Science spawns new industries from seaweed, p3 Ellume’s $302m COVID-19 test scale-up, p5 Carbon fibre chemistry the force behind new economic precinct, p6
Issue 5, May 2021
INNOVATION FUTUR ES Growing small businesses with science
Developing new industries Training the future workforce | Leading in innovation
Connecting knowledge to market Bridging the gap between science and SMEs provides huge benefits to society. Australian university science has always been at the forefront of radical innovation and groundbreaking discoveries. Some great Australian examples include IVF, medical breakthroughs in transplant surgery, space-to-Earth interfaces that carry video and telemetry signals for the lunar landing, vaccine development and success stories like Cochlear and Resmed. When university science is connected with Australian smallto-medium enterprises (SMEs), it results in revolutionary new products and processes, and even entirely new industries. According to Cadence Economics for Universities Australia, more than $10.6 billion a year of all business income in Australia flows from collaborations with universities. A report of Australia’s Top 50 CEOs highlights the transferability of STEM skills in the corporate world, finding that 12 of Australia’s top 50 ASX-listed CEOs studied science at university. This makes science “the most popular pathway to becoming a top CEO in Australia”. No other local asset can consistently provide such highly skilled talent with the capacity to innovate and build industries from the ground up. And there are so many reasons to prioritise this. Research and innovation drives productivity and economic growth, and creates new and more sustainable jobs. It addresses societal issues that affect us all, like food production, climate change, and health management. And while university science is the breeding ground for these innovations, it is only when research can be translated into viable products or processes, and commercialised into sustainable and profitable businesses, that society benefits. At Cicada Innovations, Australia’s deep tech incubator, we exist to make this happen. Established in 2000, Cicada Innovations is owned by four university shareholders: the Australian National University, UNSW, University of Sydney and UTS. It exists to support science and engineering based businesses solving the world’s most pressing problems. Our purpose-built facilities and
mentorship programs help deeply science-based companies like SpeeDx (see Australian University Science no. 3, p5) deploy their research to develop and scale marketable products in a sustainable and profitable fashion. Our networks and expertise help SMEs that, conversely, lack the skills or expertise to harness science-based research. We provide early access to nascent research or technologies that can help these businesses to evolve and adapt to a rapidly-changing landscape, while future-proofing their success and longevity. For science graduates, we facilitate networking opportunities between university and industry. Because just as science skills require years of specialised training, so does commercialising technology or research. It’s time we fully harness the power of connecting Australian university science with industry, before we lose our best and brightest to STEM powerhouses in other parts of the world. One only has to look at our homegrown graduates and Cicada Innovations incubatees, who are spearheading transformative businesses that make a tangible difference here and around the world, to see the immense potential. When we empower graduates and enable SMEs, we create an ecosystem that works to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Sally-Ann Williams, CEO of Cicada Innovations
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Exploring the achievements of university science in the development of new industries. Australia’s strong science research and training is integral to driving new economies. Universities have a critical role as partners in establishing innovation and technological change in industry. As science delivers new insights and tools, new industries are emerging, and people with science skills will be
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essential to these new industries. Australian University Science magazine highlights these stories, showcasing exceptional science teams and Australian science graduates working in industry. To provide feedback or suggestions, subscribe or order additional copies, visit acds.edu.au/AustUniScience.
Cover Image: Lou O’Brien. Published 26 April 2021 by Refraction Media on behalf of the Australian Council of Deans of Science. Designed by Jon Wolfgang Miller. Printed in Australia by IVE. ISSN: 2652-2403. © 2021 Australian Council of Deans of Science, all rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner or form without written permission. If you would like to reproduce anything from this issue, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE FACILITATORS University science helps businesses bridge commercialisation’s ‘valley of death’ by taking opportunities through to end products. When Professor Nick Paul started his research career in the early 2000s, there was barely any commercial production of seaweed in Australia. In September 2020, an industry blueprint valued the seaweed economy at $1.5 billion by 2040, employing up to 9000 people and helping to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent. “Australian discovery patents are spawning huge amounts of R&D and industry investment across the globe — literally, companies are popping up left, right and centre,” says Paul. “Australia’s emerging seaweed industry couldn’t exist without university science.” Paul is leader of applied research and development of algae for new products at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC). He collaborates with restaurant and agriculture industries on marine plant science that offers business value.
