When Professor Nick Paul started his research career in the early 2000s, there was barely any commercial production of seaweed in Australia. In September 2020, an industry blueprint valued the seaweed economy at $1.5 billion by 2040, employing up to 9000 people and helping to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent.
“Australian discovery patents are spawning huge amounts of R&D and industry investment across the globe — literally, companies are popping up left, right and centre,” says Paul.
“Australia’s emerging seaweed industry couldn’t exist without university science.”
Paul is leader of applied research and development of algae for new products at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC). He collaborates with restaurant and agriculture industries on marine plant science that offers business value.
Science from the ocean
In the early days, Paul’s work at James Cook University (JCU) helped establish a joint seaweed program with aquaculture and wastewater company Pacific Bio.
Pacific Bio Group Commercial Manager Gregg Supple says it wouldn’t have made sense to pursue the kind of science they needed without a university partner.
“There would have been increased costs and potential duplication of resources if we attempted to pursue advancements alone,” Supple says.
“Also, results published with universities hold enormous credibility compared to doing internal research.”
Working with JCU enabled Pacific Bio to commercialise a seaweed-based liquid biostimulant that extracts nutrients from water and returns them to plants and soils.
“We continue our partnership with JCU for our current commercial operations, as well as developing concepts around new innovations that would benefit our current and future aspirations,” says Supple.
Heading up the Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development (CMBD) at Flinders University, Professor Wei Zhang also works closely with industry to ensure his marine plant science is aligned with business opportunity.
Professor Zhang says 70–80 per cent of the research conducted at CMBD is industry funded or co-funded. One area of focus is marine-derived biomaterials such as biodegradable plastics.
“With our partners, we’ve developed prototypes of polymers derived from seaweeds, and are refining technologies to make them more cost effective,” he says.
Partners in this work include Australian Kelp Products and packaging company ennio International.
Access to funding and people
These industry–university connections in science drive forward commercialisation of innovative products, but are also important throughout the innovation cycle — from concept and R&D to commercial outcome. Nick Paul says businesses working with universities can also leverage access to funding programs and government initiatives that wouldn’t otherwise be available.
“These include those offered by the Australian Research Council, Rural Research and Development Corporations, and the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program, as well as AusIndustry, Innovation Connections and the R&D Tax Incentive,” he says.
“University researchers offer value through contributing to due diligence on business claims, sitting on technical advisory boards and bringing prestige that aids with capital raising.”
Dr Leanna Read has guided the emergence of two businesses from a CRC partnership between university science and industry: Carina Biotech – a company that develops targeted immune cells to treat solid cancers — and TekCyte, which specialises in ultrathin coatings to improve the performance of implanted medical devices such as stents.
“Neither TekCyte nor Carina would have existed or continued to grow without multi-faceted interaction with universities,” Read says.
“This includes university researchers doing critical experiments required to generate evidence and provide strong patent protection, plus commercial targeting, improving product functionality and quality assurance.”
Read says many university researchers are very comfortable working to industry requirements when they can see how their work is important for product development.
“Biotechnology requires a huge depth and breadth of expertise that could not possibly be sourced entirely in-house,” Read says.
“It’s highly desirable for companies such as TekCyte and Carina to utilise university research extensively as part of their core ongoing strategy.”
Support from university administration is also important, Read adds. Carina and TekCyte are both headquartered in university premises — the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia, respectively.
“In addition to supporting the involvement of their academic staff in the company research, the universities have provided TekCyte and Carina with access to facilities and equipment and cooperated well in concluding commercial agreements,” Read says.
While commercial opportunities are important, universities also strengthen Australia’s sovereign capability in times of crisis.
“Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) is a good example of an Australian company that has done extremely well through working with universities,” Read says. Now one of the biggest manufacturing companies for plasma products in the world, CSL is the main manufacturing hub for the COVID-19 vaccine for Australia.
Proof of concept
Dr Dean Moss is the CEO of UniQuest, the commercialisation company that manages the intellectual property of The University of Queensland (UQ).
“An important part of what we do at UQ is provide funds for proof-of-concept work — those key steps that convince industry and external investors the next phase is worth supporting,” says Moss.
Proof-of-concept can include demonstrating effectiveness of a molecule in humans, proving that a laboratory process can be scaled, or building a prototype.
“It’s a vital step in overcoming the ‘valley of death’ between an idea and commercialisation,” he says. “With clear proof of concept, the market then pulls technologies forward.”
Moss witnessed the transition of UQ’s cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil®, from initial patent application in 1991 to a product with more than $40 billion in gross sales since 2007. The vaccine has decreased the prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV) — the major cause of cervical cancer — by 90 per cent in more than 130 countries.
“At UniQuest, we’ve raised $800 million for more than 100 startup companies to take their technologies to market, and our commercialisation returns to the university have been about $700 million,” he says.
More than $10.6 billion of all business income per year in Australia flows from collaborations with universities.
And there’s room for more.
Peak body Science and Technology Australia has proposed a new $2.4 billion research translation and commercialisation fund to kick-start Australia’s recovery from the economic impact of COVID-19.
Included in that proposal is a vehicle to get more ‘almost there’ stage research turned into products and services that create new jobs.
“The pandemic has put into stark relief the fact that science investments made during previous decades have
come into their own in this moment of national need,” says Misha Schubert, CEO of Science and Technology Australia.
“A Science Future Fund or Research Translation and Commercialisation Fund would help turbocharge Australia’s economic recovery and maximise our bang-for-buck return from university research.”
By Sarah Keenihan