Med Tech Talks
Australia’s place in the med tech landscape with Dr Erol Harvey
Erol Harvey is CEO of the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery (ACMD) that will soon be home to the Bionics Institute, alongside many other leading research organisations on the St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne campus, and he talks about the importance of collaboration.
We find out about Erol’s amazing career in Europe before he returned to Australia to start a company, and his thoughts on what is needed to support innovation.
In this episode you will hear about:
Read about ACMD here: ACMD
Take a look at the MiniFAB website here: MiniFAB
Take a look at the Bionics Institute website to find out more about our research into autoimmune and chronic conditions, and conditions affecting the brain, hearing and vision: Our Research | Bionics Institute
Dr Erol Harvey [00:01:36] Thank you, Robert.
Robert Klupacs [00:01:37] Erol. You have a very impressive CV which among other things, has led to you being named enabling Technology Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012 by Victorian Manufacturing Hall of Fame and its Clunies Ross Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018. What led you from a Ph.D. in plasma laser physics all those years ago at Monash University on the journey that led to where you are today?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:02:03] I wish I knew Robert. Look, it wasn’t a straight path, and it’s been a tremendous amount of fun as well. But I guess life tends to give you some decision points in your career path and always taking the more interesting one is, has been what my goal has been. Since doing physics at Monash, I was I was sort of thinking, should I do that or should I go and get a real job? And I always thought if I didn’t do my Ph.D., I’d always regret not having taken that chance. And that’s kind of been the main deciding point. The other decision points along the way, if I stayed where I was, it would be cool. But would I always regret not taking that opportunity? And it’s led to where we are now.
Robert Klupacs [00:02:54] Oh, fantastic. So along the way, can you tell me some of the highlights of your career?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:02:57] Oh, gee.
Robert Klupacs [00:02:59] Well, we’ve only got 30 minutes.
Dr Erol Harvey [00:03:00] So 30 minutes. Look, I’ve always enjoyed applying new knowledge. And so in the old days, that was very much considered applied science. But it’s it is about understanding how things work and then understanding how you can make them work better or use that in a different way. So lasers is a good example. You know, the fact that the fact that we invented a machine that can produce so much light, it can move things. I mean, that that just blew me away when I first realized that because, you know, we’ve got light all around us. You got to stand out in the sun and there’s light coming at you. But you know, these machines, when you poke them at something, they explode. And that was fun blowing things up as well. Yeah, look, I got really interested in applying laser technology, and we had a particular interest in ultraviolet lasers. So my post-doc was developing lasers for atomic fusion. And this was in in the countryside in the UK just near Oxford. And you know, the laser that I was driving there was the size of three aircraft hangars, and whenever we needed to fire the laser, we had to go into an underground bunker. So, I mean, it was it was terrific fun. And as I said, we were blowing things up with it with our laser. But I joined a group of scientists in our first start up, which was applying ultraviolet laser technology to engineering, to new machining, new manufacturing. And what was so fun about that was we were the experts in the laser stuff, and our customers brought their special knowledge about their application area. And when you put those two things together, you know, we just had a blast. So there were heaps of different jobs that we got involved with from making, you know, flat panel display televisions through to medical catheters and, you know, new forms of electronic packaging. But a couple of the fun ones. One was we got involved in the rescue mission for the Hubble telescope.
Robert Klupacs [00:05:19] I’ve never known this story.
