WITH 100 scientists on its payroll, a large headquarters in Nedlands and an operating revenue for 2002 of more than $7 million, the Lions Eye Institute doesn’t appear to be a typical not-for-profit organisation.
However, all of that $7,159,267 operating revenue was available to fund research and, in 2002, the institute spent $7,852,080 on research projects.
The institute helps Lions Clubs around Western Australia to provide free screening for glaucoma – a disease that can cause incurable blindness if not detected early.
Its surgeons all give substantial amounts of their time to support public health through work in public hospitals and at eye screenings.
Those surgeons also lecture and train specialists around the world, look after Aboriginal eye health, and provide workplace advice and treatment, including at mining sites, throughout WA.
The institute, which turned 20 this year, is the largest eye research institute in the Southern Hemisphere.
It leads the world in investigating cataract, diabetes, glaucoma, retinal degenerations, artificial cornea and laser and gene therapies.
The institute also houses Australia’s largest eye medical practice – WA’s eye bank – delivers a substantial medical training program, and supports community services to detect and prevent blinding eye diseases.
Some of its staff, including associate professor Ian McAllister, played a major role in helping heal the sight of those who suffered eye injuries in the Bali bombings of October 12 last year.
The institute is recognised worldwide as a prestigious institution for young opthalmologists to further their training, both in clincial areas of ophthalmology and in research.
That link between clinical treatment and research has often been held up as a reason for the institute’s success.
In the institute’s annual report, director Ian Constable, who also founded the LEI, says its clinical service and development arm contains the largest group of ophthalmology specialist consultants in Australia.
“I am especially proud of the fact that after 20 years we have never seen a key clinical member leave for greener pastures,” he says.
“In addition, all of our clincial staff contribute to the research process, through internationally controlled trials of drugs for a variety of eye diseases, through active research grant participation in association with our scientists and by fostering community, national and international goodwill through their services to patients and lecture programs.”
The clinical side of the institute has also played an important role in raising funds for its research programs.
So how has an eye medical research institute that operates independently from a university or hospital, and is based in the world’s most isolated capital city, managed to develop and continue to grow over two decades?
Professor Constable said medical research institutes were thriving because they were more responsive to health needs, more entrepreneurial in both research and implementing results, and openly accountable for performance.
“When funding comes from a competitive peer-reivewed grant process, our groups either sink or swim,” he said.
The institute’s researchers have to go through a rigorous process to prove why their project should receive a grant.
These grants come from national funding bodies such as the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Professor Constable said the institute generated a substantial cash flow through service to patients and surgical operations.
“We aggressively compete for and win multinational clinical trial contracts and seek to obtain a share of global financing through collaborative international efforts,” he said.
While the institute spent more on research than it drew in through revenue, it finished 2002 with a surplus of nearly $11 million.
And what of the advances the research institute’s staff uncover?
An institute spokeswoman said that not every scientific discovery had a commercial application.
She said any research findings that showed some commerical promise were evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Admittedly, one of the institute’s forays into the world of commercialisation ended badly.
The institute had an involvement with listed health company Q-Vis to commercialise its eye laser technology.
Q-Vis raised $20 million and licensed the technology, only to have the project fail half-way through US Food and Drug Administration trials.
In its annual report the institute states a provision for nearly $2.3 million for “non-recoverability of investment in Q-Vis Limited”.
Professor Constable said the reasons for the failure were complex and “include the scale of venture capital funds required, the isolation of Perth from the market and a local commercialisation management skill gap”.
Q-Vis is now in the control of Ascent Capital with the Steinepreis brothers Gary and David active on its board.
Shareholders are still waiting to see whether it will shed its scientific roots and perhaps head into another field of endeavour.
The disappointments with Q-Vis has not deterred the institute, however.
It is using Argus Biomedical to commercialise its artificial cornea technology and RX Net to commercialise its telemedicine.
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