Bioclusters feature: Get it together

By Pete Young
Wednesday, 23 October, 2002

Bioclusters are complex animals whose care and feeding now commands respectful attention in the upper echelons of Australia's biotechnology community.

Especially interested are strategists seeking to consolidate the strengths of burgeoning islands of biotech and biomedical expertise in the leading states of Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

Making sense of what is happening across the country is clouded by different interpretations of the word 'biocluster'. To some, the label is interchangeable with park, precinct or hub. To others, a cluster is a superset which includes all those other elements as components.

Fitting the narrower definition of a cluster is Victoria's recently-announced Monash Research Cluster for Biomedicine (MRCB), helped by a $2 million infrastructure grant from the Victorian government.

The research cluster fits inside the Monash School of Biomedical Sciences and forms a core platform to maximise the research facilities of the school's six central departments.

It has been created around common infrastructure in the form of significant equipment purchases composed of Victoria's only widely-accessible fluorescence lifetime imaging microscope, a confocal microscope, an ultrasound unit, an X-ray crystallography unit and a mass spectrometer.

As well as state-of-the-art research and medical imaging facilities, the MRCB boasts a structural biology facility, advanced DNA sequencing capabilities and a transgenic and knockout mouse facility.

Favouring a wider view of the cluster concept is Mark Bradley, CEO of ATP Innovations, a Sydney-based entity which is moving up the food chain from incubator facility to commercialisation hub. It is associated with the Australian Technology Park (ATP), a 14 hectare scientific, research and development precinct within five kilometres of the Sydney central business district.

Close proximity

Bradley points to bioclusters in Germany (Berlin/Brandenburg, Munich/Martinsried), England (Cambridge) and the US (Boston) which hold groupings of 100 or more commercial biotech companies in close geographic proximity. The prime benefits of bioclusters revolve around the achievement of critical mass through shared resources (both infrastructure and intellectual) plus the interchange of knowledge across the boundaries of different disciplines and different organisations.

To Bradley, a biocluster is a geographic concentration of interconnected companies, specialised suppliers and service providers and associated academic and medical research institutions which compete but also cooperate."Clusters are important because they have all the components -- service providers, incubators, large commercial companies which can contract research out to small companies, financiers and academic research institutes," he says.

Measured against the overseas biocluster goliaths, no state in Australia yet has a true biocluster and the first fully-fledged examples may be 10 to 15 years away, according to Bradley. However the nucleus already exists in Melbourne, home to 22 non-profit medical research institutes, seven major teaching hospitals and nine universities, not to mention recent agglomeration initiatives such as the $35 million Monash STRIP and the $400 million Bio21 biomedical and research network.

Another potential cluster is forming in Queensland thanks to the growing conurbation of research and commercial biotechs centred around the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB). IMB co-director Peter Andrews believes the distinction between parks, precincts and clusters is largely semantic. He argues that the creation of incubator complexes near universities but not inside them is a big need that must be filled in the near future as Australia builds its biotech infrastructure.

"Extremely small biotechs are best nurtured inside a research-intensive university environment," Andrews says. "But that doesn't last forever and if they are going to develop into commercial entities, they had better get out of needing that academic environment and get their commercial nose to the grindstone.

"Australia has plenty of tech parks but there is a big gap in terms of incubators which are near universities but independent of them."

Government support

According to APT Innovations' Bradley, the key element in the progress toward bioclusters in both Victoria and Queensland is strong government support. NSW, with eight major biomedical research institutes located in Sydney, plus the heft of Sydney's commercial sector, is another biocluster contender, even though the NSW government has not been as proactive with its support as the Queensland or Victorian governments.

One component of any future Sydney-centric biocluster will be the Westmead Research Hub which embraces two teaching hospitals affiliated with the University of Sydney -- Westmead Hospital and the Children's Hospital at Westmead -- plus two research entities, Children's Medical Research Institute and the Westmead Millennium Institute.

Together they make up one of the largest health and medical research campuses in the southern hemisphere, says Westmead Millennium Institute COO Mark Dado. The Westmead hub does not yet include start-up commercial components but is in the process of developing a strategy to fill that gap. If biomedical research hubs represent one phase in the consolidation of NSW's fragmented medical research activities, the next stage is about strengthening the spokes joining the hubs.