Dr Erol Harvey [00:05:20] So the Hubble telescope had a lot of problems when it was launched. You know, famously, the optics were wrong, but also they forgot to put solar panel or solar protectors on the arms that are holding the solar panels. In space, there’s an awful lot of heat on one side and it’s really cold the other. So what happened was all the solar arrays just folded up. They curled up. And if only the manufacturer had talked to the military area just around the corner in the same building, they would have solved it. So we built a series of reflective bellows, which the astronauts took up into space, and then they sort of expanded them out and put them over the over the arms to stop the solar radiation. So I can always tell what age the Hubble picture is because did it have the protectors on or not. But another fun one was when Harry Winston popped into our little factory in Oxford and he said, Look, I’ve heard that these lasers can mark diamonds and Elizabeth Taylor was one of his big customers. And we spent an interesting few months working out if there was a handy thing you could design, which would sit on a coffee table where Liz Taylor could just casually drop her diamonds into this, and then anybody walking past would have a magnified view of the diamond with her name engraved in the middle and. We were the ones who were engraving the name because a laser will actually mark diamonds. In the end, we couldn’t do it, but we did end up marking all the reference diamonds for De Beers. And so that was the first time I was working in a lab where there was an armed guard sitting there with a gun to make sure that we didn’t lose the valuable things we were working on.
Robert Klupacs [00:07:26] So you were doing all that? What brought you back to Australia?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:07:29] Look, it’s great living in the UK, but it is expensive and I grew up here in Australia. When the kids arrived, I wanted them to have the freedom, the space, the outdoors, life that we enjoy here in Australia. Lifestyle in Australia is fantastic and that’s where I wanted my kids to grow up.
Robert Klupacs [00:07:52] Oh, that’s fantastic. We’re lucky that you came back. The company you created, Mini Fab all those years ago was and is still a great success under new ownership. How did you make that a reality? I mean, I had a little bit to do with in the early days, and some people look at you now and say, oh, Mini Fab, fantastic. It must have just been always going to be successful. Or I know our listeners would be fascinated to hear your journey of Mini Fab from the beginning, all the travails, how you overcame them and how you finished up what you did.
Dr Erol Harvey [00:08:21] Yeah, look, Mini Fab was born in a time when nanotechnology hype was all around, and there was an awful lot of talk of how wonderful nanotechnology and our area microfluidics could be, but nobody was turning it into real products. And I was a professor at Swinburne at the time and through my academic linkages, I was attending conferences in Germany, US or around the world, and international speakers would all say the same thing. So, you know, rule number one in business is to find an unmet need. And if everybody is struggling to build new products out of this technology, well, there’s a business opportunity. Why don’t we build their products? So we formed a business model for Mini Fab like all new businesses. We looked to see if there were some government grants and applied for those. And as with all government programs, they went out to international referees and reviewers and they looked at our business model, which was a service business model. You know, it wasn’t our products. It was our know how to develop other people’s products. And the review was candid. They said, this is crazy. There’s there’s no patents here. There’s no products and in any cases, no business in Australia. And they were right on all those counts. But luckily the backers that we were working with believed that there was something in this and we were able to bootstrap the business and we got a good set of a board to help advise us. And you said yes, which I’m very pleased about.
Robert Klupacs [00:10:18] It was a long time ago.
Dr Erol Harvey [00:10:19] It was. But look, it’s it is about the connections and getting the team together. I mean, the thing that you helped us so much with was the strategy bit. And, you know, one of the things for all entrepreneurs is to be honest about what you’re good at and where you need help and then to go out and get the help.
Robert Klupacs [00:10:39] I think it’s great advice. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been passionate about helping people, looking at innovation, making things happen. So I’ve got two questions for you, because in this series we’re asking lots of people. First question what is innovation to you? And then the second thing, how does Australia going about building on what we all think our strengths are in innovation?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:11:03] So what is innovation? To me innovation is, is taking new knowledge and creating value. Now a lot of people interpret that value as financial and that’s certainly one outcome. But you could also just make things better. You could improve the way a process works. You can help the way health is delivered and so on. And you may not get a financial benefit out of that, but it could still be a great innovation. So yeah, but the key is use the knowledge and turn it into some value
Robert Klupacs [00:11:42] And from your history or your experience over the last 30 years, how do you think Australia’s gone with innovation and how do you think we could do it better?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:11:52] We’re not too bad at innovation. I think there’s often a good focus on generating more and more knowledge and we forget the other bits, the let’s create value. There’s also the flip side. There’s a lot of people who try to create value out of nothing. And so you’ve got to make sure that you get started on the right track. But, you know, in Australia, are we any better or worse than anywhere else? I don’t believe that we’re at any particular disadvantage. I think that we can do it just as well here. And in particular, the world is such a connected place that the idea that somehow Australia is unique or isolated or different, I just don’t think stacks up.
