Australia must create the best 'eco-system'


As the major parties compete to be the party of innovation, the Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation has a very clear message for Australia - the country has to do more to foster innovation.

Dr Diego Miralles has responsibility for the company's regional innovation centres located in California, Boston, London and Asia-Pacific, as well as its global network of JLABS incubators.

He was in Australia last week to meet with a range of stakeholders in the life sciences sector, including universities, entrepreneurs and policy-makers, in advance of release of the Turnbull Government's National Innovation and Sciences Agenda.

Dr Miralles told BiotechDispatch he enjoyed meeting with a wide cross-section of stakeholders and seeing first hand the amount of activity in the Australian life science sector.

"I saw things that are great, and things that are good, but in my view there is a need for a lot more investment," he said. "One of the things that is clearly missing is capital. Some great ideas are crawling along with too much reliance on high net worth individuals, and there are very few of them."

On the day Labor launched a raft of new innovation policies, and in advance of the Government announcing tax relief for start-ups, Dr Miralles said "not enough is being done to support the development of a larger and more active life sciences 'eco-system' in Australia."

According to Dr Miralles, the issue is not Australia's small size compared to the US, which he describes as the "global innovation power".

"You have countries like Switzerland that have a lot biotech activity. It is a small country with a strong pharmaceutical tradition, but more important is the culture they want to create - biopharmaceuticals are seen as good and something they want to do."

He said the lack of entrepreneurship in Australian universities is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.

"You need people who understand how to run businesses," said Dr Miralles, pointing to Stanford University in California, which he says has "more entrepreneurial practice" than all of Australia's universities combined.

"They have entrepreneurial leaders and very active technology transfer offices with realistic views about the values of their R&D, which makes it easier to license things out and ultimately generate returns."

Dr Miralles also said the important role of Government cannot be understated, particularly when it comes to taxation and regulation.

"You need to tax things you don't want and de-tax things you do want. It comes down to how you construct a regulatory environment that promotes innovation and drives growth, not the other way around.

"Governments around the world generally take an antiquated view to regulating innovation. It is very hard to find governments that understand the relationship between regulation and innovation - you need competent technocrats who want to innovate governance more than just talk about it, which is very easy."

Dr Miralles said he met with some "outstanding people" during his trip to Australia.

"In many cases the quality of the people and their work is as good as any in the world, but the challenge for Australia is transforming early stage ideas into multi-billion dollar companies and industries, presuming that is what you want to do.

"The Government should be talking to these people about what they need to construct the best possible eco-system - for example, what do they need out of the education system in terms of skills to help build these companies and industries.

"It requires an integrated approach and for governments to ask what they have to do to help create these industries of the future," he added.