With a strategy of betting on COVID-19 vaccines that may be produced in Australia, the federal government is currently scrambling to produce mRNA vaccines locally.
That approach to market strategy effectively asked companies how much government funding they needed to do so. But even with subsidies, this plan can take years.
So why can’t Australia make an mRNA vaccine?
That is not the correct question to actually ask. An important issue is why Australia does not produce the types of companies that can produce mRNA vaccines. Why not produce more start-ups like BioNTech and Moderna, the two companies that developed and brought the mRNA vaccine to market?
Answering this question is important not only for vaccines, but for all kinds of deep technologies that shape economic development and sustainability in the 21st century.
Read more: Australia may miss some COVID vaccines if it can’t make mRNA vaccines locally
What is deep technology?
Technology is generally defined as the application of new knowledge for practical purposes. Deep technology is a little different. This refers to the type of organization needed to achieve a particular type of innovation.
It’s more accurate to talk about deep technology ventures. BioNTech and Moderna are two such examples. Both are relatively young companies, and BioNTech founded Moderna in Germany in 2008 and in the United States in 2010 to bring technological solutions backed by substantial advances in scientific research, engineering and design to the market. ..
Deep Tech Ventures span advanced materials, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, blockchain, robotics and quantum computing. Some names are now common names, such as Tesla and SpaceX, but most fly under the radar of public awareness, as Moderna and BioNTech did before the pandemic. I’m out.
They include synthetic biology companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks and Zymergen. These companies can program organisms to create entirely new biology-based materials for use in manufacturing. These biofoundries can produce everything from biodegradable plastics, new protein-based foods to probiotic microbes that improve human health.
Advanced engineering companies such as Carbon Engineering and Climeworks are working on ways to draw carbon dioxide from the air and use it for industrial purposes.
There are energy companies such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion working to bring clean energy technology, fusion and the Holy Grail of Reality to life.
Australian issues with deep tech
Australia’s problems with deep technology ventures have nothing to do with the quality of our science and research. We produce scientific research treatises per capita, almost twice the OECD average.
We also have some excellent support, including CSIRO, the National Research and Science Agency, and Cicada Innovations, Sydney’s Deep Tech Venture Incubator.
Cicada Innovations Deep Technology Incubator at the former Ivry Railroad Workshop in Redfern.Kitty Gould / Cicada Innovation
The problem is that you can’t take in the knowledge of scientists and turn them into innovative ventures. Other countries are much more successful with this. For example, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France all have fewer per capita research papers than Australia, but have far more patent applications that are important indicators of the commercialization potential of research. The United States boasts nine times the production per capita.
Valley of death
Australia’s main challenges here relate to a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as current mechanisms for long-term venture financing.
Deep tech ventures usually require a longer period of time to transform new scientific insights into commercially successful products. Few universities have been established to confirm this process. The public funding mechanism prioritizes the basic research that leads to publishing, rather than the entrepreneurial process required to find a suitable market for a new product or solution.
Read more: Want more commercialization of your research?Then remove the barriers and give scholars a real incentive to do it
Venture capital funds are also not a regular provider of seed funds suitable for funding deep technology ventures. This is partly because science itself is difficult to understand. In addition, many funds prioritize ventures that can be withdrawn through acquisitions or public offerings within 10 years.
The complex science and length of time required to commercialize deep technology is the death of many good ideas, called the gap between early seed funding and the sustainable revenue generated from product sales. It means dying in the valley. This gap is filled by investments from sovereign wealth funds, more mission-oriented government programs, and even prizes in some countries. Australia has not yet emulated these solutions.
These issues help explain why Australia’s investment in R & D as part of GDP over the last decade has fallen from a peak of 2.3% in 2008 to 1.8% in 2019. This will be below the OECD average (2.47% in 2019). Behind innovation leaders such as Israel (4.9%), South Korea (4.6%) and Taiwan (3.5%).
In 2020, only 12 Australian companies were listed in the world’s top 2,500 R & D leaders (ranked by the EU Industrial R & D Investment Scoreboard). This is compared to Taiwan (88), South Korea (59), Switzerland (58), Canada (30) and Israel (22).
What can we do about it?
Australia’s future economic prosperity depends on its ability to transform scientific progress into innovation and entrepreneurship. Innovation is the only driving force for long-term economic growth. Professor Robert Solow of MIT was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in demonstrating this point.
We need more patient capital to correct our trajectory. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita, but too much wealth is trapped in assets ($ 8 trillion) and aging funds ($ 3.8 trillion) that choose safer investments. I am.
If only 0.1% of Superannuation assets were allocated to fund deep technology ventures, Australia would have a fund about the size of the entire current venture capital pool invested in previous fiscal years. It will be.
We also need leadership on a common vision of the benefits of deep technology entrepreneurship. Not enough Australians are aware of the importance of science and technology in promoting economic prosperity and addressing global challenges. Some even suspect that technology will cause more problems than it can solve.
However, these ventures are essential to address the pressing development and sustainability challenges, including climate change.
Tomorrow’s economy and society will be built on today’s scientific advances in deep technology ventures.
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