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Bio Technology : July 2009
AusBioFEATURE Ten years down the track, Australia still has world-class researchers and several new state-of-the-art facilities, most notably the Australian Synchrotron, Australia’s largest scientific investment, and a cornerstone of Australia’s Major National research Infrastructure. The Synchrotron, based in Melbourne, is supporting both basic research and commercial development (Fermiscan’s technology relies on x-rays generated in a synchrotron to detect the subtle change in hair fibres associated with breast cancer). The critical lack of available funding for biotechnology research is depressingly similar now to how it was a decade ago. Although within this time the issue was briefly and significantly improved by Federal Government schemes, especially Commercial Ready, which extraordinarily was axed by the Rudd Government in 2008. With the global financial crisis, the biotechnology industry has been given a double whammy that threatens the viability of many fledgling companies in the industry. Balancing this somewhat has been the support from state governments, with NSW’s Department of State and Regional Development’s BioFirst program, the Victorian Government’s support for the Bio21 Research Precinct and the Australian Synchrotron, and the Queensland Government’s long-standing commitment to biotechnology being the stand-out performers, and a major boost to the industry. Universities have demonstrated a commitment to commercialisation of IP in many areas, not just biotechnology, with most having set up dedicated commercialisation offices, with, in my experience, variable results. There is still a disconnect between the cultures of early-stage biotechnology companies who need to move fast to take advantage of funding opportunities, and large bureaucratic entities with time-consuming processes, forms and layers of decision makers. There is room for improvement. The public concerns that I raised in the Paper regarding gene technology have become more muted over time but have not disappeared. In fact, it is only this year that genetically-modified canola oil will be widely sold in Australia. The other issues I raised, patents and training, have matured over the last ten years. Most researchers are aware of management of IP and confidentiality issues, and the patenting landscape in Australia is quite sophisticated, with several patent law firms having taken a high profile in biotechnology. In terms of undergraduate training, there are several courses addressing this area. Dr Peter French, Fermiscan Pty Ltd Australia’s biotechnology industry is much more sophisticated and mature than it was a decade ago, but it is still a fledgling industry, as evidenced by the very small number of highly successful globally-based companies. Most publicly-listed biotechnology companies today are small to micro-caps. They are lean organisations focussed on product development, patents, trials, marketing and fund raising. The issue of management is still controversial. Many of these organisations struggle to get the right balance of skills required with the mix of the key scientific skills, R&D and the development opportunity needing to be blended with the corporate and commercial imperatives of the business. In looking to the future, it is clear that the next ten years will see great change. The focus on the ageing population will see a switch in emphasis of both established companies and new players to IP that addresses these diseases at the diagnostic and therapeutic levels. The sudden and severe lack of access to ready capital will accelerate the rationalisation of the industry over the next couple of years. The last ten years may be considered the golden years of Australian biotechnology from the view in 2019. Or it may be seen as the foundation for a mature industry with several global companies being established. We live in interesting times. Volume 19 • Number 2 • July 2009 Australasian BioTechnology 25