Bioreactor PhD launches careers

Swinburne University’s innovative Bioreactor PhD Program was launched only three years ago, with funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC), but the benefits of its entrepreneurial focus are already clear to the program’s supervisors, the first cohort of students and their industry partners.

‘We’ve achieved our two main goals: to make our PhD program highly relevant to industry, and to facilitate research with real-world impact in the field of medical devices, improving people’s health and quality of life,’ says Professor Paul Stoddart, Director of Swinburne’s ARC Training Centre in Biodevices.

‘Our first cohort of ten students is completing their diverse PhD projects and many have already lined up ongoing employment or consulting work with their industry partners,’ Professor Stoddart explains.

‘Their research outcomes include six provisional patents and seven registered designs for innovative biomedical products and processes with real market potential. One of these products – a new mass customised earphone – will shortly be launched into the market by a spin out company.’

PhD candidate Victor Dislakis partnered with Melbourne company Bluechiip Ltd in a research project to solve problems with tracking cells used in IVF and other procedures, using Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology to create tiny, smart chips that can survive the ultra-cold temperatures in which these cells are stored.

‘In these extreme environments, conventional tagging methods can be unreliable for tracking samples. MEMS chips not only address this problem, but they can also monitor temperature and other factors affecting cell quality and the success of medical procedures,’ Mr Dislakis says.

When he completes his PhD, Victor will continue to work with Bluechiip as he is keen to help the company achieve their goals. With a background in developing devices for the IVF industry, Victor found the Bioreactor PhD program a natural fit, meeting both his technical aspirations and desire to learn more about the broader med-tech industry.

‘The Bioreactor PhD program gives you more options: it doesn’t exclude an academic career, but it also trains you for industry employment. There’s definitely a place for pure research in PhD programs, but while our nation’s economy is transitioning away from traditional industries, this kind of entrepreneurial program is needed to drive the development of new technology companies.’

‘There’s a risk that students who move straight from school to an undergraduate degree, and then straight on to a doctorate, may reach maturity without any experience of the world beyond educational institutions,’ says Professor Stoddart. ‘Our students have been encouraged to look outwards, to investigate industry problems and seek solutions specific to target markets.

‘Traditionally, PhD students are allocated a research project developed by their academic supervisor. Students in the Bioreactor program have been required to show initiative and set their own agenda. They’ve personally investigated multiple industry problems and possible research paths to solutions, assessing them for practicality and marketability, and ranking them to select the project with greatest potential.’

The students engaged with potential industry partners via networking opportunities, as well as going onsite and attending workshops with product designers and manufacturers. They also met with end users to get their feedback. Then they proposed their PhD projects based on analysis of all this input.

‘This was a big challenge, but they had support from a supervisory panel of experienced researchers plus industry consultants,’ says Professor Stoddart. ‘The project selection process took about nine months, followed by three months’ work to review relevant literature, finalise the hypothesis and methods, and create the project plan, including resource allocation and anticipated return on investment.

‘Meanwhile, a PhD student following a traditional program would be twelve months into their research, which seems an advantage. But our examiners will consider the project selection process as part of the doctoral thesis, because it demonstrates essential skills for a research career, which are also valued by industry.

‘One company CEO told me that when they hire PhD graduates, they usually expect it will take a couple of years for them to ‘get up to speed’ in the commercial environment. Not so, with our students.

‘Based on real-world experience, our students understand that in industry, time is money and research must focus on the needs of the end-user, rather than on questions that may intrigue the researcher, but aren’t relevant to the market. But I want to stress that fundamental research is also critical to humanity’s progress, and Swinburne has strong higher degree programs for students with that priority.’

Building on the success of the Bioreactor PhD program, Swinburne University has proposed a new training centre with a different industry focus but the same program model, and the funding application is under review by the ARC. Meanwhile, Swinburne will roll out new, integrated coursework for PhD students in all faculties, to develop their entrepreneurial skills.

‘As the first Bioreactor program cohort, the university has learnt a lot from our experience and feedback,’ says Victor Dislakis. ‘There have been some kinks in the program, which we’ve helped to iron out. I would definitely recommend the program to anyone with both technical and commercial interests, and a clear vision of what they want out of their PhD.

‘A big lesson from the program is about the uncertainties of research commercialisation. It’s a high-risk, high-reward venture, requiring a highly professional approach. The program provides professional training covering all aspects of the long journey from need to idea, to research, to product development, and finally, to market. It’s leading the trend in entrepreneurial PhD programs.’

‘In supporting the Bioreactor PhD program, I believe the ARC is using taxpayers’ money wisely, to ensure research is addressing public needs,’ Professor Stoddart says. ‘Not only is our industry-focused research having a positive impact on public health and wellbeing, but it’s also helping to build new industries, create jobs and future-proof our economy.’