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Brains Trust

Brains Trust

Illustration by Chris Edser The Illustration Room.

There’s a haiku-like question that some Western Australians are intoning these days, a short mantra that even rhymes – how do we rate as a really smart state?
The question arises from the boom-and-bust vagaries of our state’s resource economy. Much of what we see and read reflects our addiction to the wealth generated by minerals, oil and gas – when the price of iron ore dropped by a handful of dollars recently, a news report noted the concern of Treasury officials that state income could plummet by many millions of dollars. 

So where is the innovation and wealth-making in other fields in Western Australia? It was a question that bothered 30-year-old Brodie McCulloch when he returned home to Perth four years ago. He’d been working in marketing in the US, but was lured back by Perth’s appeal as a prosperous and attractive place to raise a family. He noticed other well-educated Perthites of his age were also heading home – but to do what?

“There wasn’t support for start-up companies, and business centres seemed rather old-fashioned.” So Brodie set up not-for-profit body Spacecubed – in two upbeat city office spaces, he arranged that paying members could meet, share resources and brainstorm ideas about tackling social, environmental or technological problems for profit.

“We’ve now got 450 members, all people with great skills who want to have a crack at realising their ideas,” says Brodie. Nearly a third are technology innovators who want to meet likeminded geeks. “We’ve got Chid, an environmental scientist building an app for better land management, and Ben, with a PhD in viticulture, working on a cellar door app.”

Then there’s Chris, whose Geomoby app allows shopowners to alert passing foot traffic to their special sale or coffee deal inside, via the passerby’s mobile phone. “We sent Chris to South Korea recently, where he won first prize for his invention.”
Now the RAC has embraced Spacecubed, offering seed funds of up to $25,000 for innovation teams. So how many will be funded? “It depends on how many good ideas are out there,” responds an optimistic Brodie. “We’ve got other companies interested in putting start-up funds in, too.

“I thought, ‘What do we do when mining slows down, when many jobs are being automated’?” he says. “We have no choice but to get on with innovation.”
The question of how we achieve it is often met with glib phrases about Perth becoming an ‘innovation and knowledge hub’ or a ‘centre for scientific and technological excellence’.

But, in reality, just how good are we at taking our greatest natural resource – clever brains, not bulk minerals – and turning ideas into saleable product? If Melbourne boasts the invention of the black box flight recorder, self-sharpening knives and Kiwi shoe polish, what have we got to brag about?

As it turns out, WA has a bevy of energetic innovators who barely rate a mention in the tide of hyper-media that washes around us. Who knew that Perth-based companies had proven expertise in wave-energy, solar-powered windows, or biofuel made from algae? 

Some ideas are so big they ignite the imagination and capture headlines. Few Western Australians can fail to have heard of the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest radio astronomy project being built in our remote rural backyard.
If you want to turn the brightest schoolchildren – and their parents – on to the thrill of science innovation, just sit them for a moment in front of an SKA-inspired You Tube video, as a slow-capture camera records the choreographed ‘dance’ of white antenna dishes tracking the star-lit sky.

 The SKA is a prominent symbol of WA’s achievements in scientific advancement. Photography by Jody D’Arcy.

The Square Kilometre Array is a globally funded radio astronomy project, still in construction/design and being shared between Australia and South Africa. WA’s bid was hatched over 10 years ago, when a small group of people glimpsed the potential of our vast and empty spaces – essential for interference-free radioastronomy – to host this massive project.

A partnership was formed by Curtin University and The University of Western Australia to create the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. Then came a recruiting drive for astronomy and engineering teams, augmenting the home-grown expertise among team players. 

With preparation for the SKA has come the creation of the Pawsey Centre for Supercomputing, in Technology Park at Kensington. Pristine rooms hold black computers with ‘brains’ big enough to hold, process and send on massive amounts of data to astronomy centres in other parts of the world.

When the full complement of 36 SKA radio telescope antennas is completed in 2020, it will draw down a torrent of data within the first few minutes of being turned on. That single download of data will be greater than the entire content of the Internet right now, in the time it takes you to read this page.

It’s ironic to think that WA’s ‘empty’ landscape and low population, often cited as
a drawback to industry and innovation, were the very characteristics that landed us the world’s biggest science project.

In a dawning era of mega-data, the Pawsey Centre is an asset that equips this state to conduct world-beating data crunching – and some of it will be allocated to earthbound sources. One prediction is that around 20 per cent of its capacity will be given over to processing mining industry data, says Mark Woffenden from the Minerals Research Institute.

