First year of South Australia's Biomanufacturing Industry Doctoral Training PhD+ program is a success

In the first year of the Biomanufacturing Industry Doctoral Training Centre (IDTC) PhD+ Program, participating students have gained access to industry knowledge and development opportunities in technical skills, leadership and commercialisation.

Throughout 2023, two new Industry Doctoral Training Centres (IDTCs) in South Australia have hosted 27 PhD students from the state’s major universities as part of a pilot four-year program.

Focusing on two critical technologies – biomanufacturing and quantum technologies – the IDTC PhD+ Program is part of the South Australian Government’s EXCITE Strategy to support a future-focused workforce.

Based on the UK’s Centres for Doctoral Training model, the IDTC PhD+ Program has several objectives: to foster a relationship between research and business; develop innovations of commercial relevance; and support greater mobility of graduates between research and industry.

MTPConnect, through its Adelaide Intermediary Program (AIP), is delivering PhD Plus sessions as part of the biomanufacturing stream of the initiative. Alongside regular interactions with their project partners, students attend interactive learning sessions throughout the year to complement their PhD projects. These sessions have featured guest speakers and visits to manufacturing sites, as well as networking events, roundtables and training activities.

In 2023, topics included introduction to biomanufacturing, strategy and planning, product and process development, translation and impact, and GM plant production. There have also been opportunities for candidates to practice their PhD pitches and to reflect with – and seek feedback from – the student cohort, supervisors, industry partners and guests.

To enhance the experience and increase industry engagement each session featured a guest speaker, including the following experts:

SA Chief Scientist Prof Caroline Mc Millen, Sonya Hughes Founder |People Innovation Consulting (for Flinders University), Tim O’Meara, Strategy Manager Government and Research |Cytiva, Mark Douglas, Director |Ethos Australia, Mark Womack, CEO |BioCina, Michael Tsaconas,VP and General Manager |BioCina, Phillip Elliott ,Associate Director Process Development |BioCina, Tim Hirst, Chairman and CEO |GPN Vaccines, Cameron Smith, Partner |FB Rice, Ben Atcliffe, Senior Commercialisation Manager |UniSA Ventures Pty Ltd, Ellen Swan, Research Commercialisation Associate | AusHealth, Prof. Vincent Bulone, Director, Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development |Flinders University, Dr Caterina Selva Post Doctoral Researcher |Flinders University, and Dr Crystal Sweetman, Post Doctoral Researcher | Flinders University.

Sixteen PhD students were successfully selected to join the program’s inaugural cohort. Each student was matched with a research supervisor and industry mentor to help them develop the transferrable skills required to deliver groundbreaking research and gain an understanding of how their research applied to industry.

AIP Director, Jo Close is pleased with the outcomes achieved in the first year of the program.

"The students have connected and supported each other, gained confidence, improved soft-skills, and taken advantage of networking opportunities. We have watched the group grow and look forward to each session," said Ms Close.

“Students have presented at conferences, won poster competitions, actively participated in wider industry activities, and confidently contributed to meetings with their academic and industry supervisors.

"Our role in SA is to create connections, build capacity and foster a culture of innovation. The program plays an important role in shaping future leaders who embed innovation and translation into their journey. The program is also showing success in supporting and building meaningful connections with Universities and Industry which lifts the focus on translation and impact. The students have taken an active role in co-designing the sessions and speaking line-up for 2024, and we can’t wait to facilitate and see where this year takes them,” she said.

Fostering a collaborative culture

Through the PhD+ Program, Janik Seidel, a PhD student at the University of South Australia (UniSA), was paired with two industry partners: CSL and Mass Dynamics. His PhD project centres on developing process analytical technologies – predominantly raman spectroscopy and mass spectrometry – to increase the safety and quality of biopharmaceutical products. Part of this involves working on a model process already developed by CSL.

For Seidel, one of the key benefits of the program has been the support offered by fellow students.

“As a PhD candidate, your work can be lonely, so having 16 other PhD students going through the same issues helps a lot. The program also provides insights into areas outside of academia, giving you a much broader overview of what’s out there in the industry,” he said.

“Tasked with organising the bi-monthly learning sessions, students have acquired a variety of transferrable soft skills”, Seidel added.

Seidel’s UniSA academic supervisor, Professor Peter Hoffmann added: “Highly sought-after industry leaders that present at these sessions, as well as those assigned to be mentors, have delivered valuable insights otherwise not accessible to higher degree by research (HDR) students at universities and research institutes."

“I think the program is very useful for the students and I was impressed by their talks and the networking opportunities for them. The ITDC provides students with the opportunity to connect to other HDR students, pitch their project, organise and host networking sessions and to draw on the collective knowledge and network of the ITDC," said Professor Hoffman.

For industry partner Mark Condina, Research Collaboration Lead at Mass Dynamics, one of the key functions of the PhD+ Program is to give students the chance to engage with industry partners beyond the interactions related to their project and to learn more about the current biomanufacturing ecosystem in Australia.

“I find this to be extremely important for them to understand what the opportunities are and establish new connections to build their network,” said Condina.

“From an industry perspective, it's been valuable to learn more about the research being undertaken across the industry and the interactions between the universities and industry to establish research programs,” he said.

Seidel’s other industry partner, CSL, said it is committed to the collaboration with UniSA, where it supports some of the brightest academic minds to complete their doctoral studies aimed at solving real-life complex industrial challenges.

“In addition to funding support, students gain industry experience with CSL to build skills and a broad understanding of bioanalytical principles to support biopharmaceutical product development,” said CSL Executive Director of Bioprocess Development Matthias Zimmermann.

