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The genesis of biotech in Australia

A UK-based entrepreneur and former researcher is on a crusade to secure strategic and financial assistance within Australia for companies looking to benefit from biotechnology projects.

With strong Western Australian links, Roger Aston is hoping to persuade local entrepreneurs to back biotech ventures. As chairman of pSivida and a director of Australian Cancer Technology, Dr Aston’s involvement with local biotech companies no doubt will help his cause.

Dr Aston says he is always scouting around for new projects that will bring benefits to shareholders and believes there is a backlog of Australian technology awaiting investment and strategic assistance.

While there is an emerging awareness of what needs to be done, Dr Aston maintains much Australian research needs a strong, strategic patenting element.

“There are 7,000 biotech companies out there,” he says. “What I’m pushing companies to do is to look at how they can compete.

“Companies need to make themselves as much of a nuisance in intellectual property terms as they possibly can.

“Peptech is a good example, enjoying good revenue from filing the tumour necrosis factor patent early on and frustrating the big players such as Johnson & Johnson.”

But a company has to do more than that. After patenting, resources are needed to validate research and then commercialise it.

That’s where Dr Aston believes he can help Australian research projects and companies looking for new value for shareholders.

“The comments coming back to me are, ‘Well that’s all well and good, but where are the resources?’

“And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to fill that gap.”

Dr Aston says he is looking for more groups like CapTel Biotechnology, groups of investment bankers who would structure the Australian financial instruments needed by companies taking on such projects.

“Australians are quite good entrepreneurs and punters. The culture is here,” he says.

“But what’s needed is the know-how to do risk and valuation assessments and put in place an investment strategy consistent with the sector.

“We’re trying to put together an efficient instrument which can coordinate and achieve healthcare investments.”

Dr Aston’s connections with Australia go back a long way. In 1987 he joined Peptech, one of Australia’s first listed biotech companies, and became head of research until 1991.

During that time the company discovered antibodies for TNF, a turning point for the Australian peptide company.

After starting up another biotech company in the UK, Dr Aston returned to Peptech in 1995 as chief executive officer and, over four years, helped consolidate the company’s research and intellectual property base.

Peptech recently announced half-year profits of $26.01 million with sales of $32.3 million.

Initial training in immunology and biochemistry has served Dr Aston well, but he credits his “passion for Australian innovation and entrepreneurialism” for bringing him back to Peptech and subsequent new ventures.

Family reasons took Dr Aston back to the UK, where he joined the 40,000-strong Defence Evaluation Research Agency in 1999. The British Government had ordered DERA to privatise parts of the organisation with no direct military relevance, such as speech recognition and flat screen mobile phone displays, and Dr Aston’s consultancy role was to facilitate this change.

One project, viewed by Dr Aston as “the first proper marriage between the electronics industry and the healthcare industry”, led him to a new Australian connection.

He became the chief executive officer of DERA’s joint venture company, pSiMedica, formed to commercialise the porous silicon project, and convinced the former Sumich group to invest in it.

Renamed pSivida, the WA company appointed Dr Aston as chairman and acquired a 40 per cent stake in pSiMedica, which holds the worldwide licence and 12 patents for porous silicon applications in medical practice.

Fresh from helping restructure Sumich, Dr Aston was introduced to Exodus Minerals, a WA mining company changing focus towards pharmaceuticals. Exodus listened, adopted a cancer vaccine project from St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, and transformed itself to trade as Australian Cancer Technology, appointing Dr Aston as a director.

In this capacity, Dr Aston is an example of what he sees as the next thing to be addressed in the trend for Australian companies from non-aligned industries to take on biotech projects.

“Headhunters and recruiters need to look very hard at building healthcare expertise and filling those gaps,” he says.

“I think it is starting to grow here, but it’s still got a long way to go.”

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