Future Clicks Podcast: Episode 3—Research in Focus

Episode 3 of the Industry Growth Centres Initiative podcast series, Future Clicks, shares insights from leading academics in the medical and manufacturing industries.

Produced by the Industry Growth Centres Initiative

Hear from 3 leading academics in the medical and manufacturing industries. They talk about Australian-led research that is contributing to the future prosperity of the nation through commercial applications.

Host: Bernie Hobbs

Special guests:

  • Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer
  • Prof Peter Choong, BioFab3D
  • Scientia Prof Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales


Introduction [00:00]


Bernie Hobbs, Host: Welcome to Future Clicks. A podcast about the future of Australian industries produced by the Australian Government's Industry Growth Centres Initiative. I'm Science Journalist, Bernie Hobbs, and in these four part series, we'll dive into the new opportunities facing Australian businesses work place skills of the future, pioneering industries and industry pioneers, and why going global is more achievable than ever. Don't forget to subscribe and find out where our Future Clicks can lead you and your business.

Australia, we are world leaders in beach lifestyle, sport, and research. We have some of the top universities in the world and so many academics doing ground breaking work. But how do we turn insights and findings from the laboratory into products in the real world? And how can smaller business access these unique skill sets?

We talked to three leading academics making a huge impact in the medical and manufacturing industries, from using AI technology to improve IVF outcomes for couples, bio pens to replace and allow regrowth of bone, to driving toxic waste away from landfills and back into production, reducing costs and alleviating pressures on the environment.

Interview with Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer [01:30]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: First up, Dr Michelle Perugini is the co-founder of Life Whisperer, which uses AI to improve the chances of IVF success. You're a stem cell research biologist, you were a stem cell research biologist and your husband was in AI. You two are quite the topical power couple.

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: [Laugh], yeah, it sounds, it sounds more as a power couple than it actually is, but we've got a really nice complimentary skill set which has kind of what lead us to our current position in the health technology space.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: But it sounds like an ideal background for you to moving into that. So, Life Whisperer is your new venture and it's set to really change or revolutionise the success of IVF. Can you tell us about Life Whisperer?

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: Yeah, absolutely. We're very, very excited about Life Whisperer, and we do think it will revolutionise the IVF process for patients. Life Whisperer is basically applying artificial intelligence and computer vision technologies to better identify healthy embryos during the IVF process. So, instead of having a clinician look down a microscope and make a visual assessment of which embryo they think will lead to a pregnancy for a patient, we're using AI and deep learning to make that assessment, or to help them to make that assessment.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: It seems like that would really help with the uptake of Life Whisperer because you're not trying to change process. All you're doing is the doctor is still doing their same practice but you're giving them a little extra information.

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: Yeah, I think you've touched on something really important there actually and a lot of people meet this type of thing when they commercialising technology. It's really important when you're designing these types of products that they can be easily adopted.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: And how did the technology for Life Whisperer itself come about?

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: Yeah, that's really interesting. So, after we sold our first company in 2015, at that time I was mentoring some students through an Adelaide University commercialisation program called eChallenge, and that's designed to help research students to test different commercial ideas that they might have and get matched up with industry mentors that have had experience in commercialisation. And one of the students that I was mentoring was Jonathan Hall, and he had a double PHD in physics and nanotechnology and had these concepts around non-invasive imaging of embryos to improve IVF outcomes and I was immediately drawn to the idea, it fit very nicely with Dom's background, with my background, and also with Jonathan. And we decided to take that forward and I guess one of the personal drivers for me was that I had quite a bit of trouble conceiving my first child. I have two now, thankfully, and so I was kind of personally driven as well as being sort of professional driven.

Working with MTPConnect [04:27]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: So even though you already had this really successful experience, you and Dom, with your first company, you still found benefit in the Growth Centre MTPConnect's involvement?

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: Absolutely. Every business is completely different and anyone who's an entrepreneur or has been an entrepreneur previously will know that every time you start a new business it comes with new challenges. Industry challenges, funding challenges. Every industry is entirely different. So, I think it's incredibly important to leverage whatever it is that's available to your business that can help build awareness or build connections or create networks. It’s very, very important.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: And I guess, when you're talking about starting a new business, like creating a start-up, there'd be certain skills that you need to do that, but then to grow the business, quite different skills.

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: Absolutely. I guess my take on that is surround yourself with people that have the right skills. Don't try and do it all yourself, because we probably made that error in our first business experience and we sort of thought we'd be able to do it all ourselves, but then soon realised that we didn't really have all the necessary skill sets to be able to do that. And it was only when we really opened up to, kind of have people around us that could supplement our skills, and complement our skills, that we really saw a huge change.

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: Fantastic. Any last thoughts Michelle?

