Director's Blog - 31 January 2020 - BioMedVic Story – Inspiring optimism for the future...

The year 2020 has commenced and we are already at the end of January, many of us working on grant applications. The very exercise of writing grant applications requires a modicum of optimism! As professional problem-solvers, we need to be optimists.

2020, being the beginning not only of a new year, but of a new decade, gives me extra pause for thought. Bushfires at the end and the beginning of the year have resulted in the loss of human and animal life; of people’s livelihoods and homes, as well as destroying forest ecosystems. Members of our own Bio21 community have experienced loss. The extreme weather and smoke has impacted on people’s health in the capital cities of Sydney and Melbourne. The climate crisis is clearly here. The imperative to take action; to slow or halt climate change has taken on a new urgency. Yet, as we look forward to the decade, we can feel overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of the task.

An event that I attended at the end of last year reminded me that we as a society and community have overcome major challenges in the past. Sometimes looking back, helps you look forward with optimism.

On the 5 December, I joined the celebration of the 20-year legacy of BioMedVic, which ceased its operations at the end of 2019.

As described in the ‘About Us’ section of their website, “Biomedical Research Victoria is the only collective voice for Victoria’s health and medical research community. We are a not-for-profit membership alliance that includes universities, academic hospitals, medical research institutes, CSIRO and other research organisations.” Follow the link to read more.

Although the event was tinged with sadness at the end of an era, it was an opportunity to hear the truly inspiring ‘BioMedVic Story’ (of which Bio21 is an important part) told by many contributors, including Professor Emeritus David Penington.

20 years ago, manufacturing in Victoria was in decline and the Kennett and later the Bracks government was seeking a way of building an alternative sector to provide employment and boost the Victorian economy. The strength and quality of basic research in the medical research institutions within Victorian was recognised and the potential to strengthen this sector to create a biotechnology industry within Victoria was identified.

20 years later, the Victorian biomedical sector is a huge success story:

“The state attracts around 40% of the total Federal Government investment in health and medical research. Victorian organisations employ approximately 25,000 researchers and clinicians working on biotech discoveries and treatments. The commercial biomedical sector employs another 21,000 people and generates more than $12.7 billion dollars in revenue every year.” [Source: BioMedVic website]

But its success wasn’t an accident. BioMedVic’s website states:

“Victoria’s leadership is not an accident. It’s the result of two decades of good public policy and good governance initiated by the Bracks government and built on by subsequent administrations. Premier Steve Bracks and his Treasurer and Innovation Minister John Brumby understood that science and research are drivers of economic growth, so they developed the 1999 Science and Technology Initiative (STI).”

Strong policy, backed with significant funding was key:

“Backed by over $620 million, the STI supported biomedical, environmental, agricultural, manufacturing, design, and information and communication technologies across metropolitan and provincial Victoria over a decade.”

If you are a researcher or research student working in a Bio21 Institute laboratory today, supported by state-of-the-art facilities, you are a beneficiary of policy written 20 years ago: the Bio21 Institute was one of six projects that was funded through the Science and Technology Initiative. It arose from the establishment in 2001 of Bio21 Australia Limited, a not-for-profit company with three founding members – the University of Melbourne, Melbourne Health and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) – and a mission to support the development of nascent biotechnology discoveries.

It was later to be known as the ‘Bio21 Cluster’: 

“Quickly growing its membership from 3 to 15, the Bio21 Cluster (as it came to be known) helped break down organisational barriers and enabled Parkville-based researchers to better share facilities, networks and knowledge.”

“Despite being referred to as the ‘invisible hand’, the Bio21 Cluster actively and transparently managed a process that encouraged multiple partners to collaborate in a series of successful bids to secure STI funding for two ‘Bio21 Developments’ – the Bio21 Institute and the Joint Proteomics Facility – and six ‘Bio21 Projects’ – BioGrid, the C3 Collaborative Crystallisation Centre, and specialist facilities for NMR, human cellular diagnosis and therapy, high throughput chemical screening, and bioresources.”

In 2014 the Bio21 Cluster became ‘Biomedical Research Victoria (BioMedVic)’ and in the following years it played its part in catalysing this growth, enabling its Members to speak with one voice to government.” [Source: BioMedVic website]

What is BioMedVic’s legacy?

Bio21 is part of the ‘Bio21 Cluster/BioMedVic’ legacy. You can see it written on our commemorative plaque at the entrance to Bio21 that the Institute was formally opened by the then Honourable Steve Bracks MP Premier of Victoria, the Honourable John Brumby, MP, Treasurer and Minister for Innovation and the Honourable Bronwyn Pike, MP, Minister for Health, 8 June 2005. This year marks 15 years of Bio21!
It is no coincidence that we invited John Brumby to officially open the Nancy Millis in December 2018.

Bio21 Institute was only one of the first of a number of research building developments that arose in the years between 2005 and 2016, through collaborations between the University of Melbourne and other precinct partners and the Victorian State government, including The Royal Children’s Hospital, The Brain Centre, The Doherty Institute and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, to name a few.

“Research today is generally more integrated, resulting in a suite of initiatives working across organisations in genomics, drug development, clinical trials, bioinformatics, medical devices, translational research, platform technologies and more.” [Source: BioMedVic website]

So, as we look back 10, 15 and 20 years, we can see that Bio21 is part of a larger success story. It was the powerful combination of a well-defined problem, good policy, a shared goal and willingness to collaborate from individuals within biomedical organisations and the University, engaging with visionary politicians taking a ‘big picture’, long-term view, who then devoted significant funds to create a thriving Melbourne Biomedical Precinct.

There is much we as a society and global community can achieve in 10 years, whether it be in the area of climate change, biodiversity and food security or public health. The research taking place within Bio21 can contribute to finding the solutions to all of these complex problems. Good science, translated into sound policy, coupled with visionary leadership and the commitment of resources can achieve a great deal. Where there is a will there’s a way. There’s no time to waste!

Michael Parker
Director, Bio21 Institute