“This state is well-placed to conduct mineral research, especially for geological exploration,” he says. “Significant advances in computational modelling, as can be done at the Pawsey Centre, mean we will be able to explore big data sets and find hidden messages.”

Brodie McCulloch’s dismay at the lack of focus on non-mining innovation led to his creation of Spacecubed to foster collaborative developments. Photography by Jody D’Arcy.

In the jarrah forests of the southwest, more evidence of mining-industry applied science is found. Bauxite mining multi-national Alcoa is revegetating its mine sites with a specially grown species of dieback-proof jarrah trees and red mud slurry is being turned into useable material. Indeed, the biggest teams of researchers working in private industry in WA are employed by Alcoa. Partnering with our universities are industry players – Chevron, Woodside, Rio Tinto and BHP among them – pioneering a variety of technological tools that aid miners globally.
Perth is the home of CSIRO’s Australian Resources Research Centre, a hub of petroleum and minerals expertise for the southeast Asian region that houses 450 staff and students.

In such places, geoscience experts have devised smarter ways to extract oil and gas. Mine operators have adapted remote control technology to operate the ore train and truck networks on large Pilbara mines; meanwhile microbiologists are exploring ways of extracting metals using living microbes.

Along the way, big and small inventions have been commercialised and gone offshore. Perth company Scanalyse applied MRI scanning to rock-crushing machinery, giving early warning to plant operators of any costly fissures. Born out of Curtin University innovation, Scanalyse was recently sold to a Finnish company, Outotec, for $40 million.

“All this is based on good science,” says WA’s chief scientist Peter Klinken.  “We’re clever at extracting natural gas, and we’re good at long-distance haulage of big tonnes of iron ore.” In marine science, the oil and gas industry is collaborating with the WA Museum to map undersea ecology along one of the single longest coastlines on the planet.

WA is also embarked on ‘mining’ data in an entirely different realm, one that the state’s chief scientist knows well. Professor Klinken is an internationally renowned cancer researcher at Perth’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research; until taking up his new science advocacy role in May, he was also the Institute’s director.

He describes how priceless data about the birth-to-death health profile of Western Australians has been accumulated by medical researchers. For example, the Busselton Population Health study is one of the nation’s longest-running surveys of community wellbeing. The Telethon Kids Institute has amassed multiple
generations of maternal-child health statistics; whether you are a mother, son or grandparent, the entrance into the world of many Scoop readers will have been logged on this registry, a database so comprehensive that it is unique in the world.

If one day that statistical information is linked with the Pawsey Centre’s super-computing prowess and processed, the mass population data might reveal hitherto hidden disease patterns or hints to healthy living. “I want to see us build on all WA’s traditional strengths,” says Peter, “and develop a new life sciences industry, where we could link agriculture, medical research, biodiversity and marine sciences.

“You could isolate an active ingredient in lupins that makes you not eat so much. You could possibly find some marine organism that has anti-aging or anti-cancer properties.

I would love to look back at the end of my term and say, ‘That period was the genesis of a new era in life sciences’.”

Peter is also a keen spruiker of more orthodox science, focused on the state’s excellence in dry land agriculture. A single Wheatbelt farmer can produce enough grain to feed 150 people for a year: “It is unbelievably efficient and especially important in a period of changing climate.”

Mark Woffenden of the Minerals Research Institute anticipates 20 per cent of the data capacity at the Pawsey Centre will be allocated to the mining industry. Photography by Jody D'Arcy.

In a hungry world of seven billion people – predicted to rise by a third between now and 2050 – WA’s agricultural scientists are stepping up efforts to grow food using less land and little water.

At the UWA Future Farm Project at Ridgefield Farm, in Pingelly, the goal is to create ethical animal production in a carbon-neutral environment. It is part of a global Food Animal Initiative, shared between projects in China, the United Kingdom and Brazil.

Closer to home, the performance of individual farmers is being assisted by an iPad app called Agworld, developed in WA to provide information at the touch of a finger while the farmer is standing in his paddock.

Beyond the farm fence lies unique botanical richness; southwest WA is one of only 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world. But while Aboriginal bush experts know local plants contain rare medicinal powers, WA has been slow to create bio-prospecting laws that would permit its commercial exploitation. Meanwhile, in Queensland a new anti-cancer agent was recently isolated from a rainforest plant.

Conversely, WA has made international strides in the prevention and cure of blinding eye diseases. The Lions Eye Institute is now the largest eye research institute in the southern hemisphere, led by one of the world’s leading ophthalmic surgeons, Professor Ian Constable. Tens of thousands of people globally owe their sight to the Institute’s artificial cornea, an inspiring WA case of altruistic science and earned income.

