University of Melbourne Magazine

Special report: Innovation

  • Innovation


    Everyone talks about it, but what does innovation really mean? And how do you create a culture in which innovators flourish? The University of Melbourne believes it has some answers. By Tanya Ha (BSc 1994, MEnv 2013).

    Science Gallery Melbourne

    An artist’s impression of the Science Gallery Melbourne

    It is 200 years since the English surgeon James Parkinson wrote his influential An Essay on the Shaking Palsy, the first systematic description of the progressive degenerative disease of the nervous system we now know by his name, Parkinson’s disease.

    Even now, it’s a disorder that has no cure. Researchers are still striving to unlock its causes.

    But previously house-bound sufferers of the disease are gaining some relief thanks to a wristwatch carrying smart science, an innovation that emerged from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, part of the famed Parkville medical research precinct.

    Innovation has seldom been a hotter topic. It’s a buzzword in newspaper headlines, political manifestos and hype-filled marketing pitches. It’s being applied to every advance, big or small, from self-driving cars to new ­flavours of ice-cream.

    Amid all this frenzied talk of transformation and disruption, the University of Melbourne is reinvigorating the role of a university in innovation, making the changes, building the infrastructure and doing the hard yards needed to turn the talk into action. It starts with an understanding of what innovation is and how it works.

    “Innovation is a much-misused word,” says Doron Ben-Meir, the University’s Vice-Principal for Enterprise. “Invention is not innovation. An idea by itself is useless. Worthless. Innovation is invention plus adoption.” ­

    The CEO of BioMelbourne Network, Dr Krystal Evans (PhD 2005), describes innovation as a process creating a product or service that provides a solution to a significant problem, with vastly improved outcomes.

    “­There’s several pieces to that: it’s got to be a finished product or service, and there’s got to be a significant improvement; it’s not a ‘me, too’ product. When you tease that out, you find there are a lot of players in an ‘innovation ecosystem’.” ­

    “Invention is not innovation. An idea by itself is useless. Worthless. Innovation is invention plus adoption.”

    That medical wristwatch is Evans’ textbook example of what innovation looks like. ­ The problem facing the doctors treating those with Parkinson’s disease is relying on a patient’s recollection of their tremors to determine their medication dosage.

    Florey researcher Professor Malcolm Horne had developed an algorithm that measures the movements of Parkinson’s patients.

    Global Kinetics Corporation was established to commercialise his invention and take it from “bench to business to bedside”. ­

    The finished product, called the PKG (Parkinson’s KinetiGraph) watch, looks more like a conventional watch than a medical device. It’s a vehicle for Horne’s algorithm to collect accurate information about a patient’s movements. Doctors can download this data, then analyse and use it to identify the optimum dose of medication. ­

    PKG watch

    The PKG watch has helped thousands of Parkinson’s sufferers monitor their movements.

    The device also alerts patients when it’s time to take their medication. Today, thousands of people in 17 countries benefit from this innovation.

    “People who were completely house-bound are now able to go out and play tennis because they’ve got the dosage of their meds right,” says Evans. “­That’s a significantly improved outcome.”

    Anthony Goldbloom (BCom(Hons) 2006) created the competitive data science platform Kaggle, which was recently sold to the technology giant Google in a multi-million dollar deal, to solve a different problem. ­ There were organisations with large data sets but without access to top data scientists. ­There were data scientists itching to play with more real-world data.

    Kaggle hosts competitions, with clients providing the data and a predictive problem to solve; the data scientists compete to develop the best predictive model.

    Kaggle helped NASA crowd-source better ways to map invisible dark matter in the cosmos using images of distorted galaxies.

    Kaggle has gone on to work with supermarket chains, healthcare organisations, and several major US insurers. It has also developed a new line of business, hosting competitions to help companies such as the American business giants Walmart and Facebook find and recruit the best data scientists.

    Why did Melbourne boy Goldbloom relocate to San Francisco? Because Google, Apple, Stanford and Berkeley universities, and a host of startups are there.

    “You can go to a dinner party and most of the people there will work in tech, so the chance you’ll meet a useful connection or learn something that’s useful to your business is very high without even trying,” he says. ­