised by the World Health Organisation.
A 2016 review conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that since the flour fortification program’s introduction, levels of NTDs have dropped by 14.4%.
Read next: Big data, big business. Whether it’s using pigeons to help monitor air quality in London or designing umbrellas that can predict if it will rain, information is becoming a must-have asset for innovative businesses.
On September 8, 70 days after the end of the financial year, Australia marked equal pay day. The time gap is significant as it marks the average additional time it takes for women to work to get the same wages as men.
Optimistically, we’d think this day should slowly move back towards June 30. And there are many reasons for optimism, as our panel of thought leaders point out in our online roundtable of industry, research and government leaders.
Yet celebrating a lessening in inequity is a feel-good exercise we cannot afford to over-indulge in.
While we mark achievements towards improving pipelines to leadership roles, work to increase enrolments of girls in STEM subjects at schools and reverse discrimination at many levels of decision making and representation, the reality is that many of these issues are only just being recognised. Many more are in dire need of being addressed more aggressively.
Direct discrimination against women and girls is something I hear about from mentors, friends and colleagues. It is prevalent and wide-reaching. There is much more we can do to address issues of diversity across STEM areas.
Enrolments of women in STEM degrees vary from 16% in computer science and engineering to 45% in science and 56% in medicine. These figures reinforce that we are teaching the next generation with the vestiges of an education system developed largely by men and for boys. There is a unique opportunity to change this.
Interdisciplinary skills are key to innovation. Millennials today will change career paths more frequently; digital technologies will disrupt traditional career areas. By communicating that STEM skills are an essential foundation that can be combined with your interest, goals or another field, we can directly tap into the next generation. We can prepare them to be agile workers across careers, and bring to the table their skills in STEM along with experiences in business, corporates, art, law and other areas. In this utopian future, career breaks are opportunities to learn and to demonstrate skills in new areas. Part-time work isn’t seen as ‘leaning out’.
We have an opportunity to redefine education in STEM subjects, to improve employability for our graduates, to create stronger, clearer paths to leadership roles, and to redefine why and how we study STEM subjects right from early primary through to tertiary levels.
By combining STEM with X, we are opening up the field to the careers that haven’t been invented yet. As career areas shift, we have the opportunity to unleash a vast trained workforce skilled to adapt, to transition across fields, to work flexibly and remotely.
We need to push this STEM + X agenda right to early education, promoting the study of different fields together, and creating an early understanding of the different needs that different areas require.
This is what drives me to communicate science and STEM through publications such as Careers with Science, Engineering and Code. We want to convey that there are exciting career pathways through studying STEM. But we don’t know what those pathways are – that’s up to them.
Just think how many app developers there were ten year ago – how many UX designers. In 10 or even five years, we can’t predict what the rapidly growing career areas will be. But we can create a STEM aware section of the population and by doing so now, we can ensure that the next generation has an edge in creating and redefining the careers of the future.
Featured image above: BAE Systems new e-textile could benefit a wide variety of professions, including the military. Credit: BAE Systems
A wireless conductive fabric that allows soldiers to plug electronic devices directly into armour is making a commercial push into Southeast Asia.
BAE Systems has developed the Broadsword Spine garment, which is being distributed throughout the Asia Pacific region by its Australian arm, based in Adelaide.
It was designed using a unique e-textile created by Intelligent Textiles Limited in the United Kingdom and can be inserted inside vests, jackets or belts.
BAE Systems’ wireless connector promises a range of benefits for multiple professions including the emergency services.
Broadsword Spine is on display this week at the Land Forces 2016 event in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.
Program manager David Wilson said the technology was extremely lightweight and was able to pass power from any source, which made it adaptable to an assortment of devices.
“It’s revolutionary in terms of how it can pass power and data through USB 2.0,” he says.
“It reduces the weight and cognitive burden of the soldier because it is doing a lot of power and data management automatically.
“It also has no cables, which means you’ve got no snag hazard and no issue in terms of the breaking of cables and having to replace them.”
