Invention to invoice
Issue 9, December 2013
Brisbane’s leverages international investment to commercialise innovation in a multibillion-dollar industry
Brisbane’s research and development sector is leveraging international investment to commercialise innovation in a multibillion-dollar industry
With more than 79 million doses distributed, life-saving cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil is one of the most successful pharmaceutical products ever developed in Australia.
Pioneered in Brisbane by Professor Ian Frazer, Gardasil was patented in 1991 by UniQuest, the University of Queensland’s main commercialisation company. The vaccine, available in more than 120 countries, regularly generates over $1 billion in peak annual sales and has been calculated to potentially save the lives of 250,000 people every year.
Gardasil epitomises the “invention to invoice” phenomenon, which is turbo-charging Brisbane’s knowledge-based industries, as local researchers commercialise intellectual property and forge industry partnerships to bring new products to market.
Invention to invoice
Brent Watts, operations manager and second-in-charge at QUT bluebox, the commercialisation company of Queensland University of Technology, said getting an innovation to market was often a lengthy and complicated process.
“Once you’ve established there’s a market, you need to plan for the resources and partners required to translate the innovation into a minimum viable product, process or service and to enter the market,” he said.
“The innovation may need some level of protection, and one of our roles is to identify any intellectual property and develop an appropriate protection strategy. This might include filing a patent application or maintaining the innovation as a trade secret.
“Once we’ve implemented a protection strategy and further developed the innovation, we generally seek to license the intellectual property to an established company if possible. They’ve already got a brand, distribution channels and they might have products, processes or services that complement and align well with the new product.
“But where that doesn’t make sense because the innovation is in an emerging field, or if we can otherwise add more value in going direct to market, that’s when we might consider a start-up opportunity.”
Mr Watts said bluebox could also facilitate access to venture capital, angel investors and others with the appetite to invest. “At bluebox we also help with developing commercial strategies as well navigating the legal process of transferring the intellectual property to licensees,” he said.
Brisbane’s world-class universities and higher education institutions supply the stream of talent needed for large-scale commercialisation and manufacturing operations in the city, according to Tertia Dex, who as director of business development at the Brisbane base of Dutch-based global life sciences company DSM Biologics, oversees a sophisticated pharmaceuticals manufacturing operation.
“A lot of our staff come straight from local universities,” she said. “They’ve achieved a lot in research and the academic setting and want to expand their experience to industry.
“We’re in contact with all of the local universities and some TAFEs, who work with us to ensure their students are suitably qualified to come into an industry placement.”
Census figures reveal the number of people in Brisbane with higher education qualifications is on the rise, with 327,000 holding a bachelor degree or higher in 2011 – an increase of about 150,000 on a decade ago.
The number of people in Brisbane with a masters degree or doctorate has more than doubled in the past decade, with 63,000 people holding a postgraduate degree in 2011.
Ms Dex said Brisbane had a growing reputation as a centre of excellence in biopharmaceuticals and the life sciences. She said DSM and its 50 staff covered the whole spectrum of pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals production, collaborating with industry partners to manufacture commercial drugs to treat a range of diseases including cancers, and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.
“Traditionally in Australia, we’ve been very good at research and discovery but what happened until quite recently was most of the intellectual property generated locally was partnered out and licensed overseas,” Ms Dex said.
“But now we can manufacture up to 500kg of drugs a year at DSM, which is a major commercial quantity – and we aim to double this capacity through future expansion of our facility.
“This is the start of something really important for the whole of the Australian industry. It’s very exciting.”
Commercialisation is also a growing focus for The University of Queensland, with UniQuest-licensed innovations generating annual sales of $3 billion. Dr Craig Belcher, UniQuest’s senior director of industry engagement, said the organisation benchmarked in the top 10 per cent globally for university-based technology transfer.
“Our role is to progress research along the value chain,” he said. “We identify projects with market potential and we work that up into an opportunity that is commercial-ready.
“We also specialise in expertise commercialisation. That’s when companies come to us with what may be a commercial problem in its assembly line or an unexpected material defect in a product, and are seeking an expert from UQ with the capability to help in that area.
“If we have an expert who can address the problem, we match them up, deliver the work and we invoice. So we’re directly applying research expertise in the university to help solve a real commercial problem.”
Dr Belcher cited UQ technology licensed to major multinational companies as prime examples. “We’ve developed an image correction, licensed to both GE and Siemens, and now that technology is in two-thirds of the world’s MRI machines,” he said. “The big companies like coming to Australia. They like the innovation, and Queensland has a lot of world-leading innovation.
“We have that commercialisation mentality at UQ and we’re setting about to engage with industry, to ensure that our UQ research leads to new products and services.
“We want our research excellence to make a profound benefit for people locally, nationally and internationally. It’s what we like to call ‘excellence-plus’ at UQ and it is about creating impact through the commercial translation of research.”
UQ Centre for Clinical Genomics
The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute (UQDI) is home to the UQ Centre for Clinical Genomics, the most sophisticated and largest human genomic facility in the Southern Hemisphere. Here, cutting-edge technology is used to investigate the dynamic interplay between genetic and environmental factors in the development of traits and disease.
Located at Brisbane’s Translational Research Institute (TRI), UQDI is pioneering a range of research programs that are breaking new ground in their prospective research fields. These include:
- Professor Matt Brown’s gene-mapping studies that have greatly increased our understanding of the root causes of debilitating conditions such as ankylosing spondylitis, schizophrenia and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Professor Ranjeny Thomas’s novel vaccine technology for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Dr Fiona Simpson’s work on a revolutionary approach to treating a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
Brisbane’s acknowledged strengths in commercialisation provide another advantage for the city’s innovation culture: the return of highly qualified expats to the city.
“Our facility has been a magnet for biotechnology and pharmaceuticals experts and Australian expats who were working overseas,” Ms Dex said. “A lot of us have come back to Brisbane for this specific opportunity.”
UniQuest has ramped up its commitment to innovation through its own skills program, Dr Belcher said. The program runs across all faculties at UQ, with the aim of promoting commercialisation opportunities.
“We run commercialisation workshops for UQ researchers, staff and students – 3000 have been through the course,” Dr Belcher said. “AtUniQuest, we’re looking for people with both strong research skills and exceptional industry contacts.”
Since 2000, more than $450 million has been raised by UniQuest start-up companies to take UQ technologies to the market. Dr Belcher said one of the keys to successful commercialisation was a clear unmet need in the marketplace and a supporting product development plan.
“This is true whether we are seeking to raise venture capital for a new start-up company for the UQ innovation or enter into a research partnership with large existing companies,” he said.
“Recent examples include Nexgen Plants Pty Limited, a UniQuest start-up company, established with a founding investment of $2 million from venture capital. The money is to be used to further develop its plant virus resistance technology. Another example is a research partnership with Janssen Biotech Inc – the pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson – to develop a UQ technology as a potential autoimmune rheumatoid arthritis treatment.
“If we can partner with a company that already has a path to market, that already has the customer knowledge required for success, then that’s a much lower risk for us. It’s all about embracing open innovation and gearing up towards realising a market opportunity that our partner has already seen.”