Australian manufacturer thrives at intersection of technology and human wellbeing

Ringwood’s Trajan Scientific and Medical operates in two acknowledged areas of competitive advantage for Australia: advanced manufacturing and medical technology. Brent Balinski spoke to company CEO Stephen Tomisich about how it plans to change the world of healthcare.

From smartphones to pathology

The trend towards mobility, enabled by things such as portable computational power and the cloud, has been obvious for years and is impacting seemingly every industry we can think of.

Medical technology is no different, and this is a big part of the strategy of Australian company Trajan Scientific and Medical. Increasingly decentralised healthcare, enabled by things including smaller and improved measurement technology, will change our lives for the better, according to Trajan’s CEO and co-founder, Stephen Tomisich.

It will lower healthcare costs, force changes to logistics operations, and improve quality of life for many.

“The longer-term solution to rising healthcare costs in all modern societies is actually back to prevention,” Tomisich told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“And so then we look at personalised measurement, and we purposely use the word ‘measurement’ rather than ‘medicine’. We think the greater uptake is going to be in areas where people want to be proactive about their health, they want to be informed about how their biology is tracking and what are some of the potential impacts of the environment to which they’re exposed or the foods that they are consuming.”

The impacts of personalised, portable measurement – rather than a journey from sample taking at a lab and, eventually, back to the individual – are vast, and not limited to healthcare. Individuals will benefit enormously by gaining knowledge at the site a measurement is taken, says the company, “be it a food transport vehicle, river stream or a clinical patient.”

Successful collaborations

Established in 2011, Trajan acquired Grale Scientific the same year and, after that, SGE Analytical Science, which Tomisich was formerly CEO of and which has a place in the Victorian Manufacturing Hall of Fame. Trajan, which exports 98 per cent of what it makes, is also the parent company of SciMed Precision.

Trajan employs around 300 worldwide and about 280 at its Ringwood, Melbourne headquarters. Around half of these work in microassembly, an area highly resistant to automation.

Its success has been explained by some, such as former industry minister Ian Macfarlane during a visit last in May 2014, as due to globally relevant products and collaboration with industry groups and universities.

Looking outside itself for expertise began early on, explained Tomisich, through discussions with “a dozen” Australian universities. The company has strong links with University of Tasmania and University of Adelaide, both of which have world-class capabilities in fields relevant to Trajan.

“In Tasmania you’ve got a group focussed around separation science, the science of chromatography, and they are renowned globally for the calibre of people in the team and some of the developments they’ve had over the years,” he said.

“And then secondly we saw in Adelaide an infrastructure and a talent around the area of photonics, again, which has a global reputation that many would aspire to.”

Trajan, with University of Tasmania, is part of the ASTech (Analytical Separation Technologies) Australian Research Council Training Centre for Portable Analytical Separation Technologies, established in October 2014. It dipped its toe into collaborating with the university via the Researchers In Business program.

Its relationship with University of Adelaide began through the Photonics Catalyst Program, a partnership between the SA state government and the university’s Institute of Photonics and Advanced Sensing. Adelaide has a cluster of photonics expertise through the university and various DSTO projects, and the program is an attempt to help get that into the market.

Trajan announced an R&D hub partnership at the institute last September, assisted by a $346,000 SA government grant.

The expertise residing there is around glass modification and glass fabrication, related to optical-type applications, and this offers potential around complex components for mass spectrometry devices, said Tomisich.

Trajan’s partnership in Tasmania’s ASTech has led to one exciting new product which is at currently the prototype stage, and which came out of post-doctoral research by Dr Florian Lapierre.

The next great Australian invention?

The hemaPEN, a world-first, is an example of the potential offered by the decentralisation of medicine, and uses dried blood spot sampling.

The use of the dried blood spot is over a half-century old. Blood is taken from an infant, transferred to filter paper, and this is transported to a lab to be tested for congenital problems.

Manufacturing the hemaPEN requires the ability to draw out precise capillaries made out of glass, which deliver an accurate volume of blood – as little as three microlitres – to a container inside the pen, which holds an FDA-approved blotting paper inside a sealed canister. Blood can be collected by the patient to then be sent to a clinic, with no need for a person to leave their house.

There have been hopes that DBS could be the way blood sampling is decentralised, but there have been issues around things such as taking a precisely accurate amount of blood to blotting paper, having a homogenous sample on the paper, and keeping the sample uncontaminated.

Announced in September as the first product from ASTech, this year the hemaPEN will go through further trials.

“We’re able to avoid trips to the clinic for family for the elderly or the handicapped and others that a trip to the clinic to draw blood from them can be quite a traumatic experience,” said Tomisich.

“And you’ll notice again that all of these things ultimately come back to [the question] ‘how do our technology developments impact on human wellbeing?’”

Where is the benefit?

The current government has used Trajan as a case study of the type of advanced manufacturing that is possible and should be encouraged in Australia, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Trajan in the lead-up to the December Innovation Statement.

Speaking soon after the launch, Tomisich offered that the agenda “hit a lot of the right areas”, and he was particularly interested in anything that might help change in the “publish or perish” situation among researchers.

The theme of encouraging more start-ups in the “ideas boom” launch was also something dear to Tomisich, with Trajan hosting its own accelerator program.

The Trajan accelerator covers cash and in-kind help to start-ups. It also addresses the “valley of death” for such firms. Often used in recent years to describe technology readiness levels or shipbuilding contracts, when Tomisich uses the term he speaks of having the infrastructure in place to allow businesses to focus on their strength and not suffering and failing due to problems with things like recruitment, regulatory requirements and channels to market. 

“All those other complexities of converting an idea into sustainable revenue,” he said.

“And so that’s an area in the statement that intrigued us the most because we want to see not only collaboration resulting in great ideas and products, but we want to see it translate to economic activity in the country.

“If isn’t the ultimate outcome then where is the benefit? And so the nearest concern for me would be that we don’t want to just see more venture capitalists and more speculative investment happening, we want to see real investment in sustainable businesses happen.”  

 

Images (in order)

The Mercury

Stuart McEvoy/The Australian

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