Collaborative channels already stretch between Westmead and other NSW concentrations of biomedical research talent such as the Garvan Institute. On the drawing board is Bio-Link, an initiative designed to accelerate the commercialisation of hub-based research. Bio-Link is seen as offering a common pool of world's best-practice business development services to the Garvan, Westmead and Hunter research concentrations using resources available through ATP Innovations, IBM Australia and Sydney University.

Information flow

The macro benefits of clustering and hubbing are well-mapped. Less well publicised are techniques for micro-managing the flow of information between the staff of different components of the cluster or hub. Setting up and maintaining channels that cut across normal organisational boundaries fuels the synergy which is the life blood of the cluster concept. "You have to develop these linkages at different levels," says Mark Dado.

One level consists of seminar programs offering topics of common interest to researchers in a variety of disciplines. Topics and speakers normally are selected by committees who have an overview of the hub or cluster's activities and are publicised by internal email. At another level, contact can be encouraged between people from different components as they go about their everyday work by co-locating components and planning physical spaces so they are funnelled through common areas and facilities.

Westmead also fosters coffee club-style meetings to bring together in an informal setting researchers who work in different units but who are interested in particular field. "We are starting to put in place more formalised processes to facilitate these things," says Dado. Such gatherings are obvious ways to stimulate collaboration but "the question is how to accelerate and maximise them," says Dado. "Basically, wrapping the research effort in the sorts of processes that facilitate these collaborative exchanges is the whole concept of a hub."

"A physical hub is important. People often say they can collaborate virtually and that is true. But we still believe a hub which physically clusters researchers together is vitally important, both from an infrastructure point of view and in terms of maximising interactions. "A lot of interaction is random and spontaneous, not planned, so just by clustering people within a fairly concentrated physical environment, you increase the chances for it."

Dr Anabela Correia, executive officer of the recently-announced Monash Research Cluster for Biomedicine agrees with that assessment. "The strongest form of communication is face to face," she says. "You can never underestimate the effectiveness of an environment that allows you to just walk down the corridor [to another researcher's lab] and draw a diagram."

The art of networking

Monash biomedical campus annually schedules four to five seminars which draw not just internal researchers but representatives from outside industry, legal firms and government. The seminars, normally followed by drinks-and-nibbles networking sessions, often highlight the work of individual researchers and have proved "extremely useful," Corriea says.

Setting up cross-organisational information channels is more an art than a science. "I am not sure we have the collaborative channels right," says Bradley. "All the applicants coming into our business program have to be prepared to take part in a range of interactive events that encourage cross-talk."

One element of that program is a just-announced biZnet Club which aims to involve not just park occupants but the innovation and entrepreneurial community in the Sydney area, spreading eventually to regional NSW and the ACT. It will feature 32 events per year taking in business building, networking and professional development. Interactive and networking events tend to be staged around the fringes of the business day, such as breakfast seminars and late afternoon to early evening programs. Every third Friday, everyone in the park is invited to a drinks and discussion party which brings people into contact who otherwise would never talk to one another.

"We stress informality and when we do run more formal events we make sure the formal presentation is followed by a networking opportunity at the end," Bradley says. "We just did a client survey and found 77 per cent found it very useful to turn up at our social events and 80 per cent found the networking events to be useful."

Away from the east South Australia and Western Australia to date have shown few signs of being able to match the eastern State initiatives in biocluster building. The government has established the South Australian Biotechnology Precinct in the Adelaide suburb of Thebarton, adjacent to the Adelaide University Research Park. However, the precinct appears to be primarily a real estate play which gives biotechs financial incentives to locate their facilities there. At least half a dozen biotechs have been attracted to the precinct, including BresaGen, Bionomics, Medvet Science and GroPep.

BresaGen received a government grant of several hundred thousand dollars towards building a facility and will repay the remainder of the cost over a 10-year period. "So at the end of that time we will own the facility but we are not in the real estate game," says BresaGen CFO Linton Burns.

What he would prefer is to see an investment company take an interest in building infrastructure which companies like BresaGen could then lease out. The precinct does not offer shared facilities such as central labs or production areas, which would have been welcomed by the companies. "At this stage, every company has gone ahead and built its own fully functional facility, which is a duplication of effort and resources," Burns says.

There is some cooperation. For example, while building its own facility in the precinct, BresaGen is renting lab space from Bionomics. "At this stage both companies have their own manufacturing plants but down the road, we could arrive at some arrangement for sharing space."

BresaGen will be moving its corporate offices onto the site around the end of this year and open its lab there in February.

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