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Aussie Official Describes $32M Initiative to Fund Small, Mid-Sized Life-Sci Tech Shops

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This is an updated edition of a report originally published June 11.

The top science and technology official for the state of Victoria, Australia, offered updates on several of the state's life-sciences initiatives during a wide-ranging interview with BioRegion News at the BIO 2009 International Convention, held in Atlanta last month.

Sometime next month, Victoria officials will issue a call for submissions for small- and medium-sized businesses interested in a share of funds from the state's A$40 million ($32 million) Boosting Highly Innovative SMEs program.

The initiative sets aside A$12 million for speeding up the entry of smaller life-sci and other technology companies to global markets; and A$28 million for assisting smaller businesses to bring fast-growing technologies to market through a "market-validation" program somewhat similar to the Small Business Innovation Research program in the US.

The market-validation program "is like a pilot of an SBIR program," Amanda Caples, director of science and technology programs in Victoria's Department of Innovation, Industry, and Regional Development, told BRN. "We're not going so far as to link it with [state] procurement. But the idea is, government as a demanding customer can help SMEs develop both at an intellectual level, and also financially. We'll give them grants to help them fund development to address problems for government."

The request will come on the heels of a delegation of Victoria businesses visiting San Francisco later this month to learn how to commercialize their businesses in the US — the kickoff of the state's A$1.6 million VicStart Regional Technology Commercialisation program, announced in April.

Caples said officials are also busy reviewing the 217 applications received for funding from another program, the A$41 million Victoria's Science Agenda Investment Fund. That fund is part of a three-year, A$145 million program designed to boost the state's science and technology base, as well as generate economic and environmental benefits.

The applications will be narrowed to 55 whose proponents will be given six weeks to prepare a written 20-page business "case" or report explaining the viability of their technology. Officials will fund about 20 of those applications, with the final decision to come in October by Gavin Jennings, Victoria's minister for innovation.

"What we're looking for is market-driven rather than supply-driven projects, and the priority is for industry-led demonstration projects rather than funding early-stage discovery projects," Caples said of the Science Agenda Investment Fund.

On Victoria's effort to develop a A$100 million supercomputing facility that would be the world's largest, Caples said the state's Life Sciences Computation Initiative should advance soon because state officials "are about to announce the vendor for that." While no timeframe for that announcement has been set, officials have decided to locate the facility at the University of Melbourne.

Caples spoke in an interview minutes before joining officials of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to announce the awarding of A$22 million in grants to four teams of researchers from Victoria and California. The teams are:

Australian Stem Cell Centre, Melbourne and the University of California, Irvine — Research on the potential of human embryonic stem cells as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The project will transform hESCs into human neural stem cells and test their ability to improve memory and function, without rejection by the immune system, in an animal model of Alzheimer’s disease. Leaders: Richard Boyd (ASCC) and Frank LaFerla (UC Irvine).

Florey Neuroscience Institutes, Melbourne and Burnham Institute of Medical Research, La Jolla, Calif. — Use of mouse stem cells and hESCs to identify and isolate the best candidate cells for transplantation to replace dying nerve cells in the brain. Leaders: Colin Pouton and Clare Parish (Florey), Evan Snyder (Burnham).

ASSC and Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla — Development of tools and quality control measures to identify and remove unwanted cells from specialized cells used in treatment of diseases. Leaders: Andrew Laslett (ASCC) and Jeanne Loring (Scripps).

Monash University and Novocell, San Diego — Development of standardized tests to ensure the safety of future embryonic stem cell based products used in treatments for diabetes and other illnesses. Leaders: Ed Stanley and Andrew Elefanty (Monash), and Justine Cunningham (Novocell).

The four were among 15 translational research grants chosen from 72 applications whose funding had been announced by CIRM the previous week, in the California stem cell agency's first funding round involving an international partner; the other 11 projects consisted solely of California researchers.

The Victoria-CIRM grants mark the first fruits of a collaboration that officials from the two groups announced at last year's BIO 2008 International Convention in San Diego. While regenerative medicine is one of six life-sciences specialties Victoria focuses on, government and life-sci leaders had concerns about that specialty after Alan Trounson, the founder of ASCC at Monash, joined CIRM as its president in January 2008.

"[The collaboration] signals to the rest of our scientists, and enables them to know, that they don’t need to leave our shores in order to tap into the best science in their field, so that they can remain at the cutting edge through the relationships that we've helped to support," Caples said. "It's been a strong boost for our sector."

President Obama's lifting of the federal funding ban on research using human embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001, is likely to lead to additional Australia-US collaborations by Victoria stem cell researchers beyond the one with CIRM, said Caples.

"Arguably, the changes in Washington will enable our scientists to interact with other scientists in the rest of the US," she said. "It means that we can contribute on a broader base through the fact that [hESC research] is more widely supported."

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