Six teams of flourishing biomedical innovators at the Monash Institute of Medical Engineering (MIME) have this month begun the process of turning their world-class research into real world medical devices and diagnostics. The teams, made up of clinical champions matched up with Monash PhD and faculty researchers, have become the first ever cohort to go through the MIME SPARK program and include innovation in such areas as 3D printing of orthopaedic implants, home-based bilirubin testing of newborn babies and devices to relieve chronic pain.

The program will see groups coming together fortnightly to monthly over the course of two years to work with professional mentors on developing their products and seeing them reach the market. Overseeing it all is MIME COO, Dr Heather St John, who knows better than most the long journey ahead of these budding entrepreneurs. Heather was part of the team that developed the first extended wear contact lens, and later was Director of Aortech Biomaterials as their biostable polymer was progressed through to FDA approval for its first human use in pacing leads. Over her career she has been involved in developing technologies used by millions of people worldwide in life sustaining devices.

 

The program kicked things off with an intensive two-day boot camp at MIME’s headquarters (the New Horizons building at Monash’s Clayton campus) and showed no hesitation in throwing their teams in the deep end of medical innovation. “Our clinicians and researchers need to realise just how much is involved in the commercialisation process”, says Heather, “We’re here to make that easier and will always be there to support them but as we say, if you are going to fail, fail early, or else reposition deftly toward success.”

“So often researchers know every tiny detail of their product, how it works and why, but they don’t know how to talk to potential investors. They don’t speak the same language.”

Mel Edwards from UTS presenting on the Lean Canvas

Over the course of the two days, one or two championing members from each team heard from a series of highly experienced guest speakers interspersed with workshops to allow teams to apply their newfound knowledge to their own project. Toby McSweeney from Hydrix joined the group on Day 1 and presented on Technology Readiness Levels and understanding the pathway of development. Laurence Meagher, another key player in the organisation of the course and the Director of Research at MIME, spoke about regulatory and reimbursement issues in the medical device space. Maria Harrison-Smith and Jordan Thurgood from Monash Innovation presented on Intellectual Property including why to patent, when to patent, freedom to operate and basic patent searching and, on the final day, Mel Edwards from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) joined the group to talk about the lean start up approach and coached the teams through applying the lean start up canvas to their own project.

Professor Michael Wallach, the Associate Head of School of Life Sciences at UTS, has been instrumental in the development of the course, based on his established Bio-Innovation and Entrepreneurship course run in conjunction with Stanford SPARK. Michael visited Melbourne to help facilitate the boot camp, speaking to participants on design thinking and pitching to investors, having seen the original pitches from each group. With a background in molecular parasitology, Professor Wallach was the inventor and project leader of the CoxAbic® vaccine, which was developed against the economically most important disease of the poultry industry, Coccidiosis.

For the last few years Professor Wallach has been involved in setting up SPARK programs locally in Sydney, nationally through “Accelerating Australia” and globally in close collaboration with the Stanford School of Medicine from where the program had originated. This year he will oversee teams of PhD and medical students from several countriesas they participate in his Bio-Innovationcourse in Tokyo, Japan with 10 PhD students coming from all over Australia.

Teams taking part in MIME SPARK will receive up to $100,000 in funding from the university over the course of the program, a relatively small sum in the world of commercialisation but a huge help for the researchers and clinicians looking to get their research out to the world. The real value of SPARK is in the mentors and people like Heather, Laurence and Michael who have been through it all and now spend their time helping others become successful.

“It’s not about making money or publishing papers”, says Wallach, “it’s about improving human health.”

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