Becoming the clever country – how medical research commercialisation is improving health and the economy

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09 August 2023

Becoming the clever country – how medical research commercialisation is improving health and the economy

"Medical research has enjoyed a rare stint on the front pages of our national newspapers in recent weeks, with extensive coverage of the Medical Research Future Fund, writes Hon. Jaala Pulford, chair of MTPConnect.

A $20 billion endowment dedicated to the research, development - and commercialisation - of new life saving medical discoveries, the MRFF is a national asset.

The coverage has spotlighted some ad hoc MRFF grants, emphasising that transparency is critical and where it is lacking, scrutiny is sure to follow. And fair enough too – it’s taxpayer money after all and we need to trust that it’s being invested appropriately and driving impact.

There’s no doubt that competitive tenders, independent assessment involving subject matter experts and people with deep industry experience is the way to go. A review is well underway which will guide a re-tooling of the MRFF’s administration arrangements to address these issues.

The coverage has also underscored the enormous potential of both the MRFF and the companies that make up Australia’s medical technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector. That’s because the MRFF not only supports research; it also drives innovation. In fact, the MRFF Act requires a focus on translation and commercialisation. That means backing start-ups, entrepreneurs and smaller companies to bring life-saving medical products from research labs to patients. And it’s achieved by creating better links between research and industry, building a future ready workforce and actively supporting small companies to scale and grow.

And it’s here that we need all the help we can get.

While Australia is excellent at research, ranking in the global top five, the Global Innovation Index has us at just 37th in the world for outputs from that research. These measures highlight the opportunity for Australia to boost our capacity for the translation and commercialisation of sophisticated medical products derived from our health and medical research and drive creation of new jobs to underpin future economic diversification and resiliency.

While we count the cervical cancer vaccine, cochlear implants and the pacemaker among our stellar commercialisation successes, we can do better.

My organisation has managed five MRFF programs, all secured through open, competitive processes and all aimed at doing just that.

We’ve supported start-ups and SMEs across nearly 200 projects in a range of areas, from 3D anatomical printing and a new precision immunotherapy to a wireless biosensor to improve the safety of mothers and babies during childbirth and a new therapy for improved treatment of stroke.

With the $147 million in grants we’ve injected, other support initiatives, contributions from industry and external investments, we’ve now contributed to $1.3 billion flowing into the sector delivering an overall economic impact of more than $5 billion. These funds, and the projects they support, are helping Australian SMEs translate research into new medical products that improve the health and wellbeing of Australians.

They are contributing to the development of a knowledge intensive sector. And given that Australia ranks 91st in the world for economic complexity, our economy could do with some diversification. Good research and industry policy will only get you so far if you don’t have the workforce with the skills necessary to make it happen. Here too, the MRFF is playing a key role and through our industry-focused workforce program, we’re providing industry experiences and skills development in this critical area, and more.

But with the MRFF pivoting away from commercialisation capacity building, there’s work to be done on who’ll pick it up so SMEs aren’t caught short of the skilled staff they need to unlock the value of their innovations.

The MRFF is doing some heavy lifting in the area of First Nations science, meeting a key priority around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. Our program on cardiovascular disease and diabetes recently completed a funding round with Indigenous-specific priority areas. Guided by an Indigenous Advisory Group, we are excited about a number of new projects that will make a real health and wellbeing difference in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

What our programs do is support people and projects across Australia – scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs getting industry experience and creating and growing businesses. This is the power of medical research innovation, and the potential of the MRFF.

If we back-in the science – and boost the translation and commercialisation of that science – we will have more high-paying jobs, dynamic, globally significant companies, increased sovereign capability and a more resilient economy. And healthier communities."

Hon Jaala Pulford is chair of MTPConnect and a former Victorian Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy.

This opinion was first published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald's weekly newsletter Examine by science reporter Liam Mannix.