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Australia's medical devices respected around the world

09 June, 2006

Australia’s medical device industry is an exemplary model of research and commercialisation, a wealth of opportunity for investment and international collaboration, writes

By Dr. Anthony Coulepis, executive director, AusBiotech and Luke Whelan, medical device network, AusBiotech

From artificial hips to bionic ears, Australian-made medical devices have helped people all over the world. Australian developments have helped people around the world to:

hear again, through the Cochlear bionic ear system;
sleep soundly, through the developments of ResMed and Compumedics;
deal with congestive heart failure, using the Ventracor left ventricle assist device;
walk again without pain using the Portland Orthopaedics hip replacement system;
detect cancers earlier using Polartechnics technology;
use microscopy for the non-invasive detection of disease, developed by Optiscan; and
non-invasively monitor cardiac output using USCOM’s ultrasonics device.
As technology improves, so does the ability of Australian companies to produce devices that will:

reduce the costs of running a hospital, through savings in labour cost and hospital bed hours, particularly in ICU and critical care;
improve accuracy of treatment;
enable more patients to be treated at home through telemedicine; and
allow the elderly to remain independent for longer. 
The Cochlear ‘bionic ear’ has helped thousands to hear again. Australia has long been recognised by a limited international audience for the outstanding quality of its medical research. Its medical device sector includes companies with global performances of significant financial and technological benefit to Australia. In fact, the three largest listed medical device companies in Australia represent a global market capitalisation of more than A$3bn, and an increasing number of firms are growing in their path.

The excellence of our research means Australia is now developing a world presence in medical devices through the success of this small but growing number of companies. These companies have overcome many difficulties to realise their achievements, paving the way for others and inspiring innovative processes and techniques.

A 21st century industry

The Australian medical device industry is an exemplary model of the ideal necessary for this country to compete internationally through the 21st century – it is entrepreneurial, creative, knowledge-based, export-oriented, technically innovative and so recognisably differentiated; it contributes significant added value, is attractive to capital investment, and is globally competitive.

The medical devices industry has demonstrated growth rates of 15% per annum over recent years and has a market capitalisation of more than A$4.3bn in publicly-listed companies, estimated to represent about 60% of the sector.

The industry creates sales of medical devices worth about A$2bn within the Australian market. Australian industry manufactures products worth some A$720m, and exports a high proportion – around A$600m. (Hence Australia imports 90% of what is used locally.)

Many firms are co-located in the precincts and clusters that have formed around major universities, institutes and infrastructure capabilities.

Up to 700 companies employ more than 10,000 people, and it is estimated that there is a downstream employment multiplier of about five. Education and training remain a priority given an ongoing need for a workforce with graduate and post-secondary qualifications. The industry cannot develop into the large employer of tomorrow, and realise its potential, without sufficient well-trained scientists, bio-medical engineers, programmers and people who understand the relationship between R&D and successful commercialisation.

The Australian medical device industry operates within a sophisticated health infrastructure, and the costs associated with developing and conducting trials of new devices are less in Australia than in the USA or Europe. The Therapeutic Goods Administration estimates that there have been in excess of 5000 applications for new device registrations in the last year.

Real opportunities

Australia’s medical device industry offers an untapped wealth of opportunity, as well as significant international collaborations. The Australian industry covers the value chain of medical device companies and technologies among an increasing number of global success stories highlighting an exciting future.

The expertise within the medical devices sector is complete, offering capabilities across the commercialisation cycle – biomaterials, engineering expertise, design, phototyping, manufacturing, testing/clinical trials and marketing. Particular success is starting to emerge where existing medical devices are being combined with other medical areas, such as materials, diagnostics and pharmaceuticals.

Australia has multiple opportunities for collaboration in research, product development and marketing in the medical device and biomaterials industry. Investment in Australian companies is available for a range of technologies and opportunities from early stage to pre-initial public offering (IPO). The IPO window is firmly open in Australia and there are specialised venture capital firms to co-invest with in this field.

Network for growth

Australia must keep pace and harmonise with the highest international standards to protect its international reputation as a country that manufactures, uses and exports high quality medical devices. Australia is consequently among world leaders in ensuring a high standard of regulations, and is one of the five members of the Global Harmonisation Task Force (GHTF) for medical devices, alongside the USA, Canada, the European Union and Japan.

AusBiotech’s specialist Medical Device Network assists companies to globalise their technologies, and has been operating for two years throughout Australia. The Network represents not only companies developing and producing medical devices, but all those who do business with them, so connecting the industry and providing members with greater understanding of and access to government initiatives, and protection from pitfalls through awareness. Objectives include improving the success rate of medical device start-up companies; fostering advances in R&D and manufacturing; providing an industry voice to government and press; growing global export markets; providing commercial training courses, continuing professional development and access to experts; and projecting the Australian medical devices industry to the rest of the world.

For international medical device companies, Australia offers an exciting location for manufacture, research and development. Australia is a cost-effective location with a highly skilled workforce and specialist medical device professionals, as well as solid assistance from government agencies and state governments that can help companies do business with, and in, Australia.