It’s safe to say we generally don’t utter the words “academia” and “commercial success” in the same breath. When it comes to academic research, a popular view is that it belongs almost exclusively to overlooked research journals kept in the ivory towers of universities. That’s all too often the case in the opinion of Professor Darren Kelly and Ann Hamer – leaders behind the commercial success of biotech research company Fibrotech and its successor, OccurX.
Fibrotech’s research helped develop a pill that aims to combat fibrosis (which is connected to approximately 40 per cent of all deaths) – particularly for the heart and kidneys.
Commercially, Fibrotech has proven to be a stand out success in Australia.
Irish company Shire purchased Fibrotech’s research for $75 million, with $500 million more on the way as commercialisation of the research continues. The Fibrotech sale is particularly impressive for a couple of reasons.
Fibrotech secured its initial research funding as the very first venture investment of Brandon Capital’s MRCF (Medical Research Commercialisation Fund).
Furthermore, this was achieved in the immediate aftermath of the GFC. Professor Kelly is the Associate Dean of Innovation and Commercialisation at the University of Melbourne and Hamer has a corporate management background.
Professor Kelly brought Hamer on for her management expertise. Many academics and researchers at universities focus primarily on research tailored for academic publications. Academics who turn their research to a more tangible purpose are relatively rare.
IRISH COMPANY SHIRE PURCHASED FIBROTECH’S RESEARCH FOR $75 MILLION, WITH $500 MILLION MORE ON THE WAY AS COMMERCIALISATION OF THE RESEARCH CONTINUES.
“There’s been few and far between to be honest,” says Kelly of academics who are out to make a practical impact on society.
“[At a university] you’re there to write grants and publish papers and do novel research; not to become a corporate entity. “That’s how academia has traditionally been; publish papers or perish.”
PROFESSOR DARREN KELLY, CEO AND MANAGING DIRECTOR, OCCURX
It’s a common criticism of university work; lots of knowledge and research, but no outcomes. Kelly and Hamer are set on working to change this trend. Their work hasn’t stopped at Fibrotech either. Their new company, OccuRx, specialises in similar fibrosis research and commits a lot of its time to getting more academics onboard the commercial practicality train at an early stage.
This is done through conventions, personal mentoring and hands on internships at OccuRx. Hamer and Kelly regularly bolster their team with up-and-coming PhD students out to make a tangible impact on the world. “The students that have gone through Darren’s lab have come out with some kind of commercial background and have been mentored,” says Hamer of OccuRx’s internship program.
“One of our most recent successes is Fay Khong [a young PhD holder from the University of Melbourne] being appointed head of R&D.” Are efforts like this – turning academics away from their traditional trajectory towards ‘publication-only’ work – a sign of changing attitudes towards the university study model? Kelly and Hamer think so. “The Millenial Generation want things to happen much more quickly,” Kelly observes.
“I think students are more aware now. They don’t want to sit in a lab for the rest of their lives publishing papers. They want careers. They want to climb the ladder quicker. They want to be successful and they want to do something that benefits people. “Publications aren’t outcomes. We want outcomes that benefit people.”
Many people who find the financial success that Fibrotech did could consider it enough of a lifetime achievement to warrant running away to a nice island and spending the rest of their years in their new holiday home, boat or luxury car.
For these two though, Fibrotech’s success means a chance to further work on turning academic knowledge to real-world outcomes. “We lack serial entrepreneurs in Australia to pass on their experience,” notes Kelly. Hamer has earned a degree in psychology and regularly uses the knowledge as COO at OccuRx.
For Hamer “it adds an extra layer to good management.” “There is more to management than tech. Relationships are key.” Meanwhile Kelly is using the reputation he gained from Fibrotech to become a powerful advocate for change in the academic world. University academia is being challenged to be more collaborative with the commercial sector by companies such as Fibrotech and OccuRx.
“The standard PhD doesn’t equip you with the skills to turn your research into a commercial reality,” says Hamer. “We’re trying to change that.” With exceptional success and new generations of students backing Hamer and Kelly’s movement to change the academic landscape, it would be smart for universities to take notice.