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Stopping the Australian brain drain, one startup at a time

19/11/18

Australia has caught the innovation bug, if the startup scene is anything to go by, and our universities are on board to stop the national brain drain. According to a story on startups by Smart Company in May this year, in the last five years venture capital funding has grown tenfold to $1.5 billion in Victoria alone. The number of incubators (many at universities) has multiplied from five to 25.

Having volunteered as mentors for startups this year in The University of Sydney’s Genesis unit, we were super inspired to learn about all the amazing stuff happening in the world of tech, science, education and health. These innovations have grown at the hands of talented young thinkers at the forefront of their fields. But, just as importantly, they’re already at least partly road-tested by flotillas of potential future customers. Meanwhile, the operational side of these businesses have been reviewed by lawyers, accountants, business developers, marketers and more. Fledgling brands have been created, sales pitches perfected, prototypes created and much more completed.

Introducing Biotechion: Detection in a suitcase

We were paired up with Biotechion, a ‘detection in a suitcase’ product led by biochemist and Veterinary Science Masters candidate, Juan Lillo. Chile-born Juan tells us that the idea arrived when he glanced up one day in his lab, and his eyes landed on a map of Australia. “I couldn’t believe how big Australia is. I had been researching disease detection with urban vets in mind. But after that I started wondering, ‘How could a biosecurity invasion ever be stopped in a country this big?’”

A quick browse of some recent headlines confirms this observation. Australia’s agriculture is worth around $56 billion, according to the ABS, and that’s not including the value of its various affiliated industries.

Because of the country’s physical enormity at 7.9 million square kilometres (about 10 times Juan’s home country Chile, incidentally), biosecurity remains a huge issue. It hasn’t been too long since the last multimillion dollars’ worth of damage was wreaked, through outbreaks such as white spot disease (in prawns), listeria (especially in fruit) or the Pacific oyster mortality syndrome.

Biotechion will detect invasive viruses and bacteria faster and cheaper than ever before. The suitcase-sized kit uses genomic isothermal amplification to generate molecular data that is highly accurate, even in difficult field conditions. Initial trials have met with a warm response from rural veterinarians, an important initial customer base. Trials will continue with other target customers.

What brain drain, Australia?

Working over several sessions with Juan, his business partner Belinda Peppard and fellow Genesis mentor Rod Henderson, we helped Biotechion simplify their messaging. Switching from highly scientific terminology to approachable terms made the product’s benefits relatable to a broader, non-technical audience. The final presentation also addressed priority areas identified by longtime Genesis mentor and judge, Brian Dorricott, a highly respected entrepreneur, innovator and CSIRO facilitator.

Juan’s Chilean accent was strong and his pre-pitch stage nerves tremendous, meaning that much coaching, practice and revision had to take place. However, we were delighted to see Biotechion take out the coveted Richard Seymour Sustainability Prize on the night. This was one of just four equally valuable final prizes.

Biotechion will now continue refining, funding and marketing the final product. We’re proud to have been part of a journey that might one day remove the term brain drain from the Australian vocabulary.


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