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In focus: biotechnology is an investment priority for both federal and state governments

A new ‘gold rush’ Down Under
Biotechnology is one of Australia’s fastest growing industries and winning the country an international reputation for research and development

Biotechnology is “the 21st century equivalent of the gold rush” and Australia’s modern day prospectors are “the scientists searching our rainforests and the reef for cures to diseases and afflictions.”

It’s easy to see what Peter Beattie, the premier of Queensland State, means – biotech is booming Down Under. Australia is the fifth largest centre for biotechnology after the US, Canada, Germany and the UK. It has established a global reputation for research and development (R&D) and its capabilities in human therapeutics, agribiotech, diagnostics, medical devices and biodiscovery.

With biotechnology and life sciences predicted to overtake information and communications technology as the world's largest industry by 2030, both the federal and state governments have identified scientific innovation as the engine of future economic growth and made it a priority area for investment.

The number of core biotechnology firms in Australia has mushroomed from less than 200 in 2001 to well over 400; most are based in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Almost 100 firms are listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) and their total revenue exceeds A$3 billion (£1.2 billion).

Industry experts predict that 2006 will prove to have been Australia’s second biggest year for biotech investment, which is expected to total around US$26 billion (£10.4 billion).

Biomedicine is the dominant point of focus. Forty-seven per cent of Australia’s biotech companies deal with human therapeutics, 16 per cent with agricultural biotechnology and 14 per cent are diagnostics firms. There are also more than 600 medical devices companies.

 

Australia is at the forefront of health and medical research, accounting for 3 per cent of world activity in this field. Landmark breakthroughs have been chalked up in stem cell research, anti-viral vaccines and cancer treatment.

The country has always had strong research entities like the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Today, it boasts a critical mass of international biotechnology organisations that, according to Ernst & Young, generate 67 per cent of total public biotechnology revenues for the Asia Pacific region.

Collaboration is the watchword both at home and internationally. In 2005, Australian biotech companies announced 339 partnerships, 72 per cent of which were with organisations overseas. The federal government and all six Australian states have linked up with the government of New Zealand in the Australia-New Zealand Biotech Alliance.

“From a trade promotion point of view, we try to get both the government and industry acting together,” says Peter O’Byrne, managing director of Austrade. “If we present the excellence in Australia in total, we have more impact.”

Significant progress has been made in commercialising research discoveries. Dr Peter Riddles, one of Australia’s most experienced biotechnology experts, says: “The biggest shift in the last ten years has been that we have become much better at starting new ventures, much better at raising money and capital to drive the commercialisation process and product development through the necessary trials.”

Dr Anna Lavelle, CEO of the national biotech industry body AusBiotech, points out the potential for investors to participate in biopartnering and collaborative arrangements to develop technologies. She says: “We offer an exceptional range of opportunities for firms wanting to invest, partner and/or license our biotech IP (intellectual property).”