SCIENCE FROM THE OCEAN
In the early days, Paul’s work at James Cook University (JCU) helped establish a joint seaweed program with aquaculture and wastewater company Pacific Bio. Pacific Bio Group Commercial Manager Gregg Supple says it wouldn’t
have made sense to pursue the kind of science they needed without a university partner. “There would have been increased costs and potential duplication of resources if we attempted to pursue advancements alone,” Supple says. “Also, results published with universities hold enormous credibility compared to doing internal research.” Working with JCU enabled Pacific Bio to commercialise a seaweed-based liquid biostimulant that extracts nutrients from water and returns them to plants and soils. “We continue our partnership with JCU for our current commercial operations, as well as developing concepts around new innovations that would benefit our current and future aspirations,” says Supple. Heading up the Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development (CMBD) at Flinders University, Professor Wei Zhang also works closely with industry to ensure his marine plant science is aligned with business opportunity. Professor Zhang says 70–80 per cent of the research conducted at CMBD is industry funded or co-funded. One area of focus is marine-derived biomaterials such as biodegradable plastics.
Left: Australia’s emerging seaweed industry couldn’t exist without university science. Right: USQ science uses seaweed extracts to return nutrients to plants and soil.
“With our partners, we’ve developed prototypes of polymers derived from seaweeds, and are refining technologies to make them more cost effective,” he says. Partners in this work include Australian Kelp Products and packaging company ennio International.
ACCESS TO FUNDING AND PEOPLE
These industry–university connections in science drive forward commercialisation of innovative products, but are also important throughout the innovation cycle — from concept and R&D to commercial outcome. Nick Paul says businesses working with universities can also leverage access to funding programs and government initiatives that wouldn’t otherwise be available. “These include those offered by the Australian Research Council, Rural Research and Development Corporations, and the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program, as well as AusIndustry, Innovation Connections
“RESULTS PUBLISHED WITH UNIVERSITIES HOLD ENORMOUS CREDIBILITY COMPARED TO DOING INTERNAL RESEARCH.” MAY 2021
and the R&D Tax Incentive,” he says. “University researchers offer value through contributing to due diligence on business claims, sitting on technical advisory boards and bringing prestige that aids with capital raising.” Dr Leanna Read has guided the emergence of two businesses from a CRC partnership between university science and industry: Carina Biotech — a company that develops targeted immune cells to treat solid cancers — and TekCyte, which specialises in ultrathin coatings to improve the performance of implanted medical devices such as stents. “Neither TekCyte nor Carina would have existed or continued to grow without multi-faceted interaction with universities,” Read says. “This includes university researchers doing critical experiments required to generate evidence and provide strong patent protection, plus commercial targeting, improving product functionality and quality assurance.” Read says many university researchers are very comfortable working to industry requirements when they can see how their work is important for product development. “Biotechnology requires a huge depth and breadth of expertise that could not possibly be sourced entirely in-house,” Read says. “It’s highly desirable for companies such as TekCyte and Carina to utilise university research extensively as part of their core ongoing strategy.” Support from university administration is also important, Read adds. Carina and TekCyte are both headquartered in university premises — the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia, respectively. “In addition to supporting the involvement of their academic staff in the company research, the universities have provided TekCyte and Carina with access to facilities and equipment and cooperated well in concluding commercial agreements,” Read says. While commercial opportunities are important, universities also strengthen Australia’s sovereign capability in times of crisis. “Commonwealth Serum Laboratories 4
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Dr Leanna Read (right) emphasises the importance of ongoing research and development between industry and universities. Main image: Research underway at uni science spin-off TekCyte.
(CSL) is a good example of an Australian company that has done extremely well through working with universities,” Read says. Now one of the biggest manufacturing companies for plasma products in the world, CSL is the main manufacturing hub for the COVID-19 vaccine for Australia.
PROOF OF CONCEPT
Dr Dean Moss is the CEO of UniQuest, the commercialisation company that manages the intellectual property of The University of Queensland (UQ). “An important part of what we do at UQ is provide funds for proof-of-concept work — those key steps that convince industry and external investors the next phase is worth supporting,” says Moss. Proof-of-concept can include demonstrating effectiveness of a molecule in humans, proving that a laboratory process can be scaled, or building a prototype. “It’s a vital step in overcoming the ‘valley of death’ between an idea and commercialisation,” he says. “With clear proof of concept, the market then pulls technologies forward.” Moss witnessed the transition of UQ’s cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil®, from initial patent application in 1991 to a product with more than $40 billion in gross sales since 2007. The vaccine has decreased the prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV) — the major cause of cervical cancer — by 90 per cent in more than 130 countries.
