QIMR and WEHI take home prizes for best early-stage project


Projects from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) were this year’s joint winners of the AusBiotech 2022 Early-Stage Investment Forum (ESIF) after a a pitch event judged by an independent expert investment panel.

Chair of the panel, Kathy Connell, who is the senior director of external innovation for Johnson & Johnson Australia, said they were so impressed with the calibre of the presentations that it was extremely difficult to reach a consensus on one winner, so at the last minute they decided to offer two.

“It was exciting to hear from the next generation of Australian scientists, innovators entrepreneurs at the Early-Stage Investment Forum. We saw innovative technologies which have the potential to deliver much needed health benefits for patients and the potential to deliver a meaningful return for healthtech, biotech and medtech investors globally,” she said.

Dr Melissa Knight from Knight Life Consulting represented QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute pitching Professor Rajiv Khanna and Dr Paulo Martins’ off-the-shelf CMV EphA3 CAR T cell therapy.

The novel cellular immunotherapy combines an EphA3-CAR with allogeneic CMV-specific T cells allowing a dual-targeted approach to treat EphA3 positive solid-tumours with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) as the lead indication.

Dr Knight said she was excited to receive the award to draw attention to this potentially life-saving treatment.

“There is an urgent need to develop new treatments for GBM patients as prognosis remains poor. I am hopeful Prof Khanna’s therapy will overcome current limitations in treating solid tumours with CAR T cell therapies, and being off-the-shelf, will reduce time to treatment which is important for such aggressive tumours,” said Dr Knight.

Joint winner WEHI was recognised for Jonathan Bernardini’s presentation of BioTACs, the next generation of Cell-Surface Targeted Protein Degraders. This new technology, called BioTACs, re-trains the cell's own recycling machinery to degrade disease-causing proteins on the cell surface.

Dr Bernardini said, "We are developing an exciting new degrader platform technology for potential applications in inflammation, immunotherapy and cancers. Having the opportunity to pitch this programme to industry leaders was invaluable. The feedback and conversations that followed have really helped to refine our thinking and have got us a step further to spinning out this exciting programme."

The winners were selected from 22 presentations from research institutes, universities, hospitals and pre-series A companies in the area of human therapeutics and enabling technologies.

The Early-Stage Investment Forum (ESIF), a key element of the AusBiotech 2022 programme and proudly supported by WEHI, encourages, recognises and rewards some of Australian life sciences’ most promising early-stage technology and projects and offers them the chance to gather feedback essential for commercialising early-stage projects and technologies.

Running at AusBiotech’s premier annual conference since 2018 and AusMedtech, Australia’s leading medical technology conference, since 2021, the ESIF is a key aspect of AusBiotech’s work in empowering start-ups and SMEs during their commercialisation journey.

The Forum features quick-pitch presentations to a panel of industry experts, giving applicants the opportunity to gather valuable feedback that will help them to commercialise their projects and technologies.

Joining Ms Connell on the independent expert panel was Dr Samantha South, executive director of  Argenica Therapeutics; Dr Siro Perez, partner and head of life sciences APAC, IP Group Australia; and, Rob Crombie, senior commercialisation facilitator at Accelerating Commercialisation.

AusBiotech 2022 was proudly supported by Host State Partners, the Western Australian Government and Business Events Perth.