Australia excels in biomedical research but sucks at commercialisation. Professor Frank Gannon says that needs to change.
This article, written by Graeme O’Neill, previously appeared in Lab + Life Scientist.
Professor Gannon is director of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, formerly known as the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. The institute is dedicated to doing well, what Australia has done so poorly: turning discoveries in cancer research, infectious diseases, complex medical disorders and mental health into new treatments, novel diagnostics and prevention strategies.
Gannon, who is from Ireland, retells an all-too-familiar tale: Australia ranks 11th in the world for generating new medical knowledge but languishes near the tail of the field in transferring that knowledge to industry and the clinic.
He will present the prestigious Millis Oration at the AusBiotech 2014 Conference on the Gold Coast this month – the oration honours the late Professor Emeritus Nancy Millis, one of Australia’s greatest microbiologists, and former chancellor of Victoria’s La Trobe University.
Gannon was recruited to head QIMR Berghofer in 2011 from his former post as director-general of the Science Foundation of Ireland, the dominant funding agency for all research in Ireland.
“Its motto is ‘Research with Consequences’ – it supports excellence, and expects consequences,” he said. “When you normalise for differences in GDP, Ireland ranks close to Australia in the league table for research output but it does better than Australia in transferring research results to industry.
“When the foundation was established, there was an expectation that it would foster a culture in which scientists would work with industry to commercialise their discoveries. They have come to know each other very well.”
Gannon says QIMR Berghofer is focused on producing an impact from excellent research. “In the past, we have tended to focus on the impact in the clinic,” he said. “We now recognise that, to get to the clinic, we have to go through a commercial phase that may involve working with or licensing external companies, or setting up our own – it’s a crucial part of what should be happening.
“The work we perform generally comes under the heading of translational research, but we prefer a more rigorous description: there are several lead-up phases that get bundled with translation, that we need to dissect out: the discovery of a target, its characterisation, developing molecules to interfere with the target, and then, translation.”
“In the past, during the progression from discovery and translation, the enabling step of working with industry has tended to be omitted from the discourse.”
Prof Gannon suggests that one reason why Australia has done so poorly at commercialising its medical discoveries is that Australian researchers are rewarded predominantly for publishing research papers – not for their efforts in commercialising their discoveries.
The process of research leading to publication becomes circular – an end in itself. “We need to break out of the circle – not by stopping the cycle but by getting another plate spinning. We must look at the barriers to doing that,” he said.
He suggests a major barrier is a funding system that fails to reward interactions between the discoverer and the deliverer, both at the clinical and company level. “We don’t talk enough,” he says. “As a result, researchers, clinicians and companies don’t know enough about what each is doing.”
Prof Gannon says exports from Australia’s biotechnology sector are very high, but tend to be concentrated with a small number of companies. There haven’t been enough successes to sustain a greater breadth of corporate activity.
The problem, he suggests, traces to the process of funding Australian start-ups: companies start with relatively modest start-up capital between $2 million and $4 million, and the founders exit and start over once the company’s value reaches $20-odd million, and attracts takeover suitors.
Can Australia emulate Ireland’s culture of communication between researchers and companies interested in commercialising their discoveries?
Prof Gannon doubts there is a simple remedy for the science-industry disconnect in Australia: “Culture is very hard to define, and harder to prescribe, but change must be encouraged, and we need examples of success to provide that encouragement.”
He says when he became director-general of Ireland’s Science Foundation, he conducted an annual census of foundation-funded research that asked how many researchers worked in each laboratory, how many publications they produced, whether they were working with companies to commercialise their discoveries, and how often they met for talks with company representatives and what they talked about.
“What the census showed was that there was healthy engagement with industry at the start, and at the end. Three-quarters of the researchers were actively collaborating in jointly funded projects with industry – by regularly asking each other questions, there was a much better transition from discovery to commercialisation.
Prof Gannon believes Australia’s proposal to create a $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund, however it is funded, would not only boost the volume and quality of medical research in Australia but could catalyse the development of more commercially focused culture in research.
“Australia has a single funding agency for medical research – the National Health and Medical Research Council. It does an excellent job, but it creates a particular culture, and there are gaps in its coverage,” he said.
“The success rate for grant applications is diminishing, which reduces the motivation to work hard.
“The projects that do win grants are often underfunded, which means the universities or research institutes that host the projects have to find extra money to support them.
“There’s also a trend away from funding individuals, and the number of researchers on fellowships seems to be dwindling – fellowships are seen as just one phase of a career, rather than an opportunity to pursue an entire career in research.
“A Medical Research Future Fund would promote better connections between clinicians and researchers, by freeing up time for clinicians to do more research. It would provide more funds for translating research through industry and provide funding for clinical trials.”
Prof Gannon said increased funding would reduce the time researchers currently spend writing grant applications or seeking funding. They would have more time to do high-quality research and become involved in commercialising their own discoveries.