University of Adelaide scientist, Professor Mark Hutchinson, explains why Australia’s future is dependent on the creation of more ‘bench to boardroom’ scientists.
Despite all its challenges, science is one of the most exciting, awe-inspiring, mind-blowing, world-changing calling anyone could ever choose to pursue. One of the great myths of STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) is that you have to be a genius.
In fact, at school, I was a terrible student. I had a form of reading difficulty that meant I couldn’t follow one line to another. I skipped words. Everything seemed to move on the page.
And that was not very helpful given the career I chose - pharmacology.Dealing with all those crazy long drug names, I still find it hard to get the new ones right the first few times. Despite that rocky early start with literacy, I found my passion and my talent in science.And today I’m an entrepreneur, innovator and neuroscientist who has had a golden global career.
I now lead a team of 200 brilliant scientists who have created 16 startup companies - and counting.So I know, from first-hand experience, that if we can turn more of our great Australian science into startups in the years ahead, it will generate vast returns for our nation.
Last month, the Australian Government announced a $2.2 billion new investment in university research commercialisation. Some $1.6 billion of that total will create a new research commercialisation fund.Its role will be to deliver kickstarter capital to spur more promising Australian science and research across the ‘valley of death’ in commercialisation.It will propel more of our innovations to a point when the private capital markets get interested.
At my own research centre, we had an initial federal government investment of $23 million. We used it to leverage further investment from industry, state governments and philanthropy.
And, over the past seven years, we’ve turned the initial $23 million investment into 16 startups with a combined market capitalisation and market value of $519 million. That’s nearly a 22.5 fold return on the initial investment which we’ve generated for Australia’s economy.
And we’re only just getting started.Extrapolating from my own centre’s investment and returns, even if we said conservatively that only half of the outlay in the new fund - $800 million - delivered a similar rate of return, that would generate an $17.6 billion return on investment.
This is the scale of the returns that Australia can expect to reap from investing more heavily in taking more of our great science from the lab bench to the boardroom.But to get there, we need to ‘scale up’ and ‘skill up’.Despite our small population, Australia is a star performer in global science and research.That is a powerful asset for the nation.
But while we’re great at making breakthroughs, we’re less great at converting them into fully commercialised products and technologies. In part, that’s due to the size of our venture capital markets, and the small share of global companies headquartered here.It also has a bit to do with our economy being so strongly made up of small businesses.
Countless promising Australian breakthroughs have been left to languish in the lab, or our IP has been snapped up abroad by researchers and investors in other countries.And the jobs that come from commercialising research? You guessed it – they go overseas too.
Having a new research commercialisation fund will be a game-changer for Australia.And it can help to turn more great Australian science and technology into new jobs and companies. And create the first generation of bench to boardroom scientists.
- This is an edited version of a speech by Professor Mark Hutchinson presented at the national press club in Canberra last month.
About the Author: Professor Hutchinson is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) and a Professor within the School of Medicine at the University of Adelaide.