Academic researchers, however intelligent they are and amazing their work, often don’t have a very broad view of the world, and how commerce works. Australia has a poor track record of commercialising good science – medical science in particular. Which is disappointing, because we do terrific medical research. Per capita, we’re way over-represented globally.
But not when it comes to commercialisation.
Good research institutes are protecting their intellectual property (IP) but they should be part of an ecosystem that successfully commercialises that IP. When this happens, funds flow back into the institute, and to the scientists themselves, which then funds more research.
There’s a virtuous circle here to be spun. But sadly, it’s not going as well or as fast as it should be in Australia. While there are some examples of successful commercialisations, there aren’t enough of those sorts of stories around Australia.
This is a particular strategic interest that I’m bringing to the table in my new role as Chair of the Doherty Council, the body governing the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. It currently employs around 900 people at our headquarters in Melbourne. I’m so pleased to be given the opportunity to take on this role and to be working with Professor Sharon Lewin, an amazing CEO.
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As an engineer I enjoy building things – whether it’s an idea, or a house, or a company. Building companies with a big-picture strategic view is of great interest to me. And I like to bring this sort of thinking to the board level of not-for-profit organisations as well as commercial enterprises.
I have an interest in all things technical, which includes science. I did mechanical engineering at Swinburne, a Masters in engineering at Monash, then my Masters in Business at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US.
After working as an engineer I moved towards medical science: my family had a long association with the Florey Neuroscience Institute – in fact my father helped found it, and I joined the board there nearly 30 years ago, when my father passed away, and I was there for 17 years, including six years as president.
With Fred Mendelsohn, who was the director then, we turned it from a general medical science research institute to a very neuroscience-focused institute. We merged it with three other smaller neuroscience institutes and built two big research facilities, one at Melbourne University and one at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne’s north-east, and turned it into Australia’s biggest neuroscience research institute.
I also have a commercial interest in science, in Alzheimer’s disease in particular. I chair a company called Cogstate, that provides cognitive testing tools mainly to Big Pharma for their drug development trials for neurological disease. It’s been very interesting to watch over two decades the development of the science to help manage and ultimately cure Alzheimer’s, though obviously it has still got a long way to go.
The Doherty Institute was founded nine years ago, and since then it has achieved fantastic research results. Its foundation was enlightened thinking, which I like. There were all these small centres and university departments active in infectious disease, and Professor Jim McCluskey and others had the idea to bring them all together. But its governance is complex because of the joint-venture structure of the organisation. So while infectious disease is not my long-term interest – that would be Alzheimer’s and neuroscience – I’m very interested in the opportunity that the Doherty Institute represents and the potential it can achieve.
My first big thing? Canadian businessman and philanthropist Geoff Cumming has made a commitment of $250 million over 20 years to the Doherty Institute for the establishment of a centre of therapeutic research into infectious disease. This is big-picture thinking. There has been something like 20 times the amount of investment spent on the development of COVID vaccines compared to therapeutic treatments. You might say that it’s always better to prevent disease before you have to treat it, and of course it is. But sometimes infectious disease has no preventative vaccine opportunity. The classic case is HIV, yet modern therapeutics allow people living with HIV to have healthy lives.
Who is to say that the next COVID variant isn’t more virulent and even nastier than the latest ones? The mRNA technology gives the capacity to develop vaccines within a few months instead of years . . . If we can do similar platform-type things in therapeutics, then that’s really big-ticket stuff. The Doherty Institute could make a huge global impact.
The next big challenge might not even be COVID. It could be a virulent form of flu, and flu is one of the strengths of the Institute – we’re one of four WHO (World Health Organisation) Collaborating Centres for Reference and Research on Influenza. There’s also big expertise in HIV, and malaria is another one. It’s a big institute that could get quite a lot bigger, and it’s an important time for it to do so.
But for the Cumming Centre to receive all of Geoff’s generous commitment of $250 million, we have to raise an additional one and a quarter billion over 10 years. That’s a big number, and though it sounds impossible, I was deputy chair of a University of Melbourne campaign which raised over $1.3 billion over 13 years. So it’s certainly achievable and I’m not afraid of jumping in and helping.
We will be seeking big commitments from big international funding organisations. Who knows? It might come from the Wellcome Trust or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – there’s a bunch of these possible donors. A lot of exciting things could happen.
As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.
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