“With particular focus on state-of-the-art mass spectrometry-based bioanalytical approaches, students gain technical area expertise and required industry-specific skills should they wish to progress their careers in this direction," said Zimmerman.

Transferring knowledge and building a talent pipeline

Like Seidel, UniSA PhD candidate Thabata Muta is part of the PhD+ Program’s first cohort. Her project focuses on enhancing the oral bioavailability of cannabidiol (CBD) as an effective treatment for analgesic, inflammatory conditions, cancer, depression and anxiety.

As part of the PhD+ Program, she was assigned to work with industry partner MedTEC Pharma: a group of licenced cultivators, manufacturers, researchers and developers of medicinal cannabis in the pharmaceutical industry.

In addition to honing her skills in areas such as leadership and communication, Muta has gained valuable insights into translational research, patents and effective strategies for scientific networking and negotiation.

The program's support has likewise had practical implications, offering her the financial security to focus exclusively on her research and access resources, such as funding for animal studies.

Importantly, Muta said the program's influence has extended beyond academic learning – giving her a stronger belief in her abilities and a vision for a future where her research has a meaningful impact on society.

“The PhD+ Program has profoundly impacted my professional trajectory and personal growth. It has not only equipped me with skills and insights essential for a successful career in research but has also provided a supportive community and platform for me to thrive as an innovator," said Muta.

Regular interactions with industry mentor Dirk Beelen, Chief Commercial Officer at MedTEC Pharma, have enabled Muta’s continuous learning and improvement in communication, presentation and scientific thinking.

Her academic supervisor Professor Sanjay Garg said Muta has been able to leverage Beelen’s insights from the cannabis industry to create a strong foundation for her project.

“This will also ensure a focus on the translational approach to the project,” said Professor Garg.

On the flipside, Beelen said the partnership has provided the ideal platform for transferring knowledge from academia to industry.

“By working closely with students and their academic supervisors, I was able to tap into the latest research and innovation. This interaction leads to fresh perspectives, cutting-edge solutions and the development of new technologies that can significantly benefit my industry,” said Beelen.

“Supporting initiatives like the PhD+ Program is an investment in building a talent pipeline. As an industry supervisor, I have found that working with the student not only helps address immediate project needs but also provides an opportunity to identify potential future employees who are already familiar with our organisation and industry. Engagement with universities likewise fosters a culture of collaboration and networking.

“It opens doors to additional partnerships, research opportunities and potential collaborations with other industry players. These connections can extend beyond the scope of the program and result in long-term, mutually beneficial relationships," he said.

A mutually beneficial arrangement

Jaslene Anne Francis from The University of Adelaide’s School of Chemical Engineering is dedicating her PhD project to the design of ready-to-inject aqueous formulations of mRNA-lipid nanoparticles, which have emerged as promising vehicles to deliver a range of therapeutics.

For the PhD+ Program, she was assigned to work with BioCina: a multi-service biologics contract development and manufacturing organisation focusing on the development and cGMP manufacture of microbial-based biological pharmaceuticals, including proteins, plasmid DNA, mRNA, vaccines and biosimilars, from early development through to commercialisation.

Francis said taking part in the PhD+ Program has honed her skills in areas such as pitching, collaborating, networking and understanding the growth of the biomanufacturing market.

“This program has also helped me to learn more about the types of research being carried out across South Australia and how I can contribute to the development alongside other researchers and students,” she said.

Having collaborated with industry throughout his career, Francis’s academic supervisor, Professor Robert Falconer, understands how crucial such partnerships are for keeping research relevant to real-world needs.

“Jaslene’s experience at BioCina should provide her with a better understanding of industrial research and how it can benefit from research done in an academic setting,” said Professor Falconer.

Industry partner BioCina’s Head of Analytical Development, Saif Raisheed, agreed, saying programs such as PhD+ are mutually beneficial for students and industry.

“On the one hand, they give organisations the chance to assess students as potential future employees. Students also bring fresh perspectives and ideas to research and developmental activities. On the other hand, students are getting industrial experience and the opportunity to work with the SMEs of specialised disciplines,” said Raisheed.

“This helps them to develop professional networking and references, which are effective to find jobs after the completion of their studies,” he said.

Cultivating future leaders

Professor Carolin Plewa, Pro Vice Chancellor (Researcher Education and Development) and Dean of Graduate Studies at The University of Adelaide explained that though it’s still early days for the PhD+ Program, those leading the initiative expect it to deliver significant value in the coming years.

“We certainly would anticipate a range of benefits [for students], in particular confidence in engaging, peer support, building networks and future employment opportunities, a broadened spectrum of engagement and commercialisation learning beyond what we offer all our higher degree researchers, and of course being and feeling part of the innovation precinct,” said Professor Plewa.

Professor Plewa believes that the confidence and belonging that come from being part of a broader purpose and system beyond the university, school or lab is one of the most critical elements of the program.

“Another element is the interconnectivity of industry partners involved; where they engage proactively in the program. By supporting the development of the skills and mindset conducive for industry-engaged research, the IDTC is on track to achieve its overarching purpose," said Professor Plewa.

“We want to set up participants for success, ensuring they are ready to shape the innovation future Australia needs," she said.

For more information about the Industry Doctoral Training Centre: Department for Industry, Innovation and Science

For information about the Adelaide Intermediary Program:

Connect with MTPConnect IDTC PhD+ Program Facilitator, Dana Bell,