Hard WA border a boon for life sciences sector

November 19, 2021

WA’s tough border stance might make it difficult to find employees in many industries but for the State’s burgeoning life sciences sector, it’s had the opposite effect.

Several companies in that space are reporting a “brain gain” as opposed to the much-feared “brain drain”, with new and developed talent returning to Perth before or during the pandemic, allowing the industry to grow.

And just weeks after the State Government released its first strategy for the industry, three leaders say their field is primed to help diversify the WA economy.

Medical device company OncoRes’ had four of its 12 staff return to Perth after starting their career elsewhere, including chief operating officer Simon Graindorge. Having left upon completing his degree at UWA, Mr Graindorge said Perth now had a place in the world rather than constantly looking to Eastern States as competition.

This was largely due, he said, to the rest of the world now only being a video-call away.

“It’s not Boston, or the Silicon Valley or Israel, but in life sciences there are characteristics in Perth that are fantastic to grow the ecosystem of the industry,” Mr Graindorge said.

“People with global experience have come back to Perth and don’t feel they have to leave again for their careers. They’re using that experience to support the ecosystem in Perth and provide leadership and training.”

Helga Mikkelsen, investment analyst at biomedical venture capital firm Brandon Capital Partners, moved to Perth in 2016 which she said was the most exciting choice she could have made for her career.

“Historically, WA has a good track record in innovation in medicine but it’s relatively unknown,” she said.

“We’ve got that track record but historically companies have moved elsewhere to develop those technologies because there’s not been the commercial talent, capital and knowledge here … the sense is that is now changing.”

Last February, Tim Lagana and his family had sold everything bar their Perth house ahead of an expected move to Chicago for him to start as vice-president of global sales at Siemens Healthineers. Instead, he has worked from Perth and an unexpected benefit was having a decentralised management model.

Being in a close time zone to much of the Asia-Pacific region had proved helpful, particularly with China as the company’s second-largest company, Mr Lagana said.

“Apart from managing time zones and the quick fix things (taking longer) … there’s no reason these types of roles can’t be done remotely,” he said. He plans to be in the US for about three weeks at a time, around three times next year.

“Perth has a fantastic lifestyle for my family and our preference would be to continue to run things that way,” he said.

“The business is supportive of that and sees that it supports value. They wouldn’t have considered this role before being based on the other side of the world.”

Ms Mikkelsen said that over the past decade, shared infrastructure between hospitals and research institutes had emerged which was “fertile ground” for discoveries.

“The ecosystem and the talent is here and growing. The pandemic has accelerated that,” she said.

“The availability of capital is increasing … the successful companies we see emerging now are going to be a good way to show smart investors that life sciences are an attractive asset class that deliver a strong return.”

All three called on the State Government to realise the potential the industry had to deliver benefits for the State. Ms Mikkelsen pointed to the success of CSL as an indicator of how the sector could thrive in the right environment.

“(It) can definitely give WA another leg to stand on that it currently doesn’t for diversification of the economy. That is a strong proposition,” she said.

They agreed the size and potential scale of the industry in Perth would be a strong pull to those looking for work once the borders opened, rather than potentially losing out.

Mr Graindorge said OncoRes had four open roles and expected to recruit locally.

“We’ve (already) been able to recruit a couple of young people unlikely to have returned to WA under normal circumstances,” he said.

“Twenty years from now they will lead the industries of the future. To bring them back to Perth rather than them leave Perth is a complete 180-degree change.”

The West Australian
Adrian Lowe
19 November 2021

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