University of Melbourne Magazine

Special report: Innovation

  • Dr Charlie Day

    Dr Charlie Day. Picture: Chris Hopkins.

    The University of Melbourne is striving to replicate that culture near its front door. ­The Carlton Connect Initiative is the University’s new innovation precinct, aiming to bring to the site of the old Royal Women’s Hospital the kind of talent and activity density that Goldbloom enjoys in the United States.

    Carlton Connect will foster innovation by co-locating University teaching and research with startups, small and medium enterprises, student accommodation, and even artists’ spaces. It’s already home to the University’s start-up accelerator, the Melbourne Accelerator Program, and is the site of the future Science Gallery.

    “Carlton Connect was premised on the vision of a university as a place where innovators could meet,” says Dr Charlie Day (BE(ChemEng)(Hons) 1992, BA 1993), the initiative’s former director and now the inaugural CEO of the O­ffice of Innovation and Science Australia.

    “I strongly believe innovation is a team sport,” he says. “To be successful you need to assemble the best players to be part of that team. In successful innovation, those players are going to come not only from the University, but also from the private sector and broader civil society.”

    Similarly, the Bio21 Institute brings together university and industry researchers under one roof in the heart of Melbourne’s biomedical precinct, with the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, and other medical research institutes in the neighbourhood.

    “Ten years later, with my hand on my heart, I can say that that vision has been realised. We’ve attracted great scientists and had great results.”

    CSL Limited, Australia’s largest multinational biopharmaceutical company, chose to build its research facility at the Bio21 Institute to help attract the best talent, foster collaboration and improve outcomes.

    “If you can show scientists great labs in a great medical research precinct, they’re more likely to come and work for you than if you’re showing them labs away from where all the action is,” says Dr Andrew Nash (BSc(Hons) 1983, PhD 1988), senior vice-president for research at CSL.

    “Ten years later, with my hand on my heart, I can say that that vision has been realised. We’ve attracted great scientists and had great results,” says Nash, naming a long-acting treatment for haemophilia that has received US Food and Drug Administration approval as one result he’s particularly proud of.

    CSL will double its tenancy at Bio21 over the next three years to about 150 researchers. Such ambition is music to the ears of Doron Ben-Meir. “When you’ve got that activity, diversity and density, you have the preconditions for invention and innovation,” he says. “We might call it the startup or innovation ecosystem, but really, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.”

    Charlie Day says the process of developing an idea through to a product creates jobs along the way and contributes to economic growth.

    “You bring in clinical nurses and the healthcare system as you take new therapies through clinical trials, for instance. The jobs aren’t created only when it hits the market; there’s quite a lot of work that happens between invention and delivery.”

    Associate Professor Rufus Black says modest innovations are just as important as the spectacular ones for our future economy.

    “Germany’s enormous manufacturing economy is built on countless acts of industrial innovation that have built the leading producers of a whole range of sophisticated products that are exported around the world. None of these is an Uber or an Apple, but they power a huge economy.”

    Black says that, in Australia, we need to make sure our innovation agenda is broad, and that we must remain committed and excited about the continuing incremental innovation that maintains our competitive advantage in areas such as agriculture and biotechnology.

    “We need to resist getting lured off chasing unicorns! They’re exciting, but they don’t build a whole economy.”

    Black (BA 1990, LLB(Hons) 1991) is Master of Ormond College and has held leadership roles in both academia and the corporate sector. He’s sharing his insights and developing the skills of the next generation of innovators through the University’s new Master of Entrepreneurship degree, taught at the Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship.

    “Converting ideas into products and services needs a particular skill set; it’s a discipline,” Black explains. “Failure rates for startups in Australia are high because this skill set is inherently di­fficult and not widely distributed. The Master of Entrepreneurship has been established to develop these capabilities in a very practical, hands-on way.”

    Dr Krystal Evans

    Dr Krystal Evans describes the PKG watch as a textbook example of what innovation looks like. Picture: Darren James.

    Krystal Evans, meanwhile, hopes the Parkinson’s wristwatch, made in Melbourne, is a sign of things to come. “I see Melbourne in 2050 as a city that’s known for medical manufacturing with a thriving local industry, exporting cures and therapeutics to the rest of the world.”

    For Anthony Goldbloom, innovation isn’t just an intellectual process, but a pursuit with a visceral dimension. “If you do something that’s really novel, and you’re the first there, it’s scarier and it’s riskier, and you’re going to have lots of missteps. But it’s exhilarating when it works.”