‘No amount could be enough’: Calls for Canberra to back biotech, as medtech firms await funding

May 23, 2021

One of the nation’s most experienced biotechnology investors has urged the federal government to do more to support the sector, as medical technology companies await funding to flow from a $1.5 billion scheme to boost manufacturing in Australia.

The life sciences industry cheered the $1.5 billion “Modern Manufacturing Strategy” when it was outlined last October, when the government signalled six priority manufacturing areas and plans to help businesses make valuable products onshore.

The strategy includes three grant programs for businesses. However, only two of the grant streams have taken applications so far, with $140 million allocated across the whole six areas between 2021 and 2024. The priority areas for the scheme are space, medical products, resources, food and beverage, defence, recycling and clean energy.

Co-founder of prominent biotech investment firm Brandon Capital, Dr Chris Nave, said the scheme was a valuable starting point to help keep companies onshore during commercialisation. However, he said that because the overall manufacturing scheme was being shared by a range of industries, and after dividing funding among these “you don’t end up with a hell of a lot of money” for medical products.

“You need to start somewhere, and I’m not critical of the amount — but when you look at how important manufacturing is going to be, to me, you could almost say [no amount] could be enough.”

So far, the manufacturing ‘translation’ and ‘integration’ streams have both undertaken a first round of applications. These grants are designed to help early stage businesses commercialise their tech and access new supply chains. A department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources spokesman told this masthead the companies’ pitches are still under review.

“Assessment of applications for the [modern manufacturing initiative] Integration and Translation streams are in progress and decisions on funding allocations are a matter for the Minister and the Government and will be made in due course,” they said.

According to briefing documents, the funding will be up to 50 per cent of the total amount a company spends on a manufacturing project, with grants starting at $1 million and going as high as $20 million. The department predicts the average grant size will be $4 million.

The policy also involves a grant scheme known as “manufacturing collaboration”, which is designed to help fund much larger manufacturing projects. Applications are yet to open.

“The Collaboration stream is expected to open before the end of the 2020/21 financial year. The modern manufacturing initiative builds upon existing public funding for research in the medical products priority area through supporting later-stage commercialisation,” the department spokesman said.

Biotech industry experts who spoke anonymously due to their involvement with local companies said it was frustrating that the scheme was unfolding more slowly than many expected, given the current laser focus on sovereign manufacturing capability for vaccines and medicines.

Startups that have applied are waiting keenly for the outcome of their applications, including Brisbane-based vaccine company Luina Bio, which has previously been in talks with the government about supporting local mRNA manufacturing.

The company said it was keen for support to help find international talent, as “as some of the skills we need are challenging to find domestically”.

State and federal governments have pledged to boost local biotech manufacturing over the past few months, including from vaccine makers Moderna and Novavax. Both companies are exploring whether Australia would be a useful Asia Pacific manufacturing hub.

Dr Nave said that beyond grant funding for individual businesses, the government could have considered establishing national manufacturing hubs to host many companies at once.

“An opportunity that has been lost is that for the government to choose some facilities to underpin the infrastructure,” he said.

The strategy for leveraging the life sciences sector properly needs more common ground than individual announcements from state and federal governments, he said.

“I really think that there’s risk of fragmentation, and underfunding everything and having nothing to show for it.”

Sydney Morning Herald / The Age
Emma Koehn
23 May, 2021

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