“At UniQuest, we’ve raised $800 million for more than 100 startup companies to take their technologies to market, and our commercialisation returns to the university have been about $700 million,” he says.
More than $10.6 billion of all business income per year in Australia flows from collaborations with universities. And there’s room for more. Peak body Science and Technology Australia has proposed a new $2.4 billion research translation and commercialisation fund to kick-start Australia’s recovery from the economic impact of COVID-19. Included in that proposal is a vehicle to get more ‘almost there’ stage research turned into products and services that create new jobs. “The pandemic has put into stark relief the fact that science investments made during previous decades have come into their own in this moment of national need,” says Misha Schubert, CEO of Science and Technology Australia. “A Science Future Fund or Research Translation and Commercialisation Fund would help turbocharge Australia’s economic recovery and maximise our bang-for-buck return from university research.” — Sarah Keenihan
RAPID TESTING FOR COVID-19
Dr Afsaneh Khansari is a synthetic chemist working at the forefront of molecular engineering, developing new seaweed-based biomaterials. “Our research could have a big impact on many different types of surgical procedures, ranging from cartilage repair to prosthesis and even wound healing,” says Khansari. She is part of a collaboration between the University of Wollongong’s TRICEP (Translational Research Initiative for Cell Engineering and Printing) centre and Australian seaweed producer Venus Shell. She’s currently working on seaweed bio-inks, which can be used with a form of 3D printing to mimic the molecular composition and structure of human skin. “Seaweed is a rich source of natural substances and biologically active polysaccharides, making it an ideal candidate for medical implants and tissue engineering,” explains Khansari, adding that certain substances extracted from seaweed have mechanical and biological properties compatible with a range of human tissue. It’s cutting-edge science such as this project that drew Dr Khansari from her native Iran eight years ago, when she enrolled in a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Wollongong. “The university is a great platform for this type of work as it supports the knowledge transfer from research to clinic,” she says. “The combination of world-class facilities and a focus on translation allows for great things to happen.” – Brendan Fitzpatrick
DR AFSANEH KHANSARI BSc, University of Kashan
MSc, University of Guilan
Ellume’s Cinderella story of business success had its beginnings in university science. In February 2021, Queensland-based digital diagnostics company Ellume signed a $302 million contract with the US Government to produce millions of COVID-19 rapid home test kits. Ellume was founded by Dr Sean Parsons, a science and medical graduate from the University of Queensland (UQ). He says his ability to imagine and develop a nanoparticle-based testing system came partly from the skills developed in his dual major degree in physiology and biomedical science. “My science degree was crucial in giving me the building blocks to be able to look at the issue I had identified and forge ahead to create a solution,” says Parsons. During his time as a hospital clinician during Australia’s 2009–2010 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, as he treated worried patients queuing for tests in packed waiting rooms and potentially spreading the virus, Parsons saw the need for fast, simple and accurate diagnostic tools. He began a side project to develop a self-diagnosis test so people could isolate themselves while testing, with results forwarded to doctors or hospitals for treatment. Within three years, his hobby project had become a promising biomedical startup. Ellume now employs around 350 Australians across its three Brisbane offices and production facility, with immediate plans to expand into the US and Europe. In 2019, Ellume partnered with pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline to create a smartphone-linked home flu test. At this time, its rapid tuberculosis test was already underway, and the company was in a prime position to develop and produce rapid testing for COVID-19 when the global pandemic hit. By January 2021, single-use test kits were in production. Users take their own nasal swab, insert it into a small tube containing a solution, which is inserted into a Bluetooth-linked test stick which can detect viral particles within 15 minutes and send the data to the user’s smartphone. Results can then be transmitted through a secure cloud connection.