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: I guess, the important thing for us in developing those connections, MTPConnect is invaluable, it's one of those really great networks that can be leveraged. So, encourage anyone who doesn't understand what MTPConnect is to look into it and to leverage and make use of all the wonderful resources that we've got now, around us.


Interview with Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales [06:24]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Scentia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, is an internationally recognised material scientist, engineer, and innovator, who's revolutionising recycling science.

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: It's an exciting journey. I mean, as a kid growing up in Mumbai it was always so fascinating, because it was about all these different types of products that people would just find a way to reuse somehow. You know, whether it was your little glass bottles where the medicine was finished, and then someone found a way to reuse it for some other purpose and I think it was just embedded as part of the culture growing up that you simply did not waste things, if you could help it.

So, I think it's probably something that’s ingrained in my DNA and I think as a material scientist and engineer you actually look at it in the way that you say, "well, you know you can do simple things like glass and plastics, but what if things start to get more complicated"? It’s not like you can find a machine in which you put your phone at one end, and out comes another phone at the other end. You have to actually think in a far more sophisticated manner about products which are complicated. Where even the glass in electronic devices.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Absolutely, and it is a really complex problem, so the rest of us are very glad that engineers have extremely different brains from us. So, it's terrific that you've been able to make that journey from Mumbai to, along the way you've used old bits of plastic to make tires, and now you're recycling e‑waste, one of the big challenges in history. What are some of the things that have helped you get where you are, in particular with the success of your enterprise in going from research to industry, and being able to commercialise?

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: Yeah, look, absolutely. I mean, collaboration is such an important way to think about all of these things. You can always work on your science where you might have your team of researchers, and people who you would normally collaborate with, in academia across the world.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Yeah, I mean it’s part of the deal, isn’t it? It’s always collaborating with researchers.

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: Exactly right. I think that if you stop and ask the question who are these end users who are actually going to use all of this science and how does it become exciting from that point of view, and this is where you've got to understand from the perspective of industry as to how are they going to be able to put a lot of these amazing ideas into practice.

So basically, collaboration with industry has been a big part of what we do in the smart sector. If you spend time looking at how the operations work, you actually pick up on so many other new ideas that probably wouldn't just get if you were just setting in your own lab or in your office. So, I think getting out into the industry and just observing how things happen, you might get a totally left field random idea when you're watching some operation, that might have nothing to do with what you're watching. It just triggers off something in your brain that goes "wait a minute, we can do this completely differently". That's the bit that I love the most where you walk into this space, not knowing what to expect, and not knowing even which direction your brains going to be headed in. I love that bit.

Working with the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre [09:30]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: There must be virtual light bulbs firing off all over your head as walk around during the day, it'd be a great sight to see. So, Veena, you've had some involvement with the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre. What's your association with them and how've they helped you?

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: The Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre has been absolutely fantastic, to be able to travel with them to visit a lot of these industries has been really fantastic, because you get to actually see what industries are doing, but also equally importantly they want to engage with all kind of new ideas that you bring to the table. Which has been just incredible.

An example was, basically an industry partners meeting. I was invited to meet for a few minutes and tell everyone a little about what we do, and before you knew it, we at the end were talking about collaboration with some industries that produce waste plastics. Out of a completely different industry sector.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Fantastic!

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: And the fact that they could actually directly connect to the work that I was talking about and go "wait a minute, so actually we need to talk to you". [Laughs]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Yeah, hello, have you not been reading the magazine articles. I'm your woman. [Laughs]

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: I just think it's incredible, like okay you guys are producing something in the medical sector, but wait yeah that's right the kind of waste plastics you guys have is just incredibly pure and controlled and high quality, absolutely.

How the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre is connecting industry with researchers [10:57]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: High quality, yeah. Now Veena, let’s not forget, you are kind of the poster child for entrepreneurship and innovation in Australia, or at least one of them. So, what about for other people at the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, how do you think they've helped the industry in general?

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: I think the fact that there are so many different types of factors that of course engage with manufacturing that you don't have to just look at it as manufacturing being just ‘making of a product’. It's really the ‘whole of life’ thinking in terms of the design and the R&D, and being able to make a product, but then to think about marketing. And being part of a valued chain means that for businesses, big and small, actually being part of a network like this where there is a whole range of manufacturing industries that come together, that engage and network, means that for businesses –  it doesn't matter whether you're an SME or a large corporate – I mean the fact that you can get out there and network and learn from each other means that you might actually pick up on a whole range of ideas from somebody else in a totally different sector.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: If a small business was trying to look for research partners how would you advise them to go about that?

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: I think one of the first things for small businesses really already engaging or indeed looking to engage with the AMGC, I think that is a really nice mechanism to start that journey of partnership with researchers. Because of course with the AMGC they've naturally got the ability to network through their various events that they organise, their meetings, they can actually already find different researchers, because AMGC of course knows a lot of researchers across the place.