Broadsword Spine has been designed to replace contemporary heavy portable data and power supplies used by the military as well as firefighters, paramedics and rescue personnel.
The lack of cables and additional batteries make the new material 40 per cent lighter than other systems.
The e-textile was also developed to withstand harsh environments and is water, humidity, fire and shock resistant.
The material uses highly developed yarns that act as the electricity and data conductor.
It is able to connect to a central power source to support all electronic devices and is easily recharged in the field using simple batteries or in-vehicle charging points.
There are eight protected data or power ports that are capable of supplying 5A and operate at USB 2.0 speeds.
The management of power and data is automated and is performed by a computer that is embedded into the e-textile loom.
Users also have the option of monitoring and controlling the technology manually using a smartphone app.
Wilson said contemporary models were often heavy could be highly complicated products that required special maintenance.
“It’s unique in that regard in that we don’t sell the whole system, we sell the middle architecture and allow the customer to decide what they want and how to integrate that system,” he says.
“We’ve published the pin-outs and connections so they can create their own integration cables. They don’t have to keep coming back to us and that way they can support it themselves.”
Low rate production of the Broadsword Spine has begun in the United Kingdom.
Wilson said when production increased, the company would work to distribute the product to the Asia-Pacific region from its Adelaide base next year.
Land Forces is the Southern Hemisphere’s premier defence industry exhibition and has more than 400 participating exhibition companies from about 20 countries as well as about 11,000 trade visitors.
South Australian exhibitors at the event include University of South Australia, which has developed camouflage cells for tanks, and Supashock, which has unveiled damping technology taken from race cars for use in army trucks.
Featured image above: 2016 WA Scientist of the Year, plant researcher Professor Kingsley Dixon (centre), with Premier Colin Barnett (right) and WA Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Klinken (left). Credit: Office of Science/The Scene Team
Professor Kingsley Dixon has been the Curtin University Professor at Kings Park and Botanic Garden since 2015, but his career in plant research stretches back decades.
He was the Director of Science at Kings Park for 32 years, leading its research efforts and building a team of more than 50 scientists and research students.
With his trademark approach of turning ‘science into practice’ he discovered that bushfire smoke triggers the germination of plants in Australia, as well as other parts of the world.
“This discovery has led to new horticultural products, and the improved restoration and conservation of many rare and threatened Australian plants that are unable to be conserved or propagated by other means,” the Premier and Science Minister Colin Barnett says.
In accepting the award, Dixon paid tribute to his colleagues over the years.
“The incredible verve and enthusiasm of all the young people who came through the Kings Park labs over the years just inspired me in the belief that WA is a great place, it’s the greatest place on earth to do the sort of science that we do,” he says.
Scores of WA’s top scientists and researchers attended the awards ceremony at the Kieran McNamara Conservation Science Centre in Kensington.
The late Professor Ian Ritchie AO was inducted into the WA Science Hall of Fame for his lifelong dedication to science.
Professor Ritchie was instrumental in setting up ChemCentre, as well as establishing the AJ Parker Cooperative Research Centre for Hydrometallurgy (extracting metals from their ores).
Other award winners
Woodside Early Career Scientist of the Year
Dr Scott Draper, a renewable energy engineer investigating wave and tidal energy, based at the School of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering (CEME) at UWA.
ExxonMobil Student Scientist of the Year
Christopher Brennan-Jones, a PhD candidate at UWA’s Ear Sciences Centre who led an international consortium assessing the reliability of automated hearing tests.
Chevron Science Engagement Initiative of the Year
Curtin University’s Fireballs in the Sky project, a citizen science initiative which uses digital cameras in the outback to track the fireballs created by meteorites to better understand the solar system.
You’ll find more details on the finalists in each of the four categories here.
Promising results have been reported from a world-first study of cochlear implant electrodes designed to stimulate hearing nerves and slowly release drugs into the inner ear.
HEARing Cooperative Research Centre (HEARing CRC) CEO Professor Robert Cowan said research using a cochlear implant electrode array that slowly releases anti-inflammatory drugs into the cochlear following implantation could lead to new benefits for cochlear implant users.
