The ones to watch

By Melissa Trudinger
Thursday, 24 April, 2003

Melissa Trudinger takes a look at the emerging biotech clusters in Perth and Adelaide

While some cities in Australia have well-established bioscience clusters encompassing both the research sector and the biobusiness sector, other areas are in various stages of developing clusters of activity.

Two examples are Perth, which is really in the embryonic stage of cluster development, and just starting to reach the critical mass required to establish a base for bioscience industries to build on, and Adelaide, which may well qualify for the fastest growing cluster in the country.

The development of a bioscience cluster in Perth is crucial to the researchers and crucial to the development of a biotechnology industry in Perth, says Prof Peter Klinken, the driving force behind the five-year-old Western Australian Institute of Medical Research (WAIMR), which maintains close links with the University of Western Australia, Royal Perth Hospital and Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.

WAIMR has its own facilities in two campuses located at both hospitals, and a growing extramural program which sees close collaborative links formed between WAIMR researchers and other scientists in universities and hospital research labs. Klinken points to WA's Lion's Eye Institute, led by Prof Ian Constable, which has developed a number of different technologies and spun out four companies to commercialise their ideas, as a good example of how an institute can capitalise on its cutting edge research.

"We hope to make new discoveries, and create knowledge that may translate to commercial outcomes," he says.

"Sometimes commercial outcomes can be difficult to predict - we want to make the most of opportunities."

Klinken believes institutes like WAIMR, as well as other Perth research centres including the Institute of Child Health Research, provide a focal point for researchers allowing both the infrastructure and the intellectual environment required for innovative science to develop.

The close proximity of the scientists, coupled with regular events to encourage communication and collaboration all help to foster a dynamic environment, he says.

And Klinken also believes in encouraging researchers at the institute to do what he terms "risky" experiments, those blue sky experiments that push the boundaries.

While WA is rapidly building strong research capabilities and attracting scientists to work at WAIMR and other institutes, building a viable biotechnology industry may take a while yet.

"Investors will become interested when they see opportunities," says Klinken. "You can't push something that isn't there."

Adelaide, on the other hand, is in the throes of a biotechnology revolution. According to the CEO of the state's biotechnology agency Bio Innovation SA, Dr Jurgen Michaelis, 15 new biotech companies have been established in the past 18 months.

"It's important to have a significant number of companies co-located both in proximity to themselves and to the research providers," he says.

But it has taken quite a few years for Adelaide's biocluster to mature, Michaelis says. GroPep, for example, has been around since 1988, and BresaGen since 1982, but the state's bioscience industry has really only taken off in the last three years.

"As soon as there is log phase in employment growth, you can say that a cluster has momentum, and that's happening in South Australia at the moment," he says.

Michaelis believes that the driving force of all bioscience clusters is high-quality science. "Clusters attracts star scientists, and vice versa, star scientists can create clusters by their presence and by technology transfer," he says.

Another key factor of developing clusters, says Michaelis, is that they can be branded, and a wider awareness of them can be generated. He points to Adelaide University's Waite Campus as a great example of this.

"It's well known for having the highest quality of plant research," he says.

As awareness of a cluster grows, investors, pharmaceutical companies, and support activities like suppliers and service providers are attracted to it, adding more to the momentum.

"A cluster becomes self-perpetuating," Michaelis says.

Adelaide's bioscience cluster is centred around the excellent research performed at the state's universities and by government organisations including CSIRO and the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), as well as the increasing number of companies located in the state.

"There is so much good research in Adelaide that the industry can grow organically," says Michaelis, "but now we're getting enquiries about co-locating or starting up companies in Adelaide."

Bio Innovation SA has seen this especially from New Zealand start-ups who are looking for a biotechnology-friendly environment to commercialise their ideas.

In fact the agency has had several applications for grants through its BioCapital funding scheme.

"We haven't actually had a physical company start in Adelaide yet but the intention is there," Michaelis says.

Adelaide is also leading the way with another unique initiative, the Adelaide Integrated Bioscience Laboratories, which are being set up in four nodes to provide core competencies and shared access to major bioscience equipment and facilities.

And Michaelis has some advice for developing bioclusters.

It's important, he says, to really know the strengths and weaknesses of the cluster, identify the star scientists and departments and evaluate the available infrastructure.

Encouraging networking is also a necessary component and brings people together, helping to strengthen the bonds between academia and industry.

It's also critical to foster business incubation, according to Michaelis, by providing high level business advice from the creators of successful bio-businesses and an appropriate business infrastructure.

Bio Innovation SA plays an important role in South Australia's biotechnology industry as a virtual biotech incubator, providing support to start ups in the form of advice, how-to workshops on intellectual property management, biotech deal-making and biotech finance, and assistance to companies with business and product development plans. In addition, the organisation offers funding through various state government programs.

These services help to support the industry as it gets up and running, says Michaelis, and provide a level of filtering, to ensure that commercial opportunities are of high calibre and likely to attract investors. "Private sector funding will always come as soon as you get momentum," he says.

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