So that means that for a small business or for that matter for any business, they don't have to feel like they've got to go around hunting and finding the right people in a particular niche area, but rather by engaging with the AMGC and their member meetings and so on, you actually get to see a lot of that research that's happening already. So, it does become quite a nice efficient way of engaging.

I really opened up my own eyes to so many different incredibly fabulous businesses big and small, and I think to me that just goes to show that Australian businesses have got the smarts, that passion and the drive, and really got the sense of ‘can do’ dynamic attitude.


Interview with Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D [13:18]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: In 2009, Professor Peter Choong was appointed to the Hugh Devine Chair of Surgery at the University of Melbourne and St Vincent's Hospital. As both a researcher and a clinician Peter is a world leader at creating medical breakthroughs through the use of 3D printing.

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: I was brought up by my parents who were both doctors, and they actually loved the vocation, doctoring.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Yeah.

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: They came up at a time in the sixties where the doctor patient relationship and the regard for doctors was very, very different. Also, I was born in Malaysia so the practice of medicine in Malaysia was far more at the community level than perhaps what we are seeing today in the western world.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: So, you said you were always drawn to fixing things, and really fixing bones is what an orthopaedic surgeon does, but you didn't stop at just the existing methods of fixing, repairing bones and cartilage and joints. Can you tell us about your development of the BioFab3D pen, how that came about, what was the drive for it?

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: I think being in orthopaedics is a wonderful job, and it's really interesting you meet people from a young age all the way to elderly, and they have a whole variety of different problems. For me it was more than just fixing broken bones or aligning things that were malaligned. I also had a really big interest in how things worked and why they should work, and therefore what made them do what they were supposed to do. Someone said to me once, "as an orthopaedic surgeon you should know more about the bone and the tissues around the bones than anybody else". So that became my quest, so I did a higher degree, and that doctorate really put me into a new world of research where you would ask questions and you would do investigations, and you would try and find the answer.

So later on, when I was doing orthopaedics, and going down the path of rebuilding people after cutting tumours out and that would affect their bones, and their muscles and soft tissue. One of the things that really drove me was, "how do I repair them in a way that got them closer to normal?" Cause they do leave many of these people quite injured.

So talking about the Bio Pen specifically, what that is it’s just like the name says it's a pen, and instead of ink that comes out that allows you to draw a picture or write words, what comes out is something like toothpaste, and that toothpaste makes up the components that contain cells, little structures that we call ‘collagen‑like’, and it helps us build a scaffold, print a scaffold.

In many ways, this pen is a 3D printer, it's a hand-held printer and it deposits this toothpaste in a way that the surgeon would like it to lie. In any position, any shape, that the surgeon desires, as it were. And that has a real value, because when we apply this technology – for example, in the knee, where there might be a hole in the cartilage, if you can think of the cartilage as the lino[leum] on a kitchen floor. If there's a big hole there and you can see the floor boards, what this does is allows us to paint over that hole, and cover the floor boards again. But do it in a way that the surgeon feels is the most appropriate, outlining the defect that we can see. So, we get as good a repair as possible. So that was the thing.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Yeah. What I love about it is, we always thing of orthopaedic surgeons as people who are getting in there with saws and screws and metal rods and that, and your... effectively the Bio Pen, to me, when you see a surgeon using it or... I’ve seen you demonstrating it. It looks more like nothing more than cake icing, you're literally drawing in the icing or toothpaste as you say is the cells and scaffolding that's going to regrow.

Going from Research to Commercialisation [17:06]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: So, you had this really multi-disciplinary, collaborative team developing it on the research side, but then going from research to commercialisation. How did you make that leap, what were the factors that played there?

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: In many respects, there was… part of it came from us and part of it was opportunity. The opportunity part was, we had to get the pen made, and making the pen, professionally that is, and we actually collaborated with one of the manufacturers that made headlights for cars in Adelaide, and –

Bernie Hobbs, Host: So, not necessarily an obvious link to make.

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: No! It wasn’t!

Bernie Hobbs, Host: How did you come across them?

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: Well the thing was, with the downturn of the automotive manufacturing industry in Australia there were lots of really expert people who could make very fine pieces of plastic. You only have to look at cars to realise how intricate and sophisticated the modelling and manufacturing of those components are. So, we came to know that there were people with that skill, looking for that way of reinventing themselves, as it were. So, having that suddenly made it clear to us, well we've got a product, we've got the science. We can actually take this further, and really think about the steps of applying it. We had to change from within as well, because as researchers we often say, "oh, let's just make it a little better" or we think of this little thing, and it goes on forever. Your whole lifetime could be spent thinking.