“The beauty of this approach is that it is based on use of the standard cochlear implant electrode array inserted into the inner ear that delivers sound sensations to the brain via the electrical stimulation of hearing nerve cells,” says Cowan.
“The cochlear implant electrode array used in the research study was modified to slowly release a cortico-steroid after implantation. This drug is intended to reduce inflammation and the growth of fibrous tissue around the electrode array triggered by the body’s immune response.”
After completing extensive biosafety studies, HEARing CRC researchers progressed to a study of the experimental electrode in ten adult patients, eight at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne (RVEEH) and two at the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children – Sydney Cochlear Implant Clinic (SCIC).
ENT surgeons Professor Rob Briggs and Professor Catherine Birman reported no compromise in surgical insertion characteristics with the experimental array.
Initial results confirm lower electrical impedance levels for the drug-eluting array patients, as compared with control groups from both clinics. Impedance levels continue to remain lower 12 months post-implantation.
“The suppression of the inflammatory reaction in the cochlear following electrode insertion is likely responsible for these lower impedance levels and may potentially contribute to preservation of an implant user’s residual hearing abilities when combined with slimmer electrode designs and newer surgical techniques,” Cowan explains.
“Hearing preservation is important, as many candidates for cochlear implants have significant residual acoustic hearing, and want to be assured that they can use their residual acoustic hearing together with their cochlear implants.”
“Our hope is that this breakthrough will result in more people now considering cochlear implants as a viable way to manage their hearing loss”.
This drug-eluting electrode research has been made possible through the collaboration of Cochlear, RVEEH, and RIDBC-SCIC as members of the HEARing CRC, supported through the Commonwealth Governments CRC Programme.
“The HEARing CRC collaboration has contributed to commercial cochlear implant technologies that are now in world-wide use, as well as fitting technologies for both cochlear implants and hearing aids, helping to maintain Australia’s preeminent international standing in hearing research and service delivery,” says Cowan.
Featured image: A computer generated image of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope dish antennas in South Africa. Credit: SKA Project Office.
What is dark matter? What did the universe look like when the first galaxies formed? Is there other life out there? These are just some of the mysteries that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will aim to solve.
Covering an area equivalent to around one million square metres, or one square kilometre, SKA will comprise of hundreds of thousands of radio antennas in the Karoo desert, South Africa and the Murchison region, Western Australia.
The multi-billion dollar array will be 10 times more sensitive and significantly faster at surveying galaxies than any current radio telescope.
The massive flow of data from the telescope will be processed by supercomputing facilities that have one trillion times the computing power of those that landed men on the Moon.
Phase 1 of SKA’s construction will commence in 2018. The construction will be a collaboration of 500 engineers from 20 different countries around the world.
The Turnbull Government has announced that twenty businesses across Australia will be offered $11.3 million in Entrepreneurs’ Programme grants to help boost commercialisation and break into new international markets.
A 3-D printed jaw joint replacement, termite-proof building materials and a safer way to store grain outdoors are amongst the diverse products and services that will be fast-tracked.
The grants range from $213,000 to $1 million and are matched dollar-for-dollar by recipients.
So far, the Government has invested $78.1 million since commencement of this initiative – helping 146 Australian businesses to get their products off the ground.
The grants help businesses to undertake development and commercialisation activities like product trials, licensing, and manufacturing scale-up—essential and often challenging steps in taking new products to market.
Projects supported by today’s grant offers will address problems and meet needs in key industries including food and agribusiness, mining, advanced manufacturing and medical technologies.
The 20 projects to receive commercialisation support include:
a safer, cheaper and more efficient outdoor grain storage solution for the agricultural industry
recycling technology for fats, oils and greases from restaurants that will save money and reduce pollution
a lighter, stronger and more flexible concrete product
an anti-theft automated security system for the retail fuel industry
a cheaper, faster and safer decontamination process for mine drainage
smaller, cheaper and more patient-friendly MRI technology used for medical diagnostics
a 3-D printed medical device for jaw joint replacements that reduces surgery risk and improves patient quality-of-life
insect and termite-proof expansion joint foam for the building industry, combining a two-step process into a single product.
