Taking two bites of the research pie

Getting the mix right between industry and academia can be tricky, but one collaboration between dental manufacturer SDI and UNSW proves it is by no means impossible. Connor Pearce reports.

Partnerships between industry and researchers can often be seen as the holy grail of product development. Combining the minds of academics with the directed knowledge of manufacturers sounds great, but in practice can break down over issues such as project direction, intellectual property ownership, and the final stumbling block of commercialisation. One partnership that has overcome this, and is on its way to market, is the collaboration between researchers from a consortium of universities and Australian dental restorative materials manufacturer, SDI Ltd.

Leading the research side of this partnership is Gangadhara Prusty, Professor of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering and Director of ARC Training Centre for Automated Manufacture of Advanced Composites (AMAC), together with Dean of Engineering, Professors Mark Hoffman and Scientia Professor Martina Stenzel at UNSW Sydney, Ginu Rajan, Senior Lecturer at University of Wollongong and Ayman Ellakwa, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. With dental amalgams, which contain mercury, being phased out of worldwide use, the race is now on to find a similarly applicable material, and as Prusty points out, a shift such as this combines the requirements of industry with the talents of academics.

“Dental material manufacturers, such as SDI are thinking, ‘How can we come up with an alternative material?’ It doesn’t come just overnight, it takes time to think, research, and do the science.”

The project started in 2014, as a outcome of dentist Dr. Paul Shouha’s PhD dissertation. Rajan and UNSW researchers turned to a dental resin reinforced with commercially available high-strength glass fibres and investigated their curing kinetics. After developing a cleaning process for the fibres’ coatings, the fibres were held in the resin with a saline coupling agent.

“We looked at one single fibre, and then we put it into the resin, cured it, and then we pulled to understand the shear stress,” said Prusty. Going on the principle that  understanding what occurs in one fibre will be replicated when resins at higher quantities
are reinforced with such fibres, the team found the material acted just as required. These findings were formalised with a provisional patent and now the team is exploring how
to get this process from the lab to commercial production, and then into the dental surgery.

“At the laboratory scale, we can produce a gram of material or three grams of materials, but if they need half a kilogram of materials, which can go into thousands of syringes, how can you do that?” asked Prusty.

While from an industry perspective, the current stage of the project is just the beginning, the project has already gone through the full gambit of research stages.

Having established the viability of the technique, the team were then able to further develop the method for producing the fibre reinforced dental composite. Involving industry partner SDI Ltd, led by research and development manager Paul Farrar, the academic team were able to progress the project, while SDI were able to leverage the scientific knowledge already developed.

“When we talked to SDI, who manufactures those dental products, they had already realised that they have to move from the amalgam- based product, and this new material sounded scientific and the approach also looked good and so they accepted the idea.”

Having SDI as a partner meant that the research team could apply for an Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage grant, which specifically supports advanced research that has an industrial or commercial component. The ARC linkage grant enabled the project to emerged from the lab into SDI’s factory. To take the next step, the consortium enlisted additional partners Bestech Australia and Dentalk Ltd and were awarded a Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) grant (2019- 2022) to take the research one step further. Not only will this grant support the commercial production of the dental materials but a new polymerisation shrinkage measurement device, known to the team as profilometer, and a novel glass fibre cutting machine.

“That will be state-of-the art,” said Prusty. “This fibre optic profilometer can track the shrinkage and the curing rate of the restorative material. It will be a good training tool for the dentists to understand the mechanism of delivering the filling.”

The secret to success
With each step in this project so far being seemingly smooth, the what is behind each stage is a close collaboration between researchers and their commercial partners. After the initial testing was carried out, which contributed to a number of academic publications and a provisional patent for the manufacture of these composites, the next step was to find a method for the research to be applied in its intended context.

“We are developing science in the laboratory, so we thought, ‘Who can take this knowledge?’” said Prusty. “We can find something but that can stay inside the laboratory, it won’t be useful unless we attract the manufacturing industry, so that’s the time that we found SDI.”

After making the connection, Jeffery Cheetham, founder and chairman of the SDI board, visited the facilities and team at UNSW. Seeing the quality of the project that had already been developed, the next step required an act of belief on behalf of SDI. Not only did SDI have to invest in the research, as both the ARC Linkage grant and the CRC-P grant require cash contribution from industry, but it also made in-kind contributions. This belief was based upon the quality of the research conducted so far and its distance from what else is available.

Underlying the collaboration between SDI and the researchers was an agreement on how the intellectual property would be shared between the two of them. This agreement has enabled a long-term partnership, and both sides are looking towards further innovation, with the proficiencies of each side complimenting each other.

According to Prusty, however, the intangible assets that the university has are the largest contributors to the partnership.

”The biggest strength is the research pool, PhD students, post- doctoral fellows.”

The current stage of the project, operationalising the funding that was received from the CRC-P program, awarded in July 2019, exemplifies this win-win relationship between researchers and industry.

“We have a patent, the science, and the knowledge,” said Prusty. “The industry can take that science and then upscale that production capability, so this way the industry benefits as they will move from amalgam based restorative composites to the deployable dental composites alternative. We will enable them to upskill their product manufacturing, so that needs instrumentation and an understanding of the techniques”.

Through this CRC-P project, SDI joins the ARC Training Centre for AMAC as an industry affiliate. In alignment with AMAC’s vision, the current project will take the methods and techniques that have been developed in the laboratory and translate them to commercial production outcomes. With sensors and instrumentation company Bestech Australia on- board for the CRC-P project, beyond dental materials, the goal is to develop state-of-the art dental instrumentation as well.

Not only have research outcomes already been gained from the project over its lifetime so far, with two PhD dissertations and over half-a-dozen undergraduate and postgraduate theses to be completed on the basis of this research, but the project aims to benefit the wider community.

“SDI sells their products to more than 100 countries around the world,” described Prusty. “In this way, we will have the opportunity to spread the work of this collaboration which will give a lot of exposure for Australian science and development, coming from the laboratory and going into reality.”