ACT feature: The small territory with big ideas

By Melissa Trudinger
Wednesday, 29 May, 2002

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has two big advantages when it comes to biotechnology: world-class scientists and its proximity to the Federal government.

"It's small, but there is vibrant activity happening here," says Chris Thomson, manager of biotechnology for BusinessACT, a division of the ACT Chief Minister's department. "We recognise we have world-leading research here and want to make the most of it."

The Australian National University (ANU) is a fertile breeding ground for ideas, and is also home to the John Curtin School of Medical Research and the Research School of Biological Sciences. In addition, the University of Canberra is very strong in a number of areas of medical research including vaccines.

CSIRO's Divisions of Plant Industry and Entomology are both headquartered in the ACT and have a big investment in translating research results into commercial products.

In addition, the ACT is home to more than four per cent of Australia's dedicated biotechnology companies, which is twice the Australian average of biotech companies per capita. Significantly, 13 per cent of the Commonwealth government's Biotechnology Innovation Fund (BIF) grants have gone to ACT-based companies.

Approximately 650 people work in the sector in the territory, but the government believes that number could be more like 4000 by the end of the decade.

Last year, the ACT government released its first strategic plan for biotechnology, as part of a wider focus on Innovation.

"The ACT government is committed to the development of knowledge-based industries in the Australian Capital region, and has recognised biotechnology as an important focus within this commitment," says Ted Quinlan, the ACT Minister for Economic Development, Business and Tourism.

Innovation programs will be funded by the ACT to the tune of $35.62 million over the next four years, and a further $21.64 million will be earmarked for capital expenditure.

BusinessACT is actively involved in several initiatives to benefit the local biotech industry. Funding-wise, the ACT is the first state or territory to have a matching funding scheme compatible with the Commonwealth's BIF. Although the ACT Research and Development Grants Scheme is currently on hold, Thomson says that the program would most likely resume with a similar format in the second half of this year.

"We've worked very hard to harmonise our funding scheme with the Federal government scheme. All the funds are being redesigned with a knowledge-based focus in mind," he says.

BusinessACT has also been a key driver in the formation of BIOZ - the Australian Bioscience Consortium - which brings together the leading bioscience and biotechnology research institutions in Canberra.

BIOZ was founded by ANU, the University of Canberra, Anutech - the ANU's commercialisation company - and Australian Capital Ventures, and includes the CRC for Biological Control of Pest Animals as well as other major players in the Canberra biotech scene. Its aims include facilitation of linkages between the institutions and local and global partners to build prospects for commercialisation.

"We intend to be a consortium of all the bioscience organisations in the ACT, and we hope to extend out from that," says Barbara Eckersley, BIOZ's executive officer. "Our role is the showcasing and marketing of projects. We aim to get the ACT up on the radar."

Unmined wealth "We think we've got an unmined wealth of biotechnology here, and we've taken an number of strategic steps to develop it," says BIOZ chair Prof John Hearn.

The BIOZ consortium led a bid to establish the Biotechnology Centre of Excellence in the ACT. While the bid was knocked out in the Commonwealth government's considerations, the organisation is continuing to build strength and will be an exhibitor at the forthcoming Bio2002 conference in Toronto and at a number of other local and national events.

The ACT is also represented in three of the four remaining bids for the Centre of Excellence, which will be decided upon in June.

Hearn, who is also the deputy vice-chancellor of research at ANU, says that despite not being selected for the Biotechnology Centre of Excellence, BIOZ is making the most of the preparation for the bid.

"We don't see that process as lost," Hearn says.

BIOZ is in the process of applying to the Australian Research Council for two linkage grants, one for bioengineering and the other for agricultural and environmental functional genomics.

The co-existence of the Federal and Territory government in the ACT has its advantages, says Chris Thomson. He says that the ACT's biotechnology group in BusinessACT is located across the road from Biotechnology Australia, which allows cross-fertilisation of ideas and easy access to what is going on at a Federal level.

"Because the Federal government is based here, the ACT is an attractive location," says Thomson.

BIOZ's Eckersley agreed, adding that access to governments, both local and Federal, was a plus for ACT biobusiness.

Eckersley says that the main disadvantage for the industry is the fact that the ACT government can't compete with the larger states in terms of financial support of the industry.

"The ACT is very supportive of biotech. We couldn't ask for more," says Eckersley. Hearn agrees, adding that the ACT government has generously supported the formation of the BIOZ consortium and also put its support behind the Biotechnology Centre of Excellence bid.

"We have, for the first time, the ACT government as a partner with the universities and institutes," he says.

Hearn sees several things as being key to the ACT establishing itself as a centre for biotech -- a first-class bioscience base, a highly educated population, an excellent education system and great quality of life.

He believes that the other ingredients required is a strong industry and venture capital base, and this is what he hopes that BIOZ and other initiatives will achieve.

"With Australia's most highly educated workforce and world-leading bioscience institutions, the ACT is in an excellent position to capitalise on the economic, social and environmental benefits from this industry of the future," says Quinlan.

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