The Entrepreneurs’ Programme commercialisation grants help Australian entrepreneurs, researchers and small and medium businesses find commercialisation solutions.
It aims to:
• accelerate the commercialisation of novel intellectual property in the form of new products, processes and services; • support new businesses based on novel intellectual property with high growth potential; and • generate greater commercial and economic returns from both public and private sector research and facilitate investment to drive business growth and competitiveness.
Since successful genome sequencing was first announced in 2000 by geneticists Craig Venter and Francis Collins, the cost of mapping DNA’s roughly three billion base pairs has fallen exponentially. Venter’s effort to sequence his genome cost a reported US$100 million and took nine months. In March, Veritas Genetics announced pre-orders for whole genome sequencing, plus interpretation and counselling, for US$999.
Another genetics-based start-up, Human Longevity Inc (HLI), believes abundant, relatively affordable sequencing and collecting other biological data will revolutionise healthcare delivery. Founded by Venter, stem cell specialist Robert Hariri and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, it claims to have sequenced more human genomes than the rest of the world combined, with 20,000 last year, a goal of reaching 100,000 this year and over a million by 2020.
HLI offers to “fully digitise” a patient’s body – including genotypic and phenotypic data collection, and MRI, brain vascular system scans – under its US$25,000 Health Nucleus service. Large-scale machine learning is applied to genomes and phenotypic data, following the efforts at what Venter has called “digitising biology”.
The claim is that artificial intelligence (AI) can predict maladies before they emerge, with “many” successes in saving lives seen in the first year alone. The company’s business includes an FDA-approved stem cell therapy line and individualised medicines. The slogan “make 100 the new 60” is sometimes mentioned in interviews with founders. Their optimism is not isolated. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel admits he takes human growth hormone to maintain muscle mass, confident the heightened risk of cancer will be dealt with completely by a cancer cure, and plans to live to 120.
“We understand what the surgeon needs and we embed that in an algorithm so it’s full automated.”
Bill Maris, CEO of GV (formerly Google Ventures), provocatively said last year that he thinks it’s possible to live to 500. An anit-ageing crusader, biological gerontologist Dr Aubrey de Grey, co-founder and chief science officer of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS, whose backers include Thiel), has claimed that people alive today might live to 1000.
Longevity expectations are constantly being updated. Consider that, in 1928, American demographer Louis Dublin put the upper limit of the average human lifespan at 64.8. How long a life might possibly last is a complex topic and there’s “some debate”, says Professor of Actuarial Studies at UNSW Michael Sherris.
He says there have been studies examining how long a life could be extended if certain types of mortality, such as cancer, were eliminated, points out Sherris.
“However, humans will still die of something else,” he adds. “The reality is that the oldest person lived to 122.”
Will we see a 1000-year-old human? It isn’t known. What is clear, though, is that efforts to extend health and improve lives have gotten increasingly sophisticated.
The definition of bioengineering has also grown and changed over the years. Now concerning fields including biomaterials, bioinformatics and computational biology, it has expanded with the ability to apply engineering principles at the cellular and molecular level.
Editing out problems to reverse ageing
What if, further than reading and comprehending the code life is written in, it could also be rewritten as desired? A technique enabling this with better productivity and accuracy than any before it, has gotten many excited about this possibility.
“In terms of speed, it’s probably 10 times as quick as the old technology and is five to 10 times as cheap,” says Professor Robert Brink, Chief Scientist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research’s MEGA Genome Engineering Facility.
The facility uses the CRISPR/Cas9 process to make genetically-engineered mice for academic and research institute clients. Like many labs, Brink’s facility has embraced CRISPR/Cas9, which has made editing plant and animal DNA so accessible even amateurs are dabbling.
