mark hutchinson

UNIVERSITIES AND RESEARCH: As climate challenges bite and the pandemic leaves its uncertain calling card the bright sparks in our society are turning to science as an answer.  Last week’s National Press Club address by leading scientist Professor Mark Hutchinson made an impassioned call for greater investment in startups rather than laboratory research, in order to shift the dial on economic return from science.

Professor Hutchinson of the Adelaide Medical School, and the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, argued that we need a research commercialisation fund in Australia to train a larger community of “what we at Science & Technology Australia call ‘bench-to-boardroom scientists’”. 

“Australia needs to go beyond what we call ‘bench-to-bookshelf’ science,” he said. 

That the main barriers to commercialising research in Australia were that our economy is made up of so many small businesses, the small “size of our venture capital markets, and the small share of global companies headquartered here” Professor Hutchinson said.

And those barriers are causing Australian research (and jobs) to be snapped up by investors overseas. 

“Too often, Australian researchers have made a world-first discovery that could turn into a job-creating success story – only to hit a wall of disinterest from potential financiers.”

“And so countless promising Australian breakthroughs have been left to languish in the lab, or our IP has been snapped up abroad by researchers and investors in other countries.”

He praised the recent government announcement of a $2.2 billion new investment in university research commercialisation, $1.6 billion of which would create a new research commercialisation fund, stating that “Its role will be to deliver kickstarter capital to spur more promising Australian science and research across the ‘valley of death’ in commercialisation.”

Last month the Australian government announced reforms placing national manufacturing at the centre of government-funded research, with priority schemes to ramp up commercialisation activity and university research funding reform to strengthen incentives for collaboration with industry. 

Legislation for the fund has been introduced to Parliament. It is expected to receive bipartisan support.

Data shows that only 40 per cent of Australia’s researchers work in private industry, which is below the OECD average.

A research commercialisation fund “would propel more of our innovations to a point when the private capital markets get interested” Professor Hutchinson said.

To illustrate his point he spoke about how the pandemic had caused Australians to ask, where we would be without science?

“The pandemic has driven an even deeper appreciation for why we in Australia must always ensure we have a strong and wide-ranging strategic sovereign capability in science. And it throws into stark relief why we must invest more deeply in it.”

Professor Hutchinson said that strong cross-party understanding was crucial for stronger research commercialisation and pointed to previous Press Club speeches from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Deputy Leader Richard Marles indicating this could be happening. 

Mr Morrison had said that Australia needed to develop “a new breed of research entrepreneurs here in Australia so they can create the new products and new companies and most importantly, the new jobs” and Mr Marles had said it was “critical that Australia dramatically improves our capacity to commercialise our public research and make our economy more complex.”

Mr Hutchinson said that lessons learnt in his own experience demonstrated the effectiveness of his proposal. 

His Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Nanoscale BioPhotonics was started seven years ago with a $23 million initial Australian government investment, which has turned into 16 start-ups with a combined market capitalisation and market value of nearly $520 million.

“That’s nearly a 22.5 fold return on the initial investment which we’ve generated for Australia’s economy,” he said. 

“And we’re only just getting started.”

Extrapolating from that output, Professor Hutchinson estimated that only half of the $1.6 billion to  $800 million – could deliver a return of $17.6 billion.

“I know, from first-hand experience, that if we can turn more of our great Australian science into startups in the years ahead, it will generate vast returns for our nation. We can shape a new era of economic opportunity to create jobs for our kids and grandkids. And we can make Australia one of the world’s rising science and technology superpowers.” 

He painted a picture of the future that would be possible if more funding was given to research commercialisation, saying that startups provide the answer to providing science and technology to humanity’s greatest struggles (like COVID).  

“I know, from first-hand experience, that if we can turn more of our great Australian science into startups in the years ahead, it will generate vast returns for our nation. We can shape a new era of economic opportunity to create jobs for our kids and grandkids. And we can make Australia one of the world’s rising science and technology superpowers.” 

“At Science & Technology Australia, we want to take the proven success of our acclaimed Superstars of STEM program – and apply a similar approach to help supercharge research commercialisation.”

“In coming years, we want to identify hundreds of scientists and researchers Australia-wide with the aptitude and passion to become commercialisation stars.”

“And we want to train them for specialist roles to propel the translation of promising discoveries into technologies and become linchpins liaising between industry and university research.”

“We want to create the first generation of ‘bench-to-boardroom’ scientists.”

He ended with a quote from Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley, “Research and science are our superpowers”. 

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