457 visa crackdown derails drug to cure blindness

May 16, 2017

Things looked great for Xianzhong Lau a month ago. The 30-year-old Singaporean had completed a PhD in translational biology and snared a job as a project leader with a company founded by one of Australia’s top life sciences entrepreneurs, Darren Kelly.

All he needed was the 457 visa that he had already applied for to come through, and he could look forward to some exciting work with Melbourne-based OccuRx as it worked on plans to bring a drug aimed at curing retinal blindness to clinical trials next year.

Days later Lau’s plans lay in ruins after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s shock “Australia first” decision to abolish 457 visas. With his existing 485 visa – which lets post-graduates stay 18 months – due to expire Lau had to quit his job at OccuRx and return to Singapore within two weeks.

He told the Singapore Straits Times it was “devastating” to have to uproot his life in Melbourne, where he had lived for nine years, in a fortnight. Now he is trying to be positive, Australia’s loss could be another country’s gain.

“I’ll be looking locally [for a new job] and probably elsewhere in Europe and Canada or somewhere like that, just to keep my options open,” Lau tells The Australian Financial Review from his home in Singapore.


“The global climate right now is protectionist, so everyone understands that Australia wants to protect local jobs.”

If he lands a job in Singapore, he will pay less tax rate than in Australia, where the top rate cutting in at $180,000 could rise to 49.5 per cent if Labor has its way. Singaporeans pay no more than 18 per cent on income up to $S200,000 ($192,000).

For Darren Kelly, it means spending three to six months finding another project leader who can match Lau’s rare combination of entrepreneurial and life sciences skills, just as OccuRx should be pedal to metal on its research and raising more capital next year for clinical trials.

“This will leave us seriously short staffed in the middle of a key project,” Kelly says.

“To make such a major change with no industry consultation is short-sighted and is damaging to the National Innovation & Science Agenda.

“It’s frustrating because we run biotech companies quite lean financially and human resources are a critical part of keeping our program moving.” It’s also vital to keep research moving as a company moves closer to clinical trials of a new drug.

Skills shortage

Kelly is one of the Aussie life sciences industry’s pin-up boys after selling Fibrotech, the drug developer he spun out of Melbourne University, to Irish drug group Shire Pharmaceuticals for up to $500 million in 2014. OccuRx has raised $10 million to find a cure for retinal disease, a common cause of blindness, and Melbourne has made him associate dean of innovation and commercialisation.

Not even those credentials could insulate him from the sudden policy reversal. Lau’s combination of skills is so rare in Australia that the Turnbull government made it the focus of innovation policy and seeded a $500 million Biomedical Translation Fund, only to get cold feet after voters decided that innovation was more threatening than exciting.

“We have a skills shortage of people with a science and business background and the 457 visa allows us to bridge that gap,” Kelly says.

“Until we educate our local workforce, we need to have the ability to bring in skills from overseas.”

OccuRx has one other affected worker apart from Lau. The company is just one example among many of the 457 visa changes causing chaos at life sciences companies and university research teams.

Wide sweep

Blood products giant CSL said last week it had about 40 staff on 457 visas, including top managers at its manufacturing plant in Broadmeadows who are transferring skills and knowhow from a model plant in Switzerland, but was confident it would get some relief when immigration officials produce a revised list by July 1. Tech firms such as Atlassian and universities have also complained the new rules will make life harder for them.

Even the heads of federal agencies – such as NBN chief executive Bill Morrow and Australian Energy Market Operator Audrey Zibelman – are potentially snared by the sweeping changes.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has agreed to review the list in response to complaints but lives are being turned upside down in the meantime.

Lau faces a challenge matching his unusual skill set to a job opening. “Even though all of us are researchers we are very diverse in the skill sets that we have. From the background of our studies we each find our own niche, so it’s a tricky issue.”

Ben Potter
The Australian Financial Review
16 May, 2017

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