DR SEAN PARSONS PhD, University of Wollongong
Bachelor of Science (Hons), UQ
Bachelor of Medicine, UQ
Emergency and Intensive Care Clinician, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, and Caboolture Hospital
REGIONAL SCIENCE INNOVATION DRIVES NEW CARBON ERA The Geelong Future Economy Precinct is creating jobs through innovative business startups based on novel materials developed at Deakin University’s science faculty. Advances in materials science are behind the growth of small businesses located in and around the Geelong Future Economy Precinct, encompassing Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus in Victoria. Home to advanced manufacturing organisations ISSRI, Carbon Nexus, Carbon Revolution and ManuFutures, the businesses in this precinct have created 2000 ‘knowledge’ jobs. The $11.5 million site, co-funded by the Victorian Government and Federal Government, will host a further 1000 knowledge economy jobs when completed in 2022. Much of the precinct’s focus is on manufacturing carbon fibre, a super strong material found in everything from aeroplanes to racing cars and high-end tennis racquets. This manufactured metal substitute is highly prized for being lightweight as well as its strength, rigidity and durability. Deakin University’s Professor Russell Varley’s core expertise is in polymer science, and he says university chemistry is fundamental to advanced manufacturing. “Everything we do here Dr Ben Spincer, executive director of Deakin Research Innovations.
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to create low-cost carbon fibre for next generation applications — whether it’s automotive, wind or aerospace — the solutions to all the challenges will be solved by further understanding the chemistry and how it relates to the structures of carbon fibre,” he says.
Co-locating in the precinct gives the university “seamless access to business for the translation of research”, says Dr Ben Spincer, executive director of Deakin Research Innovations. He says the arrangement also benefits businesses, which get greater access to students and to researchers. Basic science research remains an important part of innovation. “There is still that critical role research plays in looking at things at a more fundamental level,” says Spincer. “Blue sky, aspirational research is still really important, but equally important and relevant is the ability to translate that experience and know-how into impactful world-ready opportunities.” These opportunities include slicing the cost of carbon fibre and improving its stability.
DRIVING BUSINESS, REDUCING COSTS
Technology developed by Deakin University researchers with Carbon Nexus — a purpose-built facility to research the manufacturing of carbon fibre — has reduced the energy used in production by 75 per cent, reduced production process times by a factor of five, and uses machinery costing less than half that of previous equipment. Reducing costs will extend the market
The Geelong Future Economy Precinct (above) utilises Deakin University’s science expertise to develop advanced manufacturing carbon fibre products. Right: Deakin’s Jon Partington founded Partington Advanced Engineering. Inset: Mandy de Souza. Far right: Salumeh Issazadeh.
for this unique material. Deakin scientists also consider end-of-life disposal for carbon fibre materials as part of the development cycle. “Recyclability and sustainability only comes from understanding the chemistry and developing new polymer systems that can truly be recycled and reused,” says Varley. “Our goal is to develop new polymers that last longer so they are more resource efficient, and can be recycled and reused again and again.” Carbon Nexus is driving much of the business growth. “Our mission at Carbon Nexus is to develop low-cost carbon fibre, and create a carbon fibre and composites industry for Australia,” says Varley, who is also on the Carbon Nexus Management Committee. “Around that has sprung a network of composite companies.” Adjacent carbon fibre success stories include Carbon Revolution (producing high-performance wheels for the automotive industry) and Quickstep (manufacturer of composite aerospace components). Deakin University researchers help both organisations to
resolve challenges, which range from improving paint resin quality to lowering production costs.
IMPROVING THERMAL STABILITY
Salumeh Issazadeh, a materials science PhD at Deakin University, is using her organic chemistry expertise to synthesise and design new materials that are inherently fire-retardant in their applications. Her work addresses a common challenge in many advanced materials: the resins and polymers used in their construction are not thermally stable and, when heated, can emit potentially toxic smoke. Issazadeh has used different additives and new chemical formulations to create flame-retardant resins. She says Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials hosts dozens of researchers in chemistry and materials science, with the university environment facilitating collaboration and knowledge sharing. “Chemistry covers a very broad area; we have resin development, synthesis of carbon fibres, improving textile structures
and water membranes – and we can all help each other,” says Issazadeh, adding that she has been able to advise colleagues in textile materials about improving thermal stability. Dr Mandy de Souza (above) is a Senior Research Fellow at Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials, and has worked on these challenges for more than a decade. “My work looks at developing carbon fibre composites for automotive body panels, which — once painted — last for the life of the vehicle,” she says. She is continuing to work on the challenges of how composites age, and the complex interactions with surface finishes. Varley says the success of the Institute for Frontier Materials is due to its range of disciplines and specialist expertise. “The Institute sits at the interface between chemistry, materials chemistry, polymer science, fibre science and engineering, and applying these different specialties is what delivers materials with next-generation performance,” he says. — Fran Molloy
SUSTAINABLE CARBON FUTURES Synthetic materials are frequently used in the making of carbon fibre, however it can be made using anything from cellulose, including cotton, bamboo and wood fibres. Joint Deakin University and CSIRO chemistry PhD student Huma Khan says the composition of the ‘precursor fibre’ used to create carbon fibre materials is a closely guarded secret and, until now, Australia has imported these raw materials. Khan’s PhD research includes formulating the first Australian co-extruded wet spun precursor fibre, using Australian sugarcane waste provided by QUT. This is then converted into carbon fibre through a complex series of chemical processes. She is also using this approach to create hollow carbon fibres using similar lower-cost raw materials. “These structures could potentially be filled with substances such as an electrolyte for inbuilt electrical storage so the body of a vehicle could be used to store energy, working as a structural battery without adding extra burden to the car engine,” says Khan.
