A healthy WA population and economy are twin goals at UWA’s new Life Sciences Innovation Hub.
Kevin Pfleger is hoping to blend practical, patient-focused solutions, industry needs and blue-sky research in his new role as director of the Life Sciences Innovation Hub at The University of Western Australia.
Having taken up the position in early April, Professor Pfleger says the hub will aim to champion the state in three major biomedical sectors – medical technology, pharmaceuticals, and digital health. The payoff, he says, will be the creation of jobs in each of those sectors, improving the health industry and the state’s economy.
Professor Pfleger has taken the newly created role in addition to his work as head of Molecular Endocrinology and Pharmacology at the UWA Centre for Medical Research, and chief scientific adviser for Dimerix, an ASX-listed UWA spin-out.
He said the big-picture plan was to collaborate with researchers, government agencies, philanthropists, and industry partners in order to push Western Australia to the forefront of medical research, in addition to attracting investment.
But Professor Pfleger acknowledges achieving all these goals will be no easy task. The state government currently allocates about $18 million a year towards medical research, with the state budget allocating a further $52 million to its Future Health Research and Innovation Fund over the next three years.
However, while Professor Pfleger said the funding was welcomed, the investment didn’t necessarily return a profit.
“If we can grow the economy, generate jobs, and foster the ecosystem, then we can build a critical mass of people able to get their research discoveries through to products and patients, which will generate revenue that can then be fed back to support the research,” he said.
“So rather than always being dependent upon government grants, we would actually have a diversification of the funding streams. Then researchers don’t need to only go to the National Health and Medical Research Council or to the Australian Research Council.”
Ultimately, Professor Pfleger hopes to build a powerful enough sector in WA that will not only perform outstanding research, but enable the health industry to address its economic needs through the creation of jobs, while addressing the needs of the healthcare system overall. He believes this will motivate private companies and other investors to fund future research endeavours.
“What we want to do is to make sure that the research we’re doing has a blend of blue-sky fundamental research, and also thinks about the industry’s needs and patient needs,” Professor Pfleger said.
“We will do this by encouraging interactions with the industry at multiple levels, whether through internships and mentorships for early career researchers, making connections with networks of industry professionals, or through industry engagement events. There is an entire ecosystem out there that is keen to foster such interactions and I plan to work with everyone in this space to help this happen.”
He said the Life Sciences Innovation Hub would undertake research targeted at addressing those unmet needs through early and frequent conversations with industry. Such targeted research would help solve current problems as well as any future issues as they arise, with prevention of chronic disease another priority.
Professor Pfleger believes this strategy will bring about significant improvement in the healthcare system, with resultant jobs and economic benefits.
“I’m trying to foster the whole biomedical sector,” he said.
“This is about ensuring that firstly we understand the needs out there. For example, what is costing a lot of money for the health service? What is giving us a lot of burden? What are the needs of our patients?
“Chronic disease puts pressure on the health service, which puts pressure on the quality of life. With chronic disease, the cost of healthcare is going to continue to go up, so how do we use technology and make sure those changes are made in order to save money for the health system?”
The Life Sciences Innovation Hub aims to foster an environment where people want to invest, whether through private investments or public markets, and being a world leader in research and clinical trials is only the beginning.
Professor Pfleger said that, within a decade, Perth could have a vibrant, diversified economy that would include biotechnology, medical technology, and digital health. “Companies in the biomedical sector will be starting and growing here, fuelled by a collaborative ecosystem where everyone is working together,” he said.
In turn, Professor Pfleger said biomedical innovators would want to stay in Perth because of its innovation culture, along with the full spectrum of fundamental research and high-quality healthcare.