Date Posted – 19 March 2021
Article Written – 18 March 2021
Written by Patrick Durkin, BOSS Deputy Editor
Former Victorian Premier John Brumby will lead a new $2 billion research fund to turn good ideas into businesses and jobs, to counter a long-running failure of research and innovation policy.
A new company has been established to administer the Victorian government’s $2 billion Breakthrough Victoria Fund, which will be chaired by Mr Brumby, who is also Chancellor of La Trobe University, chairman of Biocurate – a partnership between Melbourne and Monash universities – and was recently appointed chairman of the state’s International Education Advisory Council.
Mr Brumby will be joined by former Seek chief executive Andrew Bassat, former vice-chancellor of Deakin University Professor Jane den Hollander and Victoria’s lead scientist, Dr Amanda Caples. Former Federation Square CEO Xavier Csar, who worked closely with the Brumby government while in power between 2007 and 2010, has been appointed inaugural CEO.
Mr Brumby said the 10-year fund would work alongside the federal goverment’s $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund but was bigger than anything attempted at the state level before.
“We’ve been great in the ideas space, we’ve been great in the research space but our translation of good ideas into businesses and jobs, we’ve always been poor, to be blunt,” Mr Brumby told The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday.
“It’s been a failure in the system right across Australia for some decades,” he said. “The truth is overall funding for research and development is well underdone, if you compare us with Europe, with China, the United States. No state has done anything as substantial as this, so it’s big with a capital B and it needs to be.”
“I’ve spoken to the Premier a number of times about this and we both agree that coming out of COVID-19 there is a need for short-term recovery … but there’s a great opportunity to build and strengthen our longer-term industries too.”
Focus on early-stage development
Mr Brumby said the fund would partner with private investors, superannuation, venture capital and the federal government to target early-stage ideas across health, advanced manufacturing, clean energy, agri-food and digital technologies. The first investments of about $200 million will be made this year.
Mr Brumby said the fund was flexible in that it could do grants, repayable loans, equity and joint ventures, “so this is quite different to what’s been done in the past”.
“We’ll be focused much more at the early stage, so it’s not just an industry development fund. That’s not to rule out anything further on the continuum but we’re not really there for mature companies looking to grow,” he said.
“Where we’ve got solid research, well-tested ideas that need further support for proof of concept or to get early-stage investment, that will be the focus,” Mr Brumby said.
The fund is expected to build on Melbourne’s biotech and medical technology strength, being home to about 40 per cent of the national sector. It also aligns with Mr Brumby’s legacy, having driven the state’s biotech plan, synchrotron and Victoria’s Comprehensive Cancer Centre. The state’s strengths in health, advanced manufacturing and agri-food will also be leveraged.
“Victoria has always been strong in agri-food – that’s this whole discussion about food bowl and getting better, cleaner products from our agricultural sector,” Mr Brumby said. “Advanced manufacturing we have always done well, particularly aeronautics, defence and opportunities in the waste sector – what you can do with glass, recycled products in road making and plastics.”
The fund’s efforts will be anchored in Victoria’s key research precincts, including Parkville, Arden Macauley, Fishermans Bend, La Trobe Bundoora and Monash Clayton. The state government touts the fund as creating a pipeline of more than 15,700 jobs.
“If you look at Cambridge [in Britain], it’s got tens of thousands of businesses around it and they are there because of the synergies. We won’t be dealing exclusively with universities but the truth is it’s a great strength.”
The state government said the fund would complement $210 million for medical research and a new Australian Institute for Infectious Disease set aside in last year’s state budget.
Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino said: “We’re backing our world-leading scientists, researchers and innovators to make the discoveries and breakthroughs we need.” Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas said the fund would ensure “we back our brightest minds to bounce back from the pandemic”.