Biotech funding blight feared

PLAYERS in Western Australia’s emerging biotech industry fear the State is losing out due to a lack of government support.

The concern is that the WA biotech industry is under-developed, under-funded and is losing talent to other States with many individuals and companies choosing to relocate.

Also of concern is the lack of managerial and commercialising expertise available in the State and the lack of available facilities.

Meanwhile, the State Government is putting together a strategy to determine ways that it can become involved in the biotech industry and facilitate its development.

However, members of WA’s biotech industry say current Government efforts are not enough.

Director of WA Biomedical Research Institute Simon Carroll said while the current Government was supportive of science – citing Premier Geoff Gallop also holding the Science portfolio and the existence of an established Science Council and a Centres for Excellence Program – there is little in the way of support for the biotech industry in WA.

Mr Carroll said while the Government was planning to release a biotech policy in WA the process was slow and cumbersome.

“We don’t seem to be moving forward very rapidly,” he said.

The result, Mr Carroll said, was a worrying loss of biotech companies and expertise that had moved interstate or overseas.

“In June, WA’s listed ASX biotech companies had a market capitalisation of just over $700 million, which is a terrific headline statement,” he said.

“Since that date, at least two of those companies have decided they will relocate elsewhere.

“We are not only losing our good people, we are not attracting others in.

“There are issues in that it is difficult to get talent here and retain it.

“We are lacking expertise in many areas that are required to establish a vibrant biotech industry.

“Without putting too finer point on it, the Government needs to work with industry to develop and determine what should and can be done.

“The Government should undertake to engage in the national and international biotech industry more – which we are taking tentative steps towards.”

WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre (SABC) director Mike Jones said while he acknowledged current efforts, there was still a need for more Government involvement and improved facilities and funding.

The government recently released a directory listing all biotechnology companies in WA, has established a biotechnology department in the Department of Industry and Resources and has been involved in recent interstate and international biotechnology conferences.

“Although we have been behind other States in terms of Government support, the Department of Industry and Resources now has a biotech department for promoting the industry in WA,” Professor Jones said.

“However, I think there will be some lost opportunities due to lack of space and research facilities in WA.

‘If you take South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland with their ‘Smart State’ initiative, they have State-based initiatives in support of their biotech industries.

“It [the biotech industry in WA] really needs that sort of program in WA to help kick start startups and early stage end development.”

Professor Jones said the SABC was a case-in-point as it would soon be faced with turning researchers away if additional laboratory space was not made available.

“Within two years the SABC will require a four floor extension. Local molecular research into food, food quality, plant and animal improvement and microbial and biomedical research is growing and the SABC, which provides the tools necessary to support this research, must grow with it,” he said.

However, State Development Minister Clive Brown said the Government was currently assessing the commonality between various Government departments, universities and industries and how they could work together.

He said that until a plan was in place, it was premature to look at funding.

“Every industry group is very keen in terms of their agenda and I understand their aims and the urgency of this. It is very important,” Mr Brown said.

“However, at a time when resources are finite, we have to operate within the resources we have.

“We have had a look at the clever ways that Queensland has marketed itself.

“Queensland appears to give funding to its industry, and note the emphasis on the word ‘appears’. We give a similar amount of funding that is channelled in other ways.

“We have challenges in WA that other States don’t have.

“We are a net contributor the Federal Government whereas Queensland is not.”

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