Western Sydney feature: when the west becomes the centre

By Tanya Hollis
Thursday, 01 August, 2002

When it comes to growing a biotech industry, it seems every state needs a geographic focal point. Victoria has the Parkville and Monash clusters, South Australia has the Thebarton hub and in Queensland the biotech industry is centred around Brisbane and the Gold Coast. In NSW, the population's inland sprawl has resulted in a spotlight being turned on Western Sydney.

According to the Office of Western Sydney's BioWest directory, released this year, some 14 research institutes are based in the region. There are also about 90 private and public companies spanning drug development, pharmaceuticals, bio-IT and devices, offering a plethora of collaborative and partnership opportunities.

According to the University of Western Sydney's research development coordinator and contracts manager, Louise Fleck, about half of Sydney's population now lives west of Parramatta. Fleck said biotech companies were being enticed to the west by a combination of factors including government initiatives and research institute expertise. "There has been quite an active move by the Office of Western Sydney through the Australia BioHub - Westmead," she said.

"Another reason is that the accommodation is cheaper in the region, and I hope the expertise of the uni is also a part of the reason companies are looking out this way.

"There is expertise relevant to biotech in the west and the uni has a reputation for being collaborative."

Key institutes Among the key institutes in Western Sydney are the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, the University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute, the Centre for Advanced Technologies in Animal Genetics and Reproduction (ReproGen), University of Western Sydney and various area health services.

There are also clusters within the cluster, including the Westmead Research Hub, which comprises Children's Medical Research Institute (CMRI), Westmead Hospital, The Children's Hospital at Westmead and Westmead Millennium Institute.

CMRI director Prof Peter Rowe said his institute moved from central Sydney 10 years ago along with the Children's Hospital. Rowe said it was an obvious move, but one that was not without its problems. "The expansion of Sydney demographically is going further west of where we are, so moving here was logical; in fact, the majority of children in NSW are based around this area," he said. "There was not necessarily the intellectual infrastructure here as was centred around the city, but that's rapidly being overcome as the next generation comes through."

Rowe said another issue was that people preferred to live in coastal areas and were initially reluctant to travel long distances inland to work. But he said the location allowed for greater room and flexibility to expand. "This is where people are living now and there is predicted to be a massive explosion in growth in the order of a million or so in the next 20 to 30 years," Rowe said, adding that the University of Western Sydney had expanded recently to cope with the growth.

He said the members of the Westmead Research Hub were within a 400m of each other, which allowed for the sharing of major equipment and technologies. These included mass spectrometry, electron microscopy, microarray, DNA sequencing and proteomics.

Sharing knowledge The hub is governed by an executive committee, which meets regularly to discuss such things as knowledge sharing, animal resources and IT issues. Rowe said that, despite having the support of the Office of Western Sydney and a council representative from the area health service, the main business was dealt with internally. He said that while 10 years ago few research staff and academics were interested in travelling to western institutes, today most staff in fact came from within the region.

"When you compete against places like Parkville or Queensland where money is thrown around like water, you are going to be in trouble if you are perceived as a small group," he said. "But it is evolving very well through a spirit of cooperation."

The director of the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, Ian Denney, agreed that perceptions of the region had changed dramatically in recent years. "It is quite a vibrant hub of researchers working in a complementary way," Denney said. "There has been a shift in the kind of activities the area is associated with." The institute, which is part of NSW Agriculture, has been in the region for 12 years and focuses on microbiology and immunology in the plant and animal health spheres. Denney said that while geographic proximity was important, more vital was the notion of clustering expertise.

The institute has established collaborative research links with the University of Western Sydney, Macquarie University, University of Sydney, University of Wollongong and the Australian National University. It is also looking into links with the Westmead Research Hub through complementary programs. "Our attitude in the department is that we need to be able to share the equipment we have," Denney said.

"We have a memorandum of understanding[MoU] with the University of Western Sydney based on equipment and sharing of expertise... we are also working on an MoU with the University of Sydney to avoid duplications of expertise and technology.

"We believe that aggregations and networking are important from that point of view."

Data transfer In addition to these agreements, Denney said the institute was working towards establishing a cooperative fibre optic network to link the campuses. He said the set-up was intended to include video links to enable researchers to visualise data. "We're working on trying to improve our capacity to transfer data between institutes in an efficient faster way," he said. "Information is so voluminous and needs to be transmitted so quickly.

"Inner city institutes are already linked, but there's a strong driver now to try to link some of the more peripheral bodies." Denney said the institute aimed to have a business plan submitted to Treasury within a couple of months. "It is a matter of having a gathering of like minds and the will, and that is occurring now in Western Sydney to make it happen," he said.

At the University of Western Sydney, which has specialties in plant and food science and skin technologies, Fleck said there was a firm focus on commercialisation. She said the uni had collaborations in association with Australian Research Council linkage grants and close links with hospitals in terms of joint chairs. Fleck said the UWS also ran partnership programs encouraging people to set up research projects that included industry contributions and involvement, and also conducted contract research in its specialty fields. She said that while the NSW Government appeared to be committed to nurturing biotech in Western Sydney, fellowship and institute funding along the lines of that awarded by Victoria and QLD would be welcome.

But over all, Fleck believes sections of Western Sydney, namely Westmead and Richmond, were gaining a major profile for biotech strength. For his part, the CMRI's Rowe firmly believes that the west is the only way Sydney can sensibly evolve. "It can only go one way, because it is limited by the sea in the other direction," he said. "So by creating major health centres, we want to be in a position where bright young people will have opportunities to develop their skills in the local area."

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