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Key ingredients for a world-leading precinct – insights from the former CEO of Cambridge University Hospital

24 Oct 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

In 1989 British researcher, Professor Sir Greg Winter, turned his discovery of humanised monoclonal antibodies into a GBP£450 million (approx. AUD$900 million) patent; and in 2018, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

His success story is one of many to be born from the Cambridge Biomedical Campus (CBC) which forms a broader innovation cluster that contributes more than GBP£13 billion annually to the British economy; and has innovations such as DNA, webcams, and IVF on its trophy wall.

Dr Gareth Goodier was part of the CBC’s leadership team, working as Chief Executive for Cambridge University Hospitals between 2006 and 2012 – during which time the campus doubled in size.

Dr Goodier – who was later appointed as Executive Chair of the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct – believes Australia’s health innovation precincts are on their way to matching CBC’s success.

“Australia’s health and innovation precincts have what it takes to be world leading. Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane are excellent centres for medical research and the clusters they have already are well-resourced in terms of infrastructure, and talent,” he said, ahead of his keynote at the National Health & Innovation Precincts Summit.

To accelerate Australia’s journey to world domination in the precinct space, Dr Goodier gives some key recommendations.

#1 – Focus on research excellence

Following the success of Professor Sir Winter, and other high profile alumni from Cambridge, droves of talent began queuing for study and work opportunities at the cluster.

“Success breeds success,” said Dr Goodier. “Sometimes you just need one really good idea that makes a lot of money, and all of a sudden you have piqued the interest of entrepreneurs, investors, and talent from around the world.”

A key barrier to generating these high profile innovations in Australia (and globally) is unsound research methodology or findings in some of the academic studies underpinning them.

It is estimated that 30 percent of global medical research cannot be reproduced due to inaccurate findings or poor study design – and this research does not meet the criteria for industry acceptance.

Some experts have suggested factors like “p-hacking” (where researchers tirelessly try out random combinations of variables until a statistically significant result is achieved) or “cherry-picking” (choosing the result that looks best but which is not truly representative) may be to blame. In rare cases, it may be outright fraud.

Dr Goodier says “data that can believed” is central to attracting investment. He recommends that close supervision quality-assures each piece of research before publication; and believes digitising this supervision process is paramount.

“Research supervisors are incredibly busy people, often travelling around the world to present at conferences. If we can find a way to make it easier for them to sift through each piece of research online and verify it, we are on our way to building a more credible research base, upon which highly profitable products can sit. This is an essential building block for any precinct that wants to be world-leading,” he said.

#2 – Prioritise tech and medical research together

Cambridge’s early steps as an innovation cluster began in the technology space – a move that Dr Goodier believes helped the precinct ‘quantum leap’ in size and credibility.

“Cambridge became a tech winner first – in hindsight, a fortunate development because tech is often easier and quicker to commercialise than medical research. It helped the Cambridge cluster stand out quickly on a highly competitive world stage, and attract the ecosystem of players needed to commercialise an idea.

“At the same time technology breakthroughs were being pushed, a number of management consultants sprang up and wanted ‘to put the brains of the University of Cambridge at the disposal of British industry’.

“Soon it had the likes of IBM knocking on its door.”

#3 – Make sure everybody is aligned

In 1965, however, the local council did not want industry to be based in Cambridge, meaning the IBM application could not progress.

“It helps if everyone is aligned,” Dr Goodier said. “When everyone is on board with a shared vision for precinct expansion – i.e. improved health outcomes for the population, more jobs, and economic benefits etc. – you can really drive forward. When they’re not, you hit obstacles.”

The UK later learned its lesson from the IBM planning rejection. In the terms of former Prime Ministers Blair and Brown, the development of the Cambridge ecosystem was on the PM’s list of ‘top ten science projects’.

Dr. Goodier recommends similar levels of support from the State and Federal Australian governments.

“The role of government, at all levels, in planning and supporting health precincts is critical. It’s not just about throwing money at it, but playing a key supporting role,” he said.

#4 – Promote entrepreneurialism

A focus on entrepreneurial excellence is key to bridging the gap between academia and industry – a gap that tends to be large in some Australian sectors.

“Australian researchers are great at publishing but not so good at commercialising their ideas. Sometimes it makes more commercial sense to delay a publication,” Dr. Goodier said.

“There are also great scientists in Australia, but a shortage of CEOs that can scale a small start-up.

“It’s important to get a handle on this issue. Billions of government funding is already being channelled into health and research, so the focus should now be on getting a return on that funding. Entrepreneurial spirit is what is missing here.”

To foster entrepreneurialism, the organisational culture needs to be right; and post-graduate STEM students should be encouraged to attend courses on entrepreneurialism. Israel should also be looked to for best practice, Dr Goodier argued.

“It is widely accepted that the best example of a country that excels in the commercialisation of new scientific ideas is Israel. There, you will find scientists who are prepared to bet their own mortgage on commercialising a breakthrough they have discovered. This is kind of attitude we need to cultivate in Australia,” he said.

#5 – The devil is in the planning details

Dr Goodier believes the physical layout of a precinct can often make or break its success, and says the scope for getting it wrong is significant.

“The kind of talent we would be looking to attract to a precinct often has the luxury of living and working anywhere in the world, so a great deal of effort is required to make precincts physically appealing” he said.

“A lot of thought – over many years – will need to go into eating and conferences spaces, housing, and transport, for example. At Cambridge, there were at least ten years of planning before I arrived, and another three years after that before planning permission was granted.”

Transport warrants a particular focus, he says, with accessibility one of the most valued features of the Cambridge ecosystem.

“Ideally, you want all centres within the precinct to be within a 25 minute walking distance of one other – along with strong connections to major transport networks.

“At Cambridge we took this one step further and developed a completely new mode of transport – a guided bus that rides on railway lines in the country side, and on wheels throughout the town. On top of that we ensured the new campus had easy access to the M11 and Stansted airport.”

#6 – More money is required for medical research

Australia lags behind many of its global peers when it comes to funding for medical research. It is also behind in the number and scope of incentives to tempt private sector investment.

For Dr Goodier, funding and incentives are a ‘win win’, with a recent report finding that every dollar invested in medical research generates A$2.13 in health benefits to the community.

“Any IP benefit would be on top of that,” he said. “Australia governments need to invest significantly more in medical research, but the Federal government also needs to promote and incentivise private sector investment in medical research. Current investment by both governments and private sector does not do justice to the talent in this country.”

Hear more expert advice from Dr Gareth Goodier at this year’s National Health & Innovation Precincts Summit. The event will be held 22-23 November at the Royal Randwick Racecourse. Learn more and register your place now.

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