First described in a June 2012 paper in Science, CRISPR/Cas9 is an adaptation of bacteria’s defences against viruses. Using a guide RNA matching a target’s DNA, the Cas9 in the title is an endonuclease that makes a precise cut at the site matching the RNA guide. Used against a virus, the cut degrades and kills it. The triumphant bacteria cell then keeps a piece of viral DNA for later use and identification (described sometimes as like an immunisation card). This is assimilated at a locus in a chromosome known as CRISPR (short for clustered regularly spaced short palindromic repeats).
In DNA more complicated than a virus’s, the cut DNA is able to repair itself, and incorporates specific bits of the new material into its sequence before joining the cut back up. Though ‘off-target’ gene edits are an issue being addressed, the technique has grabbed lots of attention. Some claim it could earn a Nobel prize this year. There is hope it can be used to eventually address gene disorders, such as Beta thalassemias and Huntington’s disease.
“Probably the obvious ones are gene therapy, for humans, and agricultural applications in plants and animals,” says Dr George Church of Harvard Medical School.
Among numerous appointments, Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and founding core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Last year, a team led by Dr Church used CRISPR to remove one of the major barriers to pig-human organ transplants – retroviral DNA – in pig embryos.
You can have what are called, ‘universal donors’. That’s being used, for example, in making cells that fight cancer.
“We’re now at the point where it used to be that you would have to have a perfect match between donor and recipient of human cells, but that was because you couldn’t engineer either one of them genetically,” he says. “You can engineer the donor so that it doesn’t cause an immune reaction. Now, you can have what are called, ‘universal donors’. That’s being used, for example, in making T cells that fight cancer – what some of us call CAR-T cells. You can use CRISPR to engineer them so that they’re not only effective against your cancer, but they don’t cause immune complications.”
Uncertainty exists in a number of areas regarding CRISPR (including patent disputes, as well as ethical concerns). However, there is no doubt it has promise.
“I think it will eventually have a great impact on medicine,” believes Brink. “It’s come so far, so quickly already that it’s almost hard to predict… Being able to do things and also being able to ensure everyone it’s safe is another thing, but that will happen.”
And as far as acceptance by the general public? Everything that works to overcome nature seems, well, unnatural, at least at first. Then it’s easier to accept once the benefits of are apparent. Church – who believes we could reverse ageing in five or six years – is hopeful about the future. He also feels the world needs people leery about progress, and who might even throw up a “playing God” argument or two.
“I mean it’s good to have people who don’t drive cars and don’t wear clothes and things like that, [and] it’s good to have people who are anti-technology because they give us an alternative way of thinking about things,” he says.
“[Genetic modification] is now broadly accepted in the sense that in many countries people eat genetically-modified foods and almost all countries, they use genetically-modified bacteria to make drugs like Insulin. I think there are very few people who would refuse to take Insulin just because it’s made in bacteria.”
A complete mindshift
Extended, healthier lives are all well and good. However, humans are constrained by the upper limits of what our cells are capable of, believes Dr Randal Koene.
For that and other reasons, the Dutch neuroscientist and founder of Carbon Copies is advancing the goal of Substrate Independent Minds (SIM). The most conservative form (relatively speaking) of SIM is Whole Brain Emulation, a reverse-engineering of our grey matter.
“In system identification, you pick something as your black box, a piece of the puzzle small enough to describe by using the information you can glean about signals going in and signals going out,” he explains, adding that the approach is that of mainstream neuroscience. “The system identification approach is used in neuroscience explicitly both in brain-machine interfaces, and in the work on prostheses.”
No brain much more complicated than a roundworm’s has been emulated yet. Its 302 neurons are a fraction of the human brain’s roughly 100 billion.
Koene believes that a drosophila fly, with a connectome of 100,000 or so neurons, could be emulated within the next decade. He is reluctant to predict when this might be achieved for people.
Featured image above: Cancer research at the Cancer Therapeutics Cooperative Research Centre has received a funding boost. Credit: CTx
The Chief Executive of the Cancer Therapeutics Cooperative Research Centre (CTx), Dr Warwick Tong, announced last week that a majority of its current partners have chosen to reinvest their share of the recent cash distribution from CTx back into the organisation.
