From benchtop to market

Medical breakthroughs don’t stop at ‘Eureka’. To be useful they need to be brought to market, and scientists now have somewhere to turn to for commercial help.

By Eric Martin

Producing a groundbreaking medical product or drug that has the potential to meaningfully improve patients’ lives is the holy grail for many independent researchers.

It is also the culmination of years of study, creativity, design and experimentation in a specific field.

Yet once the goal has been realised, many medical researchers struggle to make the next step to commercialisation and launch – a process that can be as legally and financially challenging as the initial research and development. It requires business acumen and entrepreneurial skills.

Rather than enrolling in an MBA or hiring consultants, Perth’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Research and Innovation (CERI) offers another avenue for building the commercial knowledge required to convert a medical innovation into the centrepiece of a viable business. 

Toby Swingler

CEO Toby Swingler told Medical Forum that since opening its doors in 2016, CERI had assisted numerous medical startups and that Perth was well positioned to become a leader in this space, thanks to the number, energy, and expertise of West Australian research organisations. 

“Western Australia has a strong life sciences research community: there are six medical research institutions within proximity of Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, such as Harry Perkins, Telethon Kids and the Perron Institutes, with another cluster around Fiona Stanley Hospital. And there is world class research coming out of those organisations, a lot of people within that community have developed things that they see as having commercial potential,”
Mr Swingler said.

“CERI has supported people that are developing medical devices, genetic tests, and even potential solutions to antimicrobial resistance, which is a global issue seeing serious treatment options being discovered in Perth labs.”

Patient access

Lixa Revolutionary Antimicrobial Technologies, led by CEO Dr Maud Eijkenboom, has targeted biofilms based on a series of experiments conducted by researchers at the University of Western Australia that has led to the isolation of a potent naturally occurring antibiofilm molecule. The researchers had been working with clinicians and patients with chronic respiratory infections and limited antibiotic options.

Their new technology platform, called NeoX, can break down the biofilm and is compatible with existing antimicrobials. The new technology is also expected to be scalable ‘regardless of economic environments and living standards.’

Another resident, Gene S, has released a new pharmacogenomic test that uses a cheek swab or blood test to determine whether a patient’s DNA is likely to affect their suitability for a particular medication being prescribed.

“This is about removing the guesswork for doctors so they’re able to prescribe the right drug at the right dose straight away,” Gene S co-founder Dr Suzanna Lindsey-Temple said.

“We know that 70% of medications are either not effective or cause adverse drug reactions because individual genetics impacts how the body metabolises and responds to medication. This simple test will be able to be requested by GPs and they’ll receive results back in a couple of days to help them know which drug to prescribe.”

The first test will be available for most medications used to treat mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and bi-polar.

“We typically look for people and products that are in the high knowledge, high value, probably deeper technology space. So, we involve people that have been in the throes of research, but they don’t really speak the language of business,” Mr Swingler said.

“Through our programs we teach them skills such as marketing and branding, how to raise capital, protecting intellectual property, how to engage with the marketplace and potential customers. Some of these concepts can often be foreign to researchers, but they’re critical when it comes to forming a successful business.”

One of CERI’s residents, Isopogen, led by Dr Marian Sturm, highlights the crucial nature of intellectual property rights, when the East Metropolitan Health Service took the former boss of Royal Perth Hospital’s cell and tissue therapies facility to court on the day of her retirement in 2021, claiming she had breached her contract by commercialising an innovative cell therapy, which used several patents developed by Dr Sturm during her tenure.

The stoush over the IP for improved manufacturing of mesenchymal stromal cells lasted three years, only ending earlier this year when a confidential settlement was reached in March.

“I think one of the challenges in the medical space is that a lot of them have quite long time-horizons and are often quite expensive to back, and these groups need patient investors. They need organisations like ours that can give them several years to develop and test their concepts,” Mr Swingler said.

Slow burn

“We are all so used to software startups that can scale rapidly within the space of six to 12 months and start trading revenues. Many of these companies don’t fall into that boat, but they have the potential to be transformational companies within the medical sector. Genetic technology is certainly one of those areas and, as such, the IP is highly valuable and well-guarded.

“Particularly in medicine, where you need the necessary approvals, if you require animal and/or human trials that can take a long period of time, and typically for companies in that space, you might be looking at two or three years of development at a minimum, but it will usually be more like five to 10.

“And that certainly creates challenges for people who are looking at creating a medical startup, because, frankly, a lot of investors will baulk at the time frames and the complexity involved with commercialising either a medical device or a medical service.

Right help

“We wrap services around our teams, so if they’re struggling with various aspects, such as capital raising or grant writing, we can help them with that.”

Mr Swingler said it was about providing people with access to services in an affordable way.

“Even though a lot of startups don’t have access to a lot of capital to begin with, we don’t take equity in the startups we support, as we want to support the team to generate successful businesses and diversify,” he said.

“We also try to connect our organisations with the relevant people interstate and overseas. All our organisations work in a global marketplace and look globally not only for customers, but also for investors.

“One of our startups did two capital raisings in Singapore because they felt that the capital market there was more conducive to their style of business. Much of the technology coming out of WA is globally relevant and I think that the world is the oyster for many of these West Australian companies.”

In addition to hosting events with guest speakers, CERI also runs courses in each half of the year, with another round of the Entrepreneurial Mindset Bootcamp beginning in August, followed by the Concept Creation Course in September. 

“If people are interested in the entrepreneurial journey, I’d encourage them to reach out to CERI and find out more,” Mr Swingler said.