BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

The Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute located in Melbourne, Australia, is a multidisciplinary facility that fuses traditional life sciences research such as biology, chemistry, and genetics with some of the latest technologies including nanotechnology, systems biology, and bioinformatics. This special blend is applied to drug discovery, vaccine development, pesticide production, and the treatment of human and veterinary infectious diseases and age-related disorders. In addition, this work fuels the birth of biotechnology businesses within the Bio21 cluster, a group of 15 institutions in and around Melbourne that cooperate rather than competing against each other.

The Bio21 Institute commercialization-and-industry-participation strategy is based in Parkville, 3 kilometers north of Melbourne?s city centre, which has a large concentration of biomedical and clinical research institutions. Various facilities being developed will address specific needs of the Institute, the university, and the local biotechnology community. Upon completion, the Bio21 Institute will provide an integrated package of research and development, from basic concepts, through basic research, to clinical testing and product development.

Peter Goss is business development manager and head of the Bio-Innovation Centre at the Bio21 Institute. Goss provided Next Wave with an inside look at the synergy at work in this Victorian research and development facility.

How It All Began

The idea for the Bio21 Institute was conceived about 4 or 5 years ago by visionaries at the University of Melbourne. Dick Wettenhall, current director of the institute, and others wanted to establish a unique multidisciplinary center that would expand opportunities in the modern life sciences and provide a link between academia and industry. In addition, it was hoped that the new institute would attract bright, young students into careers in science.

When he heard about Bio21 from Wettenhall, Peter Goss jumped at the chance to participate. Goss, a Melbourne boy, had worked as a management consultant in London and a manager for R&D companies in Queensland, and wanted to come back home to be near his family and friends. His academic background--he holds a B.Sc. in mathematics and genetics from the University of Melbourne and a Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University--made him a strong candidate for the Bio 21 position of Business Development Manager.

"I had always been good at math and science ... but in my first and second years at University, one teacher was particularly inspiring. His name was Phillip Batterham and he taught Introduction to Genetics. During the next 10 years or so we maintained a great working relationship, with Phil serving as my mentor. Luckily for me, he?ll now be moving to the Bio21 Institute."

Goss always knew he wanted to combine genetics and math, but didn?t like working at the bench. He liked thinking about science though, and set out to ask really important questions. "I can remember in my second year thinking [that] in the ... 50 years since Watson and Crick elucidated the structure of DNA, molecular biologists had been taking living systems apart and understanding the various pieces. I wanted to ask, how do we put all of this information back together?" But in the late 80s and early 90s bioinformatics hadn?t really formed yet, let alone systems biology. Goss decided to do his Ph.D. at Harvard with Richard Lewontin, a population geneticist who used mathematics in his research.

"I wanted to do modeling of molecular biology and find out how we should put these networks of genes together conceptually to understand living systems. I felt this challenge was the greatest one my generation of biologists was facing."

After completing his doctorate, Goss saw consulting work as an opportunity to learn new skills and a new way of thinking. He worked for a few years in finance, but he preferred biology. He interviewed with Wettenhall and joined the Bio21 Institute.

The Bio21 Institute

One of the unique elements of the Institute is its position at the interface of academia and industry, with multidisciplinary research groups acting as a driver of innovation and the resources needed to bring these innovations to market. One of the challenges facing Goss at the Bio21 Institute is ?How ... should we work to get those discoveries out into the world so they can eventually be turned into products?? Goss and others will work with technology transfer specialists at the University of Melbourne to identify ideas they can turn into licenses or potentially spin-off companies.

These spin-off companies and others from the Melbourne biotechnology community would then need a place to begin work. Because there was a shortage of flexible lab space in and around Parkville, Wettenhall studied other life science incubators around the world and found that the good ones provided both space and training in entrepreneurship.

The new Institute building is the hub of activity at Bio21, hosting ten departments. ?The building was designed so scientists, entrepreneurs, and students could learn from each other," says Goss. "The center of the building has a large atrium and contains various break-out areas, which facilitate these interchanges."

This open layout means that Bio21 students, primarily graduate students and postdocs, are assured of opportunities to interact with researchers from a variety of disciplines; a biochemistry student, for example, has the opportunity to work--and chat--with chemists who are designing molecules for potential drugs, or geneticists, or pharmacologists.

"This way of thinking for students is exciting and a departure from the traditional track," says Goss. "This sort of training will definitely widen their range of job opportunities after graduation."

The second building in the complex, the business Incubator, is physically linked to the main building. Its purpose is to provide a home for early phase start-ups, entrepreneurship, business mentoring, and industry-focus training. The Incubator has its own start-up culture, but when scientists from start-up companies want to access sophisticated technologies, talk to researchers, or even impress potential investors, they can walk next door to the main building at Bio21.

The main building also houses a major research transfer facility with platform technologies within the institute that may be too expensive for individual researchers or companies to buy. These technologies are also available to others in the greater Melbourne biotechnology community. The facility also provides access to visitor labs with 40 bench spaces plus support offices which can be reserved by companies from a week to a year. Goss explains, "The research transfer facility gives us a huge amount of flexibility in interacting with the outside world. All interested researchers--an academic who wants to come and use this equipment, a company scientist, or someone who wants to be trained on it or wants to collaborate with any of the Bio21 scientists--are welcome."

Come to Australia

Australia rolls out the red carpet for those who wish to take part in their push toward the future of multidisciplinary R&D. Scientific collaborators often send students over to spend sabbaticals there, but the Institute is open to other models of international collaboration. "Australia is putting a lot of the right foundation bricks in place to build on its excellent medical research. I came back to Australia not only because I have family here, but because I believed there was a great future in this industry. The Bio21 Institute has been able to attract some senior scientists to come join us who also believe in these opportunities."

Ultimately, though, Goss believes the real winners are the students who choose to study at Bio21, not established scientists like him. "All of these links, externally and internally, provide great opportunities to the next generation of students. Because the right pieces are coming together in Australia, these students will be far more aware of the range of career options in the life sciences."

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at rarnette@aaas.org.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at rarnette@aaas.org