Philanthropy: putting rubber on the road for medical innovations

21st July 2014

Last week, Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane launched the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2014. The GII 2014 surveys 143 economies around the world, using 81 indicators to benchmark their innovation capabilities.

Whilst Australia ranks relatively well on input measures (including R&D ranked 8th) and we have moved up slightly from 19th to 17th in overall rankings, we continue to perform less well when we consider, output (22nd), investment (29th), knowledge absorption (42nd), innovation linkages (48th), and innovation efficiency (81st) when compared to the 143 economies assessed.

Last week also saw the release of Ernst & Young’s Beyond borders: unlocking value Global biotechnology report 2014. The annual report highlighted the opportunities in biotechnology showing double-digit growth in the global biotech sector, rebounding from 2013. It also noted, however, that much of this growth was driven by a relatively small number of US-based commercial stage companies. The report also notes the need for the sector to fail new drugs in development earlier, quoting a failure rate of around 40% for drugs in phase III clinical trials – a consideration for researchers and donors alike.

Australia is well recognised as a global leader in ‘basic’ biomedical research, contributing around 3% of the world’s research publications (0.3% population). In 2014, Australia’s biotechnology innovation performance also improved, moving from 7th to 4th place globally according to the Scientific American: Worldview: A Global Biotechnology Perspective.

Whilst Australia’s basic biomedical research and biotechnology sectors perform relatively well at either end of the innovation pathway, it has proven consistently more difficult to put rubber on the road to join both ends of the pipeline. Our innovation pipeline not only narrows, it leaks, and potentially meaningful and valuable innovations are lost.

This is not a new problem, (see McKeon review) but a continuing challenge. Improvements in translating and commercialising our biomedical discoveries will not only help people in need of medical interventions, but also our economy through improvements in productivity, job creation, advanced manufacturing and exports.

Some well known philanthropists have identified the difficulty in giving to medical research projects as being associated with limited access to knowledge and an ability to make decisions. They wish to make a discernable difference, beyond a simple research grant, and understand where their donation can make a strategic contribution.

Whilst some charities and foundations stagnate in old virtues of trust giving, there is a real opportunity to engage with sophisticated philanthropists and provide expert advice to help them not only make informed decisions, but to become part of the process and enjoy their giving. This of course requires the charities to have the skill sets to enable this approach.

At NFMRI we are focused on working with others to put rubber on the road and advance innovations to maximize the potential for impact.

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