Robert Klupacs [00:12:41] When you just take my next question. My next question is going to be what’s the where do you think Australia has a chance of being really successful compared to the rest of the world?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:12:48] Yeah, look I think we have to focus on areas where that increment in value is a very large increment. And also our geographic distance from major markets means that if you’re measuring the value of something that you manufacture, it’s good if it’s a high value per kilogram. Now that kind of belies gas and minerals and so on, which obviously we earn a lot from. But I think and this is why medical devices are so good, because if you think about the weights, the volume and the intellectual property and the value in a medical device, it’s very, very high. And so that makes it easy for us to develop, manufacture in Australia and ship to anywhere in the world. You know, the shipping costs become a tiny, tiny component of the overall cost. But where should we place ourselves? I think in excellence. I really don’t think we can chase price because we are a high cost country to live in. I mean, that’s why we all want to live here. Right. So we have to be competing on quality and on value. And in many fab days, people would often say, aren’t you afraid that a lot of this manufacturing will shift to Asia? But I didn’t see it that way. I think our competitors were in Switzerland and they were even more expensive place to manufacture. But you look at how good they are at that. So I think we can be the Switzerland of Asia.
Robert Klupacs [00:14:28] It’s a great line. We’re going to play that one in the podcast, I’m sure. So you got into a great position, a world leader in Microfluidics and then you sold it. Can you just tell us a little bit of how that felt, what the process was? And I’ll come back to what you’re doing now, but if you could just take us through that, because a lot of entrepreneurs get to that stage of building it and then leaving it behind is a very difficult thing to do.
Dr Erol Harvey [00:14:55] Well, look, we built the business up to a size where, as you said, it was the largest independent polymer microfluidics capability around and microfluidics as a discipline had got to a stage where large companies were bringing that technology on board by acquisition. So if you look at the number of potential acquisition targets, there weren’t many. And so it was natural that Mini Fab started to be attractive to multinationals as a buyer. When I look at the business, though, we were at that stage around 200 people offices in in Europe and in the US as well as the manufacturing here in Australia. The next stage of its growth was around corporatization and building the business models and the business processes which are tools of, of corporate growth. That’s not an area of my particular strength or interest. I very much more appreciated the technological growth, you know, whereas the technical opportunities we could go to and how do we meet those challenges. So it was a good time for others with deeper pockets to take that next stage of growth and to join you in creating some of those technical start ups.
Robert Klupacs [00:16:31] Yeah. And you’ve come back, you’re now in the precinct here. You’re now taking the role of CEO of the ACMD and otherwise known as the Aikenhead Center for Medical Discovery. What’s your vision? And can you tell our listeners a bit about what it’s going to do and what you like it to achieve?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:16:48] So ACMD is a partnership between nine organizations and Bionics Institute is a major partner of that. And we’ll be building the facility on the St Vincent’s Hospital campus. But we also have other research institutes and other universities who are partners. So collectively, they give us the technical capability to achieve good things in the engineering aspects of health. What ACMD brings to that equation is the process of translating that into the first clinical development, the first clinical example of that technology. And, you know, from a business point that first in human or clinical, the first customer is always your biggest hurdle. If we can be a process that helps the best projects go over that hurdle, then the risk on the project is much reduced. They become very attractive investment opportunities and I think the rest of the world will come to here, to our area, because it’s the place where it’s done best. So, you know, what’s my vision for the future? That it’s not just you and me talking about this, but there’s crowds of people who’ve done this by real world experience. And then we build a critical mass where everybody says, well, of course it’s obvious you would be doing that in Melbourne.
Robert Klupacs [00:18:26] Yeah, I mean for me, watching from the outside, I think one of the big challenges, the culture, because you’re dealing with a group of academics primarily, we all have a very highly translational thinking, but we talk about it. But academics by definition didn’t want to work in industry, but we want the ones we work with want to be translational. So how do you go about getting to understand the two can live together and then actually moving them up the pathway not just to look at mechanistic stuff, but to look at things which become practical.