But we had to make a decision and we had to say, ‘what are our timelines?’ ‘What are our milestones were looking for?’ ‘What is the absolute phase 1 objective of our project?’ And when we reach that we have to say, "right we are there now we can stop and let's regroup and what's the product". So, we changed our style of free flowing, ever evolving research, into goal‑oriented research. And I think it fits in well with the way the industry works.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Yeah.

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: As well as the way I think science is moving today.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: There's nothing like a deadline to get you moving and make things happen. [Laughs]

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: Sure.

Working with MTPConnect [19:05]

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Now MTPConnect, how have they supported BioFab3D?

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: Well, MTPConnect has been a great supporter of ours, and over the last number of years had a whole variety of initiatives that we've been able avail ourselves for. They enabled us with the equipment, they provided us with the support that allowed us to actually blossom. And having blossomed they made us competitive in a world, well nationally, and I'm sure internationally, to the point where we can now actually hold in our hand something that is...Real!

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Great, and what stage is the Bio Pen at right now in BioFab?

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: Right. So, right now the Bio Pen is at the stage where we are gearing up for production of the Bio ink. We are optimising the final process that binds together the cells, and we are optimising the actual shape structure and manufacturing of the pen. So, we need to get the product over the next few years to that point where it be really usable, and doing the sorts of things that are required. And at that time, it will be really effective with venture capitalists.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Excellent, and well look if you need a 55-year-old with a torn meniscus in two years’ time to have a little trial on, just give us a call would you Peter? I'd be more than happy to help out.

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: Well let me just take your name and number.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: [Laughs]


Four Steps to Becoming an Industry Innovator

Narrator: Three industries, three distinct careers, but what do they all have in common? Michelle, Peter, Veena share their 4 steps to becoming an industry innovator.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: If you were to give advice, I'm sure you're constantly being asked for advice, but small businesses, SME's looking to innovate in Australia, what's one piece of advice that you could give them?

Scientia Professor, Veena Sahajwalla, University of New South Wales: I always say to businesses that it’s very important to find your niche. And it's very important to think of, there is global competition out there, so really always think about competing on value and not on cost. And this is really what we find AMGC really talking about. Then think about how indeed what you might be doing in terms of delivering a product or a service or a combination of all of these above to the global market place. So, you are part of the value chain, and really constantly think about how that value chain is something that you can constantly be positioning yourself and your business to deliver into.

Because the world is so dynamic, you can be looking at a whole range of new opportunities that you might have not considered before. So, don't just necessarily think about the fact that, “oh we're not making product x or y in Australia”, but think about how you might be producing something quite niche and specialised, a component or a part, that you might be able to provide into the global value chains.

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: First of all, I would say, get something that there is a real need for. We must find a need for it, and because of the competition it’s gotta be a need that has a demand. It’s got a real demand for. Secondly, really know the landscape, who do you need to bring this to completion. And from an early stage start interacting and collaborating with them. Don't leave it till the bitter end.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: So that's the commercial partners or the end user's?

Professor Peter Choong, BioFab3D: The commercial partners… you want the commercial partners and people who might support you, actually your team. Who are your team that you need to cover off on the journey. Know what the regulatory landscape is and what's actually required to get licensed to be used, because different companies [countries], whether its North America, Australia or Europe, have different regulatory frameworks, and it’s really, really important that we know what it is, so that you tick of at go and not get to the end product and realising there's this very important thing you should've done that you haven't. So, it's all about planning that, and that which takes the longest time and greatest consideration, and so it should because it’s about delivering a safe product that delivers what it intends to deliver. It is important that the right expertise is brought in‑house and guidance is given during the course of development.

Dr Michelle Perugini, Founder, Life Whisperer: Manage your expectations, this is certainly not a get rich quick industry, it's a lot of hard work. You need to be in it for the long haul. You need to surround yourself with people who have done it before. It’s really important, because going in blind is very difficult. Very difficult to understand the true nature of running your own commercial entity, when you don't have that experience. So, I think that again it's about surrounding yourself. Make sure you're out there in the market, network, understand the industry that you're trying to tackle. Don't kind of sit in a silo and assume you've got a good idea or a good specialisation opportunity. Actually talk to the customers that will eventually buy it, and do your research and understand the industry that you’re kind of entering. And then find the right people that can do it with you and/or who can help advise and guide you through that journey.

Bernie Hobbs, Host: Thanks for listening. The Industry Growth Centres Initiative is an industry‑led approach, supported by the Australian Government to foster growth and help create the jobs of the future. Don't forget to subscribe to receive the latest episodes and find ‘Industry Growth Centres’ online and on Facebook for all the latest news and opportunities for Australian businesses.

[End 24:68]

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