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Dr Anna Lavelle on ten years at AusBiotech

To mark ten years at the helm of AusBiotech, CEO Dr Anna Lavelle sat down for an interview with BiotechDispatch.

Dr Lavelle joined AusBiotech just over ten years ago, having enjoyed a varied career up to that point as an academic and CEO of several organisations.

“I’d had an eclectic background before AusBiotech, which probably made me perfect for the job, particularly when it came to leading organisations and understanding policy and stakeholder management,” she says.

AusBiotech has grown in size and stature since she arrived at the organisation which was then located in the offices of former Australian biotechnology leader, Amrad.

The Amrad name has gone and AusBiotech now occupies its own office in Melbourne.

AusBiotech had four staff ten years ago and tight constraints on its financial resources, but strong membership loyalty, says Dr Lavelle.

“I came from outside the ‘biotech family’, which ruffled some feathers but was probably best,” she says.

AusBiotech is almost unique as an industry organisation, something that has become more apparent under Dr Lavelle’s leadership.

Its membership represents a diverse range of interests, covering virtually every aspect of the biotechnology value chain from discovery through to commercialisation and even policy.

This contrasts with many other industry organisations that tend to represent one aspect of a value chain.

According to Dr Lavelle, this broad focus actually aids AusBiotech, ensuring its positions reflect the diverse nature of its membership and enhancing its credibility with stakeholders.

“What it means for AusBiotech is that we often play the role of ‘interpreter’ for different parts of the ecosystem, where people have stereotypical perceptions of certain parts of the sector.

“Often it’s innocent misunderstandings of the sector that can be easily addressed,” she says, going on to describe it as one of the organisation’s most important functions.

“There are very few people in Australia that have a detailed understanding of the ecosystem and the interdependence of it’s different components,” says Dr Lavelle.

When it comes to measuring the success of her tenure at AusBiotech, Dr Lavelle says the focus should be on ‘level of impact’, particularly when it comes to the organisation’s relationships with stakeholders, notably Government, and ability to influence the environment.

The organisation is also unique in the wide range of services it provides members. While other industry associations focus on policy and advocacy, AusBiotech has an additional strong focus on promoting the commercial interests of its members through its year long schedule of meetings and conferences.

Dr Lavelle says the issues have evolved over the years. Ten years ago, she says the organisation was very strongly focussed on GM-related issues and running its annual conference.

“Since then, we’ve really tried to focus on the main game – what’s the big picture? Post-GFC the priority for our members, and therefore our priority, was access to capital.

“In 2007, Australian biotech companies raised just under $1 billion in capital. The next year that dropped to $183 million, so the ceiling just fell in on SME companies.

“Our sole focus needed to be on this capital question and, given the urgency and potential impact, we needed to push aside some of the other policy areas we had been focussed on.”

According to Dr Lavelle, the organisation started pursuing changes to address the problem, focussed on the R&D Tax Incentive.

“It took over four years to get the R&D Tax Incentive through and finally passed into law. It required lots of negotiations, speeches, papers, but it has delivered through non-equity diluting capital to small companies exactly as envisioned.

“It has been the most important thing and significant change in the past ten years.”

Dr Lavelle has welcomed new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s stated support for innovation and Christopher Pyne’s appointment to a beefed-up industry and innovation portfolio.

“Mr Turnbull is the first Prime Minister to lead with innovation, starting with elevating the portfolio in Cabinet, so there is hope that we may now have a chance because the public statements being made represent a remarkable shift.

She told BiotechDispatch the Government’s challenge will be translating the early and strong vocal support for innovation into outcomes for the sector, pointing to its current commitment to cut the R&D Tax Incentive, having already capped claims under the program.

“This was a transformative policy when it was introduced and we need Mr Turnbull and his Government to understand the negative impact on our sector of constant attempts to wind it back,” says Dr Lavelle.

She also expresses concern at the potential for further changes to come out of the current review of tax, which is considering the R&D Tax Incentive.

While Treasurer Scott Morrison recently announced that the Government was halting further work on the review, Dr Lavelle remains concerned.

“What some Canberra-based officials don’t seem to understand is that a corporate tax reduction has no benefit for many biotech companies because they aren’t paying tax yet,” she says.

“The other side is that they don’t understand the potential upside of the sector and the monetisation of intellectual property – they get the concept of shipping stuff to other countries.

“But the value of an intellectual property deal with many hundreds of millions of dollars is often lost on them,” says Dr Lavelle. “There is an incorrect perception amongst some officials that this is a small and non-material sector for the economy.”

Dr Lavelle welcomes Mr Turnbull’s comments on the importance of translation.

“Clearly, there has been instruction we are now looking at innovation and the translation of the product of discovery into export income for Australia as an important economic driver into the future.

“We have haemorrhaged opportunity at the walls of our universities in the past, there is no doubt about that, and it’s the systems that have allowed that to happen.”

According to Dr Lavelle, the way universities and funded and academics are remunerated is holding back Australia’s ability to improve its performance in translational research.

She also laments the lack of basic knowledge of what it takes to commercialise a product.

“If we are going to move get better at commercialisation, then we need to get better at building real linkages between the public and private sectors. It is not an option – it’s a priority.”