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Why John Brumby is Thinking Big About Australian Biotechnology

6 Sep 2021, by Skye Rytenskild

One of the upsides of the pandemic is that it has shown that Australia has a remarkable ability to respond when swift action is needed in drug development.

However, while we’re known as a leading destination for early phase clinical trials, there has been a historic disconnect with wider commercialisation and bringing our solutions to the world stage.

The 2021 Bio Connections conference on 18 November will be a critical opportunity for key stakeholders to discuss how Australia can become globally competitive in novel therapeutics.

The Hon John Brumby AO will be delivering a keynote speech at the Melbourne conference, addressing what the new $2 billion Breakthrough Victoria Fund means for Australian biotechnology.

Mr Brumby has decades of leadership experience in public life. He was the Premier of Victoria from 2007 – 2010, and is now the Chancellor of LaTrobe University and Chair of Biocurate. He is also the First Chair of the Breakthrough Victoria Fund, which is one of the most significant state investments to ever take place in industry development.

In the lead up to the conference, Mr Brumby shared his thoughts with us on the major hurdles to surmount, as well as the opportunities which can be leveraged.

Mr Brumby, Australia has traditionally been strong in clinical research and weaker in bringing new therapies to market.  In your view, what have been the key barriers to commercialisation?         

One of the first things we did in setting up Breakthrough Victoria was to hold a series of roundtables asking exactly that question.  We spoke to researchers, university representatives, investors, industry associations and med-tech stakeholders of all kinds to try to get a deep understanding of the problem.

They told us there was a real disconnect between research institutes, universities and investors.  For one thing, the scientists employed at universities and medical research institutes are incentivised to publish research, including clinical research, in order to secure grants and advance their careers.  The market, on the other hand, is led primarily by consumer demand and unmet medical need.  These incentives don’t always line up, which is a systemic barrier to creating a culture of entrepreneurship.

We also found that compared to overseas, Australian investors have a relatively low risk appetite.  We’re sometimes reluctant to go first.  This is particularly difficult when it comes to early-stage projects because investors usually want valid proof before they invest—but of course obtaining a valid proof costs money!  So it’s a Catch-22.

We don’t have a lot of successful founders who go on to invest in the next generation.  There’s huge potential in super funds, but these tend to look for large-scale projects with high returns that have been de-risked—so there may be a role for Breakthrough Victoria in helping to solve this threshold requirement by aggregating funds or co-funding projects.

In short, the limited number of ‘investment-ready’ opportunities in Victoria results in low rates of private investment across our priority sectors.  At the same time, Victoria boasts some of the best and brightest scientific minds in the world, and we have a fantastic reputation for discoveries and breakthroughs in fundamental research.  Too often, this fantastic IP is lost to markets that are leaders in commercialisation, such as the US, Singapore and Europe.  Breakthrough Victoria is all about changing this.

How will the Breakthrough Victoria Fund address these issues?

The scale of investment in Breakthrough Victoria by the Victorian Government is unprecedented: $2 billion investment over ten years.  Our aim is to dramatically increase the rates at which Victorian research and innovation is converted into real-world applications and commercialised—which in turn will support businesses, jobs and the economy.

We’re currently finalising our investment plan, but we already have a number of principles in place. We’ll be looking for projects with strong commercial potential that can create jobs, accelerate productivity, grow exports, and support domestic manufacturing, as well as having societal and environmental benefits.  We’ll be looking to help established companies scale up their breakthrough ideas to meet global demand.

We also want to support a new generation of talent and help Victorian companies to grow and build their workforce here, rather than going offshore.  We anticipate that many investments will be anchored at key innovation and employment precincts such as Arden, Macauley, Bundoora, Clayton, Fishermans Bend, Parkville, and Waurn Ponds.  That’s not an exhaustive list, but we think precinct-focused investments will help foster collaboration between industry and research.

We’ll also be seeking to leverage capital through partnerships and co-investments with the Commonwealth and with private, Venture Capital and philanthropic funds.

How will the Fund help drive Victoria’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic?  How will it increase Victorian—and Australian—economic resilience?

If there’s one thing COVID has taught us, it’s the importance of sovereign capability: the ability to meet our needs and solve our problems here at home.  That means we need a diverse and innovative economy that can meet new challenges and come up with new solutions.  By supporting innovation and commercialisation, Breakthrough Victoria will help to ensure we have the skills, technologies and creativity to both prepare for and respond to future health and economic challenges. 

What lessons can be taken from the COVID vaccine pipeline—can we apply these to other therapeutics?

Last year Victoria’s biomedical capability was really put to the test, and it proved its value.  The team effort from the Doherty Institute, CSIRO, 360 Biolabs, the Australian Synchrotron, CSL and many others rapidly progressed our understanding of COVID-19 and our access to vaccines.

Breakthrough Victoria can now consider how the novel and innovative ideas generated around life sciences, health care, digital technologies and preparedness for disruptive events can move us towards new ways of living.

It’s great to see that the Victorian Government has provided $50 million to establish the first mRNA manufacturing capability in the southern hemisphere here in Melbourne.  This will help accelerate the manufacture of pre-clinical and clinical mRNA based vaccines and therapeutics and help our researchers apply this capability to other areas such as cancer, rare diseases, cellular engineering and protein replacement treatments.

The Fund’s crucial difference is that it will focus on early-stage research rather than on more mature companies.  How will the Fund take a flexible approach that hasn’t been seen previously? 

It’s really important to emphasise that Breakthrough Victoria is not just about early-stage research.  One of our strengths is that we have the flexibility to invest right across the development life-cycle.

What makes us unique is the scale and timeline of our investment.  This distinguishes us from more conventional government grant programs, and it’s why Breakthrough Victoria was established as a State Owned Enterprise. It means the State of Victoria can have a stake in future commercial successes.

It’s a hugely exciting new initiative, and I look forward to speaking about it in greater detail at the Bio Connections conference later this year.

Don’t miss seeing the Hon John Brumby AO deliver the keynote address at Bio Connections, 18 November in Melbourne. Discover the full agenda here.

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