New Cook Medical Australia boss to continue growing focus on R&D

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Dr Samih Nabulsi became the new General Manager of Cook Medical Australia earlier this year. Brent Balinski spoke to him about Cook’s approach to innovation, and how Nabulsi’s R&D background will inform his leadership.

Employing over 500 locally and exporting over 90 percent of what it makes at its Brisbane headquarters – much of it custom-made – Cook Medical Australia is an Australian manufacturing success story.

In past years it has grown exports handsomely and featured regularly in awards programs (such as the Manufacturers’ Monthly Endeavour Awards) and took out last year’s Premier of Queensland Export Award for Health and Biotechnology.

Recently it’s also shifted from being more sales-oriented to incorporating more R&D into its business, explains Dr Samih Nabulsi, who took over as General Manager for Cook Medical Australia. Until recently he was Director of R&D at the company.

“Many of our innovations have been developed with very close collaborations with clinicians around the world, and I guess I bring the science and research side of it to this, which is new to us in a way,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly shortly after being announced as the new Australian boss.

“It’s about bringing all these new, clever things and combining them with our experience in sales and the various markets, the knowledge of clinicians and clinical settings and combining the three to make the next leap in medical treatments.”

Nabulsi has been at Cook for 12 years, and is a mechanical engineer by training. He had previously been principal scientist for GlaxoSmithkline R&D in the UK, and held various academic roles, including Research Fellow in Medical Engineering at Oxford.

Most recently he was also head of Cook’s Asia-Pacific New Technologies Team, which began in early 2014. An incubator-style hub for new technology and ideas developed in collaboration with outside companies and researchers. Its make-up includes scientists, engineers and business directors.

The first publicly-announced effort, with Anteo Technologies, was in March last year, and involved attaching biomolecules to medical device surfaces.

Nabulsi said of 350-plus concepts at ANTT, 11 were currently being actively invested in.

“Some are just smart ideas, others are concepts that have been developed into a prototype stage and a proof of concept-type study, he explained.

“They vary from ones that we’re developing into medical devices to ones where we’re doing – we’ve put some money into research labs and people and so on for proof of concept-type studies. Others are in the early stage of investigation for us.”

Australia is the regional hub for the company’s R&D, as well as its manufacturing. As R&D head, it has been Nabulsi’s concern to help try and get great ideas into products for the growing Asian market.

When this magazine last spoke to Nabulsi’s predecessor, Barry Thomas, in late-2015, he put it like this: “For us, in 2016, developing markets such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and interestingly, Myanmar, are areas where I see economic growth and the expanding middle class creating a real shift in the industry.”

Market growing significantly

Thomas, the Director of Cook Medical Asia Pacific and Vice President Cook Inc., is well-known in the industry for his firm advocacy for manufacturing, and his championing of tax incentives to encourage innovators to manufacture within Australia.

For example, of last December’s Turnbull government National Innovation and Science Agenda, Thomas commented that it “lacked any significant changes for manufacturing” and the “conditions that make it unappealing to manufacture in Australia still remain.”

Asked if he would be as outspoken as Thomas, the new GM said he fully supported Thomas’s Australian Innovation and Manufacturing Incentive (modelled on Britain’s Patent Box scheme). However, the AIM Incentive’s adoption or not probably wouldn’t influence Cook’s business decisions.

“The main thing for me is – like I said earlier – bringing new science and technology into our industry,” he added.

Of the difficulties the company faced, he said it had proved “very challenging” finding the right talent for some of the labour-intensive manufacturing work, such as hand-sewing custom endovascular aortic repair stents. For such a job, only perhaps two out of ten workers stayed.

However, our brief conversation with Nabulsi is upbeat, and focussed on collaborations with various universities and with businesses (including Bosch Australia and Advanced Material Solutions) to bring great ideas to fruition. As somebody with a background in applied research, making a real-world rather than theoretical impact through scientific ideas is a topic familiar to Nabulsi.

“And of course, as you know, Asia-Pacific as a region in our field is growing significantly and is certainly growing significantly for Cook,” he added.

“And bringing devices that are suitable for that market and suitable to the populations in that market is pretty exciting.”