There are other smaller success stories like iCeutica, a WA company that devised a novel nanotechnology platform that allowed certain drug ingredients to be dissolved more quickly. It could also cause the ingredients to act in a more potent way, reducing the size of the drug dose required by a patient. Both highly desirable qualities are being sought by the global pharmaceutical industry.

iCeutica has been sold profitably to a Philadelphia company; it lacked substantial further investment in WA to fund the pharmaceutical trials needed to advance a home-grown idea. It’s a loss to the state, but a boon to the intellectual property owners.

The simple act of making a product better – by reducing production waste or reusing it – can earn millions and contribute to the planet’s wellbeing. Almost every WA outback mine has some type of desalination or water treatment facility, but the nation’s first public utility desalination plant was built by the WA government in order to offset a chronic lack of rainwater. Now there’s a desalination centre of excellence located in Rockingham. 

WA’s chief scientist Professor Peter Klinken would like to see Perth take on the mantle of Australia’s ‘City of Innovation and Creativity’. Photography by Jody D'Arcy.

Professor Klinken believes everyone has ‘the explorer gene’. He wants Perth to be badged as Australia’s ‘City of Innovation and Creativity’; he wants kids to peer into biotechnology labs and think, “That’s a really cool job”.

So what are the obstacles? Some observers say that investment dollars are lacking to turn proven ideas into products. An ‘angel investor network’ was set up in Perth in 2010, but the state still lags behind in passing legislative changes to company laws so venture-capital limited partnerships can kick in. “It should have been done around nine years ago in WA,” one insider told Scoop.

WA’s most famous scientist is Barry Marshall, recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine with his colleague Dr Robin Warren. Thanks to this duo, peptic ulcer disease is no longer a chronic condition; millions of sufferers around the world are now cured by a short regimen of antibiotics.

What does Barry think would speed the state toward science cleverness? “I don’t think we’re any smarter or dumber in this state than anywhere else,” he says, “but we lack a critical mass of scientists, and we don’t publicise the advances achieved in each laboratory. It is useful for scientists around town to be telling each other about what they are doing.”  

He says clear, up-to-date guidelines are required to support biotechnology. “For
a long time, resources for dealing with animal ethics seemed to be steamrolled by the live sheep trade and, if there was a spare hour on a Friday afternoon, they turned to issues of administering animal research.

“A lot of the top brains in this state are medical people; if the government created a bit of slack so that a funded research fellow or nurse could be installed in each department and given time for research, it could kick along innovation.”

The state’s two Nobel Laureates are matched by two Australians of the Year, Fiona Stanley and Fiona Wood, both scientists. But some educators wonder where the next Marshall or Wood will come from. WA children are faring poorly in – and caring less about – studying science, at both primary and secondary levels.

Fewer Year 12 students are taking science and mathematics subjects; the calibre of teaching science and maths is deemed poor. Around Australia, fewer than 500 agricultural scientists graduate each year from our universities; experts say we need 5000 of them.

“There are many low fruits of innovation to be plucked but we can’t pluck them because of the lack of educators and inspirers of science,” says WA entrepreneur Matthew Macfarlane.

Matthew, a venture capital funder, says the WA government needs to actively support young start-up entrepreneurs. “They have been absent in this process. Yet for every one dollar invested in a start-up, you potentially get far more return than keeping a traditional manufacturing industry alive.”

There are other snags. WA does not attract a healthy share of Commonwealth research funding; east coast universities with longer research histories are far more practised at snaring the money. 

Finally, there’s the lack of a state science and innovation policy, the kind of blueprint that could track a path toward the science most likely to succeed. Five years ago, a UWA committee noted that “the state and the public research sector have not clearly articulated what we are concentrating on, where we are heading, and then assigning significant funding to achieve it.”

Premier Colin Barnett holds the science minister’s portfolio, yet a science policy has yet to see the light of day. Meanwhile, the Premier’s obvious enthusiasm for space research has seen him dubbed ‘the Minister for the SKA’.

So where are we left when – hypothetically – the iron ore runs out? Perhaps Brodie McCulloch’s Spacecubed colleagues will have devised a genomics app or bio-prospected a natural remedy that generates income and jobs.

Whatever the science, and as we face a predicted drop in our current 3.4 per cent annual growth, we will need to be cleverer in the west.

In Building Australia’s Competitive Advantage, the Business Council of Australia reinforces Brodie’s message about innovation. It warns that heavy reliance on resource wealth can no longer sustain us into the 21st century.

“Innovation will allow Australia to prosper in a global marketplace as a high-wage country with a high standard of living… Australia cannot hope to repeat the success of the last two decades by doing more of the same thing.”

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