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DIYbio in Australia - From Innovation to Commercialization

And the blind shall see once more.

Sounds like a biblical miracle, doesn't it? Or maybe a prophecy from Game of Thrones? In reality, it's just one of the many life-changing innovations coming from Australia's life sciences sector.

This is the year that human trials begin for the bionic eye, a tiny wireless chip implanted in the back of the brain. That chip will use micro-sized electrodes to stimulate the brain into interpreting a live video feed from a small digital camera as a form of eyesight.

Created by the Monash Vision Group, this remarkable biomedical technology is a perfect example of what can be achieved when business, politics and science all work together. If the technology proves successful in human trials, what once seemed like science fiction could soon become real enough to benefit the 500,000 Australians who are considered legally blind.

This is why moving innovations to commercialization matters.

Fostering Innovation and Commercialization in Australia

These kinds of inventions not only change lives, but they can also have a tremendous impact on our economy. The biological sciences contribute $46 billion annually, and "twice that value again … from the health improvements" of these innovations.

It's no surprise then that Australia's political leaders talk big about supporting innovation - but not everyone is impressed with the rhetoric.

Michael Spence, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, says there's too much "stupid talk about innovation."

He's not only one who's skeptical. "If funding science is such an economically valuable activity, why is it so challenging to secure it each budget?" asked Dr. Alan Duffy, a researcher at the Swinburne University of Technology.

Not everyone doubts our political leadership, however. According to the 2016 Biotechnology Industry Position Survey, the leaders of the life sciences sector are feeling more optimistic about government policy. More than that, 41% said conditions are much better for building a biotechnology company, a rise of 16% compared to last year. 70% of these leaders said they also feel better able to hire more staff.

Perhaps there's reason to be cautiously optimistic. Unfortunately, Australia still has a long way to go in catching up to the rest of our OECD counterparts who are far ahead of us in the innovation field.

Australia Lags Behind Its Economic Counterparts

How does Australia fare when compared to other developed nations and advanced economies? Not well.

In 2014, we had reached a 30-year low for funding scientific developments. We were also the last of the OECD countries in announcing a national plan for nurturing science and innovation.

On top of that, we remain the worst amongst all OECD countries in fostering partnerships between business and research in order to commercialize home-grown inventions like the bionic eye. With only 43% of our researchers employed in business, we fall well behind Germany's 56%, South Korea's 79%, and Israel's 84%.

Even now, we're still only providing only a fraction of what other countries do for our science sectors. For example, the U.K. is investing $3 billion over five years to promote partnerships between universities and industry. By contrast, Australia invested only $190 million during that same time.

Even Finland, whose population size is a quarter of Australia's, has surpassed significantly. While we invested $350 million over 14 years, Finland has been investing $200 million annually.

Following the IndieBio Example

To turn things around, perhaps our leaders could consider replicating centers like IndieBio, a fairly promising model for commercializing innovation. Short for independent biology, IndieBio is billed as "the world's first Synthetic Biology accelerator." It works by providing seed funding and three months of mentorship to start-ups dedicated to the life sciences. Then it launches them into the market, not unlike a parent helping a child ride a bike for the first time.

Some of the inventions IndieBio is currently supporting includes artificial kidneys, faster food poisoning tests, software for diagnosing and treating genetic diseases, and a 3D model of human skin that could potentially replace animal testing in the cosmetic industry.

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