Dr Erol Harvey [00:18:58] But, you know, it’s not just academics. There are many elements which you have to bring together to get an innovation happening. You need the commercial side, you need the legal side, you need the practice side and so on. And, you know, I could look at my clinical colleagues and I see the MD, doctors, in particular the surgeons, and they are very, very good at what they do, but they’re not necessarily the best at research translation either. So, you know, each of those elements all have their blind sides and their benefits. The trick and actually, this is what entrepreneurism to me is all about. The trick is to bring all of those together so you get the best of the good stuff and you fill the gaps in the things that you don’t have. Now, we have been in this game a while, as you said in the introduction.
Robert Klupacs [00:19:57] We both had hair!
Dr Erol Harvey [00:19:58] Yeah, well, maybe lucky. This is radio. So radio is it. It’s audio. Yeah. No, look, it’s an old discussion about, you know, do we understand the other side of the fence? 30 years ago, maybe there was more resistance in academia to scientific purity and not, you know, this tainted by commercial. I don’t think that exists anymore. I think the world has changed so much. The way we fund research has changed so much. The public expectation that research is there for some benefit means that there’s more and more pressure to see some innovation, some value coming out of that. So I found that when I talk to smart academics, give them a few hints as to how to do it. They just grab it. And it’s so rewarding because, you know, nobody’s told them this is the other way of doing this. And they’re clever people. Once you show them, they just go for it.
Robert Klupacs [00:21:08] If you had your and maybe you will have this chance with ACMD when you design courses for undergraduates and postgraduates, from what you’ve learned in your history, do you think we do it well? Do you think we can improve it? Should we do it differently?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:21:23] I think that one of the points we really have to do is, is encourage people to learn by doing by practice. I think there can be a tendency to say that the only thing that separates me from my perfect career is this course that I haven’t done. And I wish people would actually go out and do it by learning and by, you know, working with mentors and with others. Surround yourself with other experts. You know, when you take that attitude, you’re always learning. It’s not just about the course. But having said that, you know, getting good foundations, really important. We have a terrific educational structure here. The other thing about learning some of this within a formal academic environment is the cohort. You know, you learn with others and then you join a lifelong journey. And that’s actually quite a valuable thing to do.
Robert Klupacs [00:22:26] So we’re coming to an end. But, you know, this has been fascinating for me because very rarely do we get a chance to speak to someone who’s done it. So we’ve got lots of young people now who look at you as a bit of a hero and think, Oh, I want to be like Erol Harvey. What do you what advice do you give to the young entrepreneur, the young Erol Harvey of today?
Dr Erol Harvey [00:22:44] Yeah, I often wonder whether that’s a good thing
Robert Klupacs [00:22:47] We’re not going to go there.
Dr Erol Harvey [00:22:50] And, you know,I do think that when people look at a previous career path, like the way I’ve done it and then go, I just need to copy that. That’s the secret sauce. But it’s not. When I started in this sort of area, there was no Internet. And, you know, that changes the way things are done completely. So it’s not about the steps which you make. It’s about the attitude that you have. And I think one of the biggest risks for us in Australia is complacency, is just accepting that it’s okay the way it’s always been and people shouldn’t do that. They should have a look and ask themselves, How do I make it better? And if I could make it better, you know, how can I generate some benefit from that? And then, you know, surround yourselves with others that support you on that journey.
Robert Klupacs [00:23:47] That’s fantastic advice for all listeners. We’ve come to the end. We’ve known each other a long time and we rarely get the opportunity to have this chat. So I’ve really enjoyed today. Thank you for giving us the time, your insights. Somehow I think you’re too humble. I don’t think he realized just how much impact you’ve had on so many people over the last 30 years. So we thank you so much for giving us the time. I wish you enormous success with ACMD and I look forward to watching you build more cars in your garage at your place in Ringwood. Thanks very much.