In January 2016 CTx licensed its PRMT5 Project to MSD (known as Merck in the US and Canada) in a landmark deal and received over $14 million dollars as its share of the signature payment. Novel drugs arising from the project will be developed and commercialised by Merck. Potential future milestone payments and royalties will also be shared within the partnership.
“Our 2013 application to the Department of Industry CRC Programme outlined the intent to actively secure reinvestment of funds from any commercialisation success back into our cancer drug development activities”, said Tong. “To have this commitment from our partners is the validation and support we wanted.
“The more than seven million dollars will boost our ability to deliver new cancer drugs for adults and children”.
“CTx has made great use of its partnership network to deliver this project,” said Professor Grant McArthur Chair of the CTx Scientific Advisory Board. “The reinvestment is a very positive recognition by the partners that CTx will continue to provide benefits for patients and strengthen translational cancer research in Australia”.
Featured image above: CSIRO has received significant budget cuts in recent years. Credit: David McClenaghan
The election is rapidly approaching, and all major parties – Liberal, Labor and Greens – have now made announcements about their policies to support science and research.
But how are we doing so far? Here we look at the state of science and research funding in Australia so you can better appreciate the policies each party has announced.
The latest OECD figures show that Australia does not fare well compared with other OECD countries on federal government funding research and development.
As a percentage of GDP, the government only spends 0.4% on research and development. This is less than comparable nations.
But looking at total country spending on research and development, including funding by state governments and the private sector, the picture is not so bleak: here Australia sits in the middle among OECD countries.
Over the years, there have been hundreds of announcements and new initiatives but this graph indicates that, in general, it has been a matter of rearranging the deck chairs rather than committing to strategic investments in research.
The Paul Keating Labor government made some investments. During the John Howard Liberal government’s years, there were ups and downs. The Kevin Rudd/Julia Gillard Labor governments were mostly up. And in Tony Abbott’s Liberal government, the graph suggests that it was mostly down with science.
Over the past decade, there have been some minor changes in funding to various areas, although energy has received the greatest proportional increase.
This pie chart reminds us that the higher education sector is a major provider of research and is highly dependent on government funding. It also tells us that business also conducts a great deal of research.
But, sadly, one must remember that funding is effectively being shifted from one domain to another, and it has seldom been the case that significantly new commitments are made. The balance of red and blue shows how one hand gives while the other takes funding away.
This is remarkable, given that the ARC funds all disciplines, including sciences, humanities and social sciences, while the NHMRC essentially focuses on human biology and health.
This graphic also highlights the lack of any sustained funding strategy. The only clear trend is that the investment in the ARC has gradually declined and the NHMRC has grown.
This, in part, reflects the undeniable importance of health research. But it is also indicative of effective and coherent organisation and communication by health researchers. This has been more difficult to achieve in the ARC space with researchers coming from a vast array of disciplines.
Featured image above: Plume Labs use pigeons to monitor air quality in London. Credit: Plume Labs
Optimising highway networks, mapping crime hotspots and producing virtual reality sporting experiences based on real-life games: these are just a few of the exciting outcomes that new businesses are now achieving with complex data analysis. More and more startups are using readily available data to create products and services that are game changers for their industries.
Big data, for example, is what lies behind Uber’s huge success as a taxi alternative; the company optimises processes by using data analysis to predict peak times, journey time and likely destinations of passengers. Many other companies are now using data to produce technology-based solutions for a range of issues and even designing new ways to collect data.
A weather station and umbrella all in one
Wezzoo, a Paris-based start-up company, has designed a smart umbrella that tells users when it’s going to rain. The ‘oombrella’, as it’s been dubbed, is strikingly iridescent, sturdy in design, and presents a data-based solution to staying dry. It will send a notification to a smart phone 15 minutes before predicted rain and also send a reminder when it’s been left behind on a rainy day.
