Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has recently stated that his vision is to rejuvenate innovation and place it at the centre of driving Australia’s economy forward.

How should we do this?

I have recently returned to Australia after a three-month sabbatical – mainly in the Boston area of the US as a visiting professor at Harvard University – and have seen what’s happening in what is considered the “hot spot” on the planet in biotechnology innovation: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

First, a personal aside. I am interested in innovation and this previously took me to Oxford University as a lecturer, where I helped develop a vaccine delivery system which fired micro-particulate vaccines into the skin at 1500 miles per hour. The same curiosity that led me into immunology; and to invent the Nanopatch, and guide it towards market. In doing this, I returned to Australia, built an interdisciplinary university research group, and founded and help build Vaxxas. We partnered with Merck (one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers) and the World Health Organisation and aim to soon conduct clinical trials on Nanopatches for improved polio vaccines.

The Nanopatch has led to more than 50 highly sought-after jobs in Brisbane, bringing into Australia several millions of dollars of funding from highly sophisticated investors and partners on the global stage.

CAMBRIDGE CLASS

With this in mind, I felt that we have been doing well in Australia, but I sensed there was more for me to learn about innovation. And Cambridge did not disappoint me.

In one suburb there are arguably the top two universities in the world – Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – together with all manner of start-ups which work alongside large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and just about everything in between. But what I found most interesting was the people.

There is Bob Langer, an MIT professor, who is perhaps the father of modern biomedical engineering. The most cited engineer in history, Bob is an inventor on more than 1000 patents, has spun out about 30 different companies and more than 250 companies have licensed his patents.

Two miles down the road at Harvard there is George Whitesides. Now in his mid-70s, George is the most cited chemist in history, leading a powerhouse research group whose objective is “to fundamentally change the paradigms of science”. George is another outstanding academic-innovator-entrepreneur. He co-founded over 12 companies with a combined market capitalisation of over $20 billion. Right now he’s involved in five companies.

FOUR KEY LEARNINGS

So what did I find that might be of value in Australia as we seek to get better at innovating? I discovered four key learnings.

Top unis achieving

First, the centrepiece of innovation is top-level universities doing things really well. Bob Langer talked about “hardwiring super professors” into the top universities – people who are not only great at science, but also dynamic and capable innovators. To achieve this, he suggested universities really throw support (financial and other resources) behind a cluster of these individuals, to nucleate the process of taking Australian innovation to another level. He argues that this investment will generate a ripple through Australia’s economy and culture that will repay itself many times over in the long term. It’s a compelling argument.

Technology transfer

Second, the class of innovation from within the universities needs to be matched by the capability and approaches of their technology transfer offices. Leaders in both MIT and Harvard’s offices said the purpose of these offices is not to make money. Instead, it is about generating long-term, sustained impact, and supporting the academic innovators. By doing this effectively, the income will come. With both MIT and Harvard having spun out more than a thousand companies, and licensed thousands of technologies and generating sustained combined resultant income of tens of billions of dollars, who are we to argue? It works. Some adjustment is needed with our technology transfer offices in Australia to align with this.

Building companies up

Third, we need more good management in taking start-ups and other technology enterprises forward within Australia. In Cambridge they have “critical mass”, where top quality managers and industry leaders can feel safe enough to take risks (eg going into a new start-up), knowing that they can move on to the next thing perhaps without even leaving the same city. In Australia we often need to draw managers and other talent from abroad to complement the home-grown team. This means that if the company does not work out for them, then they will likely need to return to the US or Europe to find their next role. This double hit is challenging for all involved, including their families. How can we address this? By continued and increased investment in early-stage companies which result in a greater number of “wins”, bringing us closer to critical mass.

Attracting biotech giants

Fourth, we need to attract more big biotechnology companies in Australia. Cambridge does this exceptionally well, with innovation centres for Novartis, GSK, Merck and Pfizer all near each other. They are there because they want to tap into the innovation buzz and talent at Cambridge. We should use incentive programs to similar innovation centres and manufacturing firms to Australia.

I have returned here with the feeling that there is work to do, but I am encouraged by the intent of the Turnbull government. We can take key learnings from others in innovation (and there are many examples beyond those I have discussed here) and adapt them to Australia’s cultural, geographical and economic context.

Part of the challenge has been in our minds. Perhaps as a country we have not backed our own ability enough and have deferred to people overseas to validate our approach before we have even got started. Of course we should learn from others, but we should also develop our own way to innovate.

This article is published in collaboration with AFR Weekend. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Mark Kendall is a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Queensland, and chairman of the UQ Innovation Champions. He is also CEO of Vaxxas, and a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer 2015. 

Image: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a media conference. REUTERS/David Gray.