Australian government growth centers invest in life sciences sector for future global growth

27 September 2018

Article by Tamra Sami, published in BioWorld on 25 September 2018.

PERTH, Australia – The Australian government’s Medical Technology, Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industry Growth Center (MTPConnect) launched a new node in Western Australia to support the state’s burgeoning life sciences sector, and it is continuing to build up skill sets in the country to prepare for future needs.

“The expansion of our office to Perth has been a long time coming,” MTPConnect CEO Dan Grant told BioWorld.

As a national program and growthcenter, MTPConnect views Perth and Western Australia “as a key part of the ecosystem.”

The move was driven by people within MTPConnect and is being supported by the Western Australian government and the University of Western Australia (UWA) at the Harry Perkins Institute and Center for Medical Research.

The WA node will run educational programs to support life sciences startups and innovation, working closely with local stakeholders to develop skills in product translation and commercialization, and in attracting investment opportunities.

To diversify the WA economy and create jobs, the government is establishing a second innovation hub through the A$16.7 million (US$12.14 million) New Industries Fund. That new life science innovation hub will support high-growth small- and medium-sized enterprises.

The state government will invest A$300,000 per year for four years to fund workshops and coaching sessions to bring national and international experts to Perth. MTPConnect will match the funding by contributing $100,000 in cash per year and $200,000 per year in in-kind support over four years, for joint co-funded activities to support the WA node.

One new initiative linking Western Australia to the wider world is the Australian National Phenome Center (ANPC) housed at Murdoch University. Supported by the state government and the Australian Research Council, the ANPC brings together universities and researchers to examine how metabolic phenotyping can help diagnose, prevent and treat diseases via precision medicine.

The ANPC forms the Southern Hemisphere link in a global network of phenomics laboratories in the U.K., Singapore, Hong Kong and China that follow identical procedures using comparable technologies.

The idea is to better understand how the environment can play a role in affecting the development of disease in different parts of the world. The global network is working closely with technology providers to develop a palette of next-generation tools for understanding disease factors at both an individual and population level.

Grant said the ANPC will “turn into a global hub and will bring international attention to Western Australia.”

Regenerative medicine takes off

Regenerative medicine is another key area where Australia can play a leading role on the international stage. MTPConnect held a number of national roundtables on regenerative medicine to look at the opportunities for Australia as well as the hurdles and to better understand how the space should be developed, Grant said, noting that MTPConnect will release the results of a survey on regenerative medicine at the upcoming AusBiotech conference in October.

“Australia has been recognized as having great strengths in regenerative medicine and cell therapies,” he said. “We’re starting to think about how disruptions in various aspects of our sector could affect the sector, and regenerative medicine is part of that.”

MTPConnect is looking at how regulatory reform keeps up with the pace of change and how Australia accesses international supply chains and export markets form a cell therapy perspective.

“Perhaps there are opportunities for us to be an exporter into Asia,” he said. “It used to be the U.S. was the main market, but now companies are taking an international view.

"There are natural markets to go to where reimbursement is easier and regulatory pathways are well known.

"But you only have to look north of us to see there are huge opportunities.”

He said the growth centers are looking at artificial intelligence and the workforce of the future and what those areas could mean for health care.

As you bring industry and research and education together, you blur the lines and start to improve the translatability of the research, Dr Dan Grant said.

“How do we predict what skills are needed and what infrastructure is needed? It’s impossible, but the way to do it is to do things like this in bringing groups together so we’re not operating in a vacuum.

“As you bring industry and research and education together, you blur the lines and start to improve the translatability of the research, and you also start to improve the courses that are being taught because you’ve got industry embedded in universities,” he said. “Universities understand what industry wants, so you have better student outcomes, and then students are embedded in both and that’s the key in creating a natural ecosystem.”

MTPConnect progress report

MTPConnect was established as part of the Australian government’s Industry Growth Centers Initiative, an industry-led approach driving innovation, productivity and competitiveness by focusing on areas of competitive strength and strategic priority. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 28, 2016.)

MTPConnect’s focus is fourfold: To help drive regulatory reform in the life sciences sector; to make sure the sector has access to international markets and supply chains; to build collaborations and commercialization capabilities within the sector; and to build skill sets for the sector of the future.

Since its inception, MTPConnect has funded 35 programs and deployed A$15 million that has been matched up to A$30 million to deliver programs across those four focus areas.

“The skill base is really the future of Australia,” Grant said, pointing to Australia’s Actuator as one model for taking young entrepreneurs and helping them convert their ideas into businesses. Australia’s Actuator accelerator program is a national industry-led, venture capital-backed incubator program that funds med-tech startups from seed to series A funding.

Supported by Accelerating Australia, which is supported by MTPConnect, the program provides a pathway to A$2.7 million in equity funding plus R&D tax incentives and industry mentoring and training that brings together leaders from Australia’s innovation ecosystem.

MTPConnect also helped fund the Industry Mentoring Network and STEM Group (IMNIS), a national mentoring system that connects PhD students with industry mentors. The program began with a handful of students in Victoria, and grew to 100 students last year, and Grant said he expects about 200 students will be involved in the program this year.

“Many of the projects MTP launched are just starting to read out. We have lead indicators. We’ve invested and are now seeing outcomes,” Grant said.