Being in it to win it

So APESMA recently ran a competition for their young scientists interested in attending Science and Technology‘s Annual Science Meets Parliament for 2012. As a member, I thought I would enter to see if I stood a chance of winning, as they were going to provide 2 winners a fully-paid trip to Canberra to attend the event on September 17 and 18. As the date APESMA had set for notifying winners has passed and I hadn’t heard from them, I can safely assume I didn’t win, so I thought I’d share my response to the competition question with my followers. A thousand words isn’t a lot to express all my thoughts, so please tweet me your thoughts and opinions!! (@ayftan)

*UPDATE 13-08-2012* I have just heard that I’m one of two competition winners, I’m going to Canberra!!

To enter, write an essay of up to 1,000 words that expresses your view on the following question:

What scientific discovery or technology is currently under-utilised? How could it be better used to benefit the Australian public?

There are numerous scientific discoveries and technologies that are currently under-utilised. With an aging Australian population, increased pressures on the healthcare system are inevitable; leveraging the latest scientific discoveries and novel technologies that allow Australians to have better access to healthcare in a more efficient and cost-effective manner is paramount.

A frontier in healthcare is in point-of-care (PoC) diagnostics. The ability for clinicians to test for diseases in the consultation office or in the home will revolutionise the way in which patients’ conditions are managed. An example of an emerging PoC diagnostic technology is the Osmolarity Test Card system developed by TearLab. TearLab have developed a test that uses just 50 nanolitres of fluid from the eye to diagnose dry eye conditions, and can provide indicators of other ophthalmic diseases. This technology allows a clinician to quickly diagnose if a patient requires on-going management of their dry eye symptoms, or whether other interventions are necessary.

TearLab is not currently re-imbursed by the Australian Government through the Medicare Benefits Scheme (MBS)[1]. This means patients are required to cover the full extent of the cost associated with this test. However, if Australians have better access to this test with a reimbursement through the MBS, more severe cases of eye disease could be detected earlier, before they become costlier to treat in future. TearLab has a $23.40USD re-imbursement (per test) in the United States [2,3]The economic benefits of early detection and treatment of eye disease would be significant; a similar per-patient re-imbursement in Australia has the potential to save thousands of dollars in future ophthalmic interventions. TearLab is just one of many technologies that have the potential to ease the ever-increasing financial burdens on the Australian healthcare system.

Though TearLab is a US-based medical devices company, a good proportion of the product development was done by MiniFAB, an Australian company that develops nano-/micro-technologies for medical device companies worldwide. TearLab is a fantastic example of an Australian company’s ability to perform high-end medical device research and development in a niche area. I firmly believe that Australia has the capability to boost medical device research and development geared towards commercialisation, provided that the Australian Government supports the environment in which medical device companies can grow. Government programs and research funding (i.e., Commercialisation Australia, NH&MRC) can partially contribute to supporting innovation, but the private sector plays a very important role in bringing early-stage discoveries and technology to market.

Venture capital (VC) is the “life-blood” for start-up/early-stage companies developing new technologies and growing scientific discoveries into commercially-viable products & services. Almost half of the total VC investments in Australia are in the life sciences sector [4], indicating that investors recognise the potential of Australian inventions and innovations to provide excellent returns. However, a review of the Australian Innovation System by the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) highlighted poor access to venture/start-up capital in Australia, relative to the top 5 OECD nations [5].  Venture capital investments in the life sciences sector dropped from $929mil in 2007 to $133mil in 2008 with the advent of the global financial crisis [6]. The effects of this drop in VC and private equity funding are still being felt today, as these sources of funding are highly sensitive to market conditions and investor sentiment [7].  The poor access to venture capital/private equity has meant that many sectors, especially biotechnology, have had their innovation pipelines negatively impacted.

Early-stage technologies and discoveries that can improve the quality of life of Australians are fragile, and sensitive to market fluctuations. I contend that they require supplementary funding from more stable sources of capital. Australia’s own savings in the form of superannuation is part of the answer. During Q1 2012, Australian managed funds have $1.9trillion under management [8]. If Australian innovators could access a small proportion of these funds, I believe we have an opportunity to build a stable innovation pipeline for home-grown discoveries and technologies that would be unrivalled globally. Other sources of capital from insurance companies could also form part of the solution.

Although the original question around under-utilised technologies is important as Australia’s needs evolve, the broader questions around providing a stable pipeline to bring these discoveries and technologies to Australians in a commercially-viable sense needs to be discussed. Technologies that demonstrate good technical and commercial viability will emerge from a stable innovation pipeline; utilisation will follow accordingly as their benefits are realised.

I would like to open a dialogue on this topic at Science and Technology’s annual Science Meets Parliament event for 2012.  Science & Technology have commenced discussions with the Hon. Bill Shorten on the issue of access to superannuation funding [9]; I hope to engage a wide range of our elected representatives to inform policy decisions on innovation and technology.

Australia is ranked 23rd globally in innovation, yet ranked 103rd on innovation efficiency [10]. It’s time we urge our leaders to provide the policy framework to stabilise Australia’s innovation pipeline, so that all Australians have access to life-improving technologies and leave no technology under-utilised.

[1] Australian Department of Health and Aging – Medicare Benefits Scheme Online – Optical Benefits Schedule (Update for July 2012) –$File/201207-Optom.pdf – Last accessed 21/7/2012.

[2] United States Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services – Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule (revised January 2012), Code No. 83861 – – Last accessed 21/7/2012

[3] TearLab (website) – Last accessed 21/7/2012.

[4] The Australian Private Equity & Venture Capital Association (AVCAL) Yearbook 2011 – Table 5: Distribution of investments in FY2011 (by sector).

[5] Australian  Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research – Australian Innovation System Report 2011 – Chart 1.3.

[6] Research Australia – Occasional Paper Series – July 2011.  Shaping Up: Trends and Statistics in Funding Health and Medical Research – Figure 45.

[7] The Allen Consulting Group – Victorian Biotechnology Industry Skills Review – July 2010 – Appendix C: The economic drivers of biotechnology.

[8] Australian Bureau of Statistics – Cat No. 5655.0 – Managed Funds, Australia, March 2012. Issued 31/5/2012.

[9] Science and Technology Australia – Science Meets Superannuation Program – Last accessed 22/7/2012.

[10] INSEAD & WIPO – The Global Innovation Index 2012.


One thought on “Being in it to win it

  1. Pingback: Day 37. Science Meets Parliament « Science for Life. 365

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