The oombrella itself is also a mobile weather station, able to detect temperature, atmospheric pressure, light and humidity. “Each oombrella will collect data and share it with the community to make hyperlocal weather data more accurate,” says the company.
Real-time meteorological information from each oombrella is uploaded to Wezzoo’s existing social weather service app. More than 200,000 people already use the app and upload their own weather reports from all over the world, creating a more interactive and collaborative approach to weather observation. This data, as well as information from weather stations is used to create personalised predictions for oombrella users.
‘Pigeon Air Patrol’ monitors pollution
Plume Labs, in collaboration with DigitasLBi and Twitter UK, have literally taken to the skies with their latest air pollution monitoring project, Pigeon Air Patrol. They recently strapped lightweight air-quality sensors to the backs of 10 London-based pigeons to gather data on pollution in the city’s skies. For the duration of the project, the public could tweet their location to @PigeonAir and receive a live update on levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone, the main harmful gases in urban areas. Not only did this innovative project help collect data in new ways, it raised awareness of air pollution in large cities.
“Air pollution is a massive environmental health issue, killing nearly 10,000 people every year in London alone,” says Romain Lacombe, Plume Labs’ CEO.
“Air pollution is an invisible enemy, but we can fight back: actionable information helps limit our exposure, improve our health and well-being, and make our cities breathable.”
Plume’s core focus is tracking and forecasting ambient pollution levels to allow city dwellers to minimise harmful exposure to polluted air. Their free phone app – the Plume Air Report – uses data from environmental monitoring agencies and public authorities to provide individuals with real-time information on air pollution safety levels at their locations. With the use of environmental Artificial Intelligence, the app predicts air pollutant levels for 300 cities and 40 countries with double the accuracy of traditional forecasting methods. “Predictive technologies will help us take back control of our environment,” Lacombe says.
The company, whilst still small, has managed to raise seed funding from French banks. It plans to build a business based on aggregating data, though is also open to developing hardware.
Innovative data collection methods are not only good for science, it seems; they can also be a strong foundation for business.
Stadium Australia, which hosted the athletics and opening ceremony at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, was the first structure to utilise the technology.
“Now a number of large buildings in Southeast Asia are using this technology, like the airports in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has incorporated it into many of its shopping centres as well,” Beecham says.
“The buildings that were designed with the help of the software are able to harvest every single drop of water.”
The rainwater collected from the roofs is stored in large tanks and used to irrigate nearby fields or gardens. The recycled water is also used for the flushing of toilets to reduce the reliance on potable water.
Beecham partners with Australian drainage company Syfon to design state-of-the-art systems throughout Australasia.
His software allows Syfon to calculate the size of drainpipes and locate where hydraulic chambers need to be placed.
The company’s name is a play on siphonic systems, the method it uses to harvest rainwater.
Siphonic drainage systems convert open-air water mixtures into a pure water pressure system without any moving parts or electronics. Its hydraulic system allows the pipes to move large quantities of water very quickly.
Beecham says siphonic systems were used because the high pressures they created reduced the amount of additional energy required to pump water.
“Imagine if you had a pen in your hand and held it up and then dropped it to the floor. That’s an example of a solid object converting its potential energy into kinetic energy,” he says.
“Water can do the same thing. You get a very efficient drainage of your water where the pressure is so great it can even go uphill, and it also means you can run horizontal pipes for long distances.
“Its clever design of the hydraulics system creates a vacuum that sucks water in and converts the potential energy of rainfall into kinetic energy.”
This process allows large storage tanks to be placed away from the roof structure if more space is required.
Siphonic systems require a building of more than three stories to work and cannot be applied to residential homes.
Featured image above: Strentrode. Credit: University of Melbourne
A few years ago, Australian neurology resident Dr Thomas Oxley set out to design a device that uses brain waves to power prosthetic limbs. Today, Oxley’s revolutionary invention is about to enter human trials, giving hope that millions of people paralysed by injury or stroke will soon be able to walk again.