HOW SMALL BUSINESS BENEFITS FROM UNIVERSITY SCIENCE FEATHERWEIGHT PRINTED SOLAR CELLS COULD POWER WALLS, ROOFS AND WINDOWS The new field of organic electronics emerged in the 1970s with the Nobel Prize winning discovery of polymer materials that could conduct electricity. Fast-forward three decades and Professor Paul Dastoor established the Centre for Organic Electronics at the University of Newcastle in 2007. It is here where he has developed thin films, surface coatings and cheap, lightweight printable solar cells within recyclable plastic sheets. Recently, just five workers installed a 200 square-metre solar fixture on a Newcastle factory roof using these sheets, in just one day. “Our vision is a world in which every building in every city in every country has printed solar cells generating low-cost sustainable energy for everyone,” says Dastoor. “This latest installation has brought the goal of solar roofs, walls and windows a step closer.”
ENVIRONMENTAL DNA IN SEAWATER PROTECTS ENDANGERED SPECIES
MEAT SUBSTITUTE TEAMS WITH FOOD SCIENCE IN ALT-PROTEIN STARTUP Microbiologist and food scientist Professor Martin Cole — who heads the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine — has teamed up with plant-based meat substitute startup v2food as its chief scientific advisor. Cole’s research includes using yeast to predict food shelf-life, and grain and legume breeding. “As a nation, we are globally competitive on grain and meat exports, however we could be delivering far greater value out of the raw commodities we produce,” he says. The company’s founder, Nick Hazell, says innovative research has helped v2food create an affordable alternative to meat, and flavour chemistry and agricultural science is important to its success. 8
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Environmental impact statements which influence decisions about where to locate large infrastructure projects are usually conducted by small specialist agencies. Their reporting requirements can be onerous, particularly when it comes to biological surveys to locate endangered animals and understand ecosystem interactions. Curtin University’s Trace and Environmental DNA (TrEnD) Laboratory in the School of Molecular and Life Sciences has developed a test that can locate rare marine and aquatic species by testing water for fragments of mitochondrial DNA. “Detection of rare or cryptic species in their environment can be challenging at the best of times and our results show eDNA [environmental DNA] can offer conservation agencies an additional monitoring tool to augment existing approaches,” says Curtin University Research Fellow Dr Nicole White.
AT-HOME SALIVA SOLUTION LICKS INVASIVE DIABETES TESTS
Associate Professor Guozhen Liu completed her chemistry PhD at the University of NSW, and she has
Professor Paul Dastoor from the Centre for Organic Electronics at the University of Newcastle.
developed smart biosensing platforms that can detect tiny traces of certain materials in the body — such as insulin, glucose, cytokines, microRNA and nucleic acid — to aid diagnosis of various conditions. In 2018, she teamed up with entrepreneur Kaiji Wang to launch Bio-Sens Tech, a startup that produces a low-cost smart paper test strip which allows at-home diabetes diagnosis and insulin monitoring using saliva and a smartphone app. This non-invasive, accurate detection of insulin levels is very low cost for consumers.
NANOTUBE SLICE DEVICE PROCESSES ADVANCED MATERIALS
New Australian company 2D Fluidics, based in Nedlands, Western Australia, sells a device to let industrial chemists ‘slice’ carbon nanotubes so research teams can work with single cells and small molecules to process advanced materials. The device is based on technology from Flinders University chemistry Professor Colin Raston, who invented the Vortex Fluidic Device which can rapidly create a range of chemicals in water and other non-toxic liquids, reducing the cost and environmental harm in a range of chemical processes.