Biotech chiefs warn focus on big pharma not enough to spur economic growth

Chief executives of ASX-listed biotechnology companies have warned Victoria could fall short of its aspirations to use its medical research expertise to revive the state’s economy if it focuses on big names like CSL rather than boosting startups.

On Monday industry experts said the state could unlock a multibillion-dollar opportunity to kick-start its budget recovery post-COVID through its investment in clinical trials, research and commercialisation projects.

Startup leaders praised the investment focus but warned governments across the country would not reach their ambitions to take a bigger slice of the multibillion-dollar global biotech industry unless they invested in new ways. This includes a bigger focus on digital healthcare and helping small firms commercialise their technologies.

Atomo Diagnostics co-founder John Kelly (left) shows investor Lang Walker the self-testing HIV blood kit, which might also be used for testing COVID-19.
Atomo Diagnostics co-founder John Kelly (left) shows investor Lang Walker the self-testing HIV blood kit, which might also be used for testing COVID-19. Credit:Kate Geraghty/AFR

Managing director of rapid testing business Atomo Diagnostics, John Kelly, said his company was keen to invest further in manufacturing across Australia but had struggled to gain traction with policymakers. “We have reached out to state and federal governments and the response has been fairly lacklustre,” he said.


The company listed on the ASX in the midst of the pandemic and has seen global demand for its COVID-19 tests. Mr Kelly said throughout the pandemic, government and media focus had remained on bigger players like CSL, but the country needed to also focus on how to help smaller players commercialise technologies they already had. “Australia spends an awful lot of money on research, but it’s a hard place to get research commercialised.”

He said any investment plans to empower Australian manufacturing and growth should be made as easy as possible for earlier stage companies to access, “rather than having closed channels and just people already in the club”.

Chief executive of ASX-listed prescription management business MedAdvisor, Robert Read, said the focus on leveraging medical technologies for an economic recovery was exciting, but not enough focus was being placed on the digital technologies behind the scenes.

MedAdvisor’s platform lets users track and store information about their prescriptions as well as ordering medications online for delivery. It recently made a $49 million acquisition of a US prescription management system Adheris with plans to make a big launch in America.

“It [digital health technology] is always a ‘by the way’ or ‘icing on the top of the cake’ type thing, yet it can be so impactful,” Mr Read said.

Chief executive of digital health business accelerator ANDHealth, Bronwyn Le Grice, says the state’s new $2 billion Breakthrough Victoria fund must consider investing in digital health and connected technologies amid the rise of telehealth and connected devices across the health system.

“Now is not the time to just do what we have done before. This [fund] could literally transform Victoria’s future. If it just reinvests back into traditional manufacturing, the sector will always be strong, but we’re missing out,” she said.

Chief executive of ASX-listed Telix Pharmaceuticals, Christian Behrenbruch, said Victoria and Australia could only reach its full potential as a medical technology powerhouse if policymakers committed to consistent approaches to less flashy policy measures, like talent recruitment and tax incentives.

“It’s not flashy, or splashy, but it’s things like our immigration policy [that are important]. With skilled visa programs for life sciences, it’s not consistent, very reactive and constantly a moving target.”

Mr Behrenbruch, whose company is working on new approaches for imaging and treating cancers including brain and prostate, said the recognition that Victoria and Australia could boost returns from research investment was a big win, but there was more work to do make it easier for local companies to recruit the best staff available.

“You can have an excellent building but if you can’t fill it with talent, you’re probably going to struggle.”

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