Oxley’s futuristic device – a tiny stent-electrode or ‘stentrode’ – also promises to predict and halt epileptic seizures and assist people with a range of conditions, from motor neurone and Parkinson’s diseases to compulsive disorders and depression.
In a nutshell, the matchstick-sized gadget will be inserted, without invasive surgery, into a blood vessel next to the brain’s motor cortex. From there it will detect and translate neural activity, such as the intention to walk, and send commands wirelessly to exoskeleton legs.
Detect, translate, transmit and walk. That’s what scientists call brain-machine interface, and it begins with straightforward day surgery to thread the stent up the groin to the brain.
Trials with sheep, published in February 2016 in Nature Biotechnology, revealed that the animals were fine. They were walking and eating within an hour, and had no side effects.
If all goes according to plan following human trials in 2017, Oxley predicts the stentrode could be on the market by the early 2020s.
“We’ve been able to create the world’s first minimally invasive brain recording device that is implanted without high-risk open brain surgery,” says Oxley.
The road to commercialisation
Oxley is in New York to do a two-year fellowship in cerebral angiography at Mount Sinai Hospital, a specialty which employs non-invasive procedures to visualise blood vessels in the brain. It’s a skill directly related to his work in vascular bionics, exploiting the body’s blood vessels and veins for technologically enhanced therapeutic ends.
In 2012 the pair co-founded a startup company called SmartStent Pty Ltd to refine and prepare the stentrode for market.
Their goal: commercialise what promises to be one of the world’s most important medical inventions.
After building hundreds of stentrode prototypes, the next step is testing the technology with people. “We’re trying to raise A$4 million for the first human trials at Royal Melbourne Hospital,” Oxley notes. “We’re hoping to begin in late 2017.”
Given the life-changing and commercial potential of the stentrode, it’s little wonder that SmartStent moved to Silicon Valley in April 2016. There, Oxley, Opie and cardiologist Rahul Sharma, with Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles, established Synchron Inc. as their new corporate headquarters. SmartStent remains the Australian subsidiary.
Clearly, Oxley is a man on the move. Given his family tree, it was inevitable. While he was born in Melbourne, until age nine Oxley lived in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father Alan, a former diplomat, was Australia’s Ambassador for Trade. Then it was on to New York when his dad became Australian Ambassador to the General Agreement in Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the predecessor of the World Trade Organization.
The Oxley family is littered with creative people. Oxley has two older sisters. Harriet is a theatre set and costume designer, and Anna is in banking. His mother Sandra completed a Masters in computing science at Columbia University while Alan was at the GATT.
So where did Oxley’s interest in the brain come from? In his early teens Oxley had developed “a bit of an obsession with the brain and consciousness”.
“Dad was intellectually challenging. I figured it would be a smarter move to become interested in areas he didn’t understand,” Oxley replies.
Solving the mysteries of the brain
Medicine seemed a good choice for a kid keen to reverse engineer the brain to solve the mysteries of human consciousness. So Oxley went off to Monash Medical School in Melbourne, finishing in 2006. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Melbourne’s The Alfred Hospital in 2009.
“Then I took a year off to go travelling,” recalls Oxley, who didn’t begin his neurology residency until 2011. “I was travelling and intellectually exploring.”
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was on his ‘to visit’ list. DARPA is an arm of the US Department of Defense. Located in Arlington, Virginia, the agency is responsible for developing emerging military technologies, including biotechnology.
After an initial chat, Ling was sufficiently impressed to invite his visitor to develop what Oxley claims became a “pretty blue sky, out there” proposal.
The result? Oxley left Virginia with a promise of US$1.3 million and instructions to put a team together to create and test his device.
“After all that excitement, I came home and had to start my neurology residency. It was a steep learning curve,” says Oxley, who had to tread carefully as a junior resident with potentially large research funding coming in.
Oxley completed his residency in 2013, and submitted his doctorate in February 2016. But the rest isn’t history. There’s a stentrode to trial and commercialise. An invention which O’Brien calls the ‘Holy Grail’ of bionics.