Clunies Ross Entrepreneur of the Year
Dr Elaine Saunders
Dr Elaine Saunders is an audiologist, an innovator, and an entrepreneur determined to change her industry for the better. She has worked over the last 20 years to successfully disrupt hearing service provision in Australia, through challenging current business and pricing models, and improving technology in partnership with inventor Peter Blamey.
Her initiatives have created approximately 100 high-tech jobs in the last 20 years, and culminated in the development of the IHearYou® self‐fit hearing aid system and remote tele‐audiology support model. Blamey Saunders Hears has commercialised these technologies to overcome cost and distance barriers and address premium hearing aid accessibility.
Elaine’s commitment to the Australian technology innovation system and to hearing health is unquestionable. When we first met, she acted as a mentor through the co‐founding of my own technology startup. We later worked together at RMIT in Industry Engagement, when I had the privilege of learning from her leadership style. Later, I moved to CSIRO to lead their Health Services research theme, and developed a deeper understanding of challenges facing the Australian health system from an ageing population, rising chronic disease, leading to rising costs and rendering many current business models unsustainable.
All these factors point to inevitable and necessary industry disruption, and a strong need for new companies to challenge the status quo and offer more efficient, effective, safe, alternatives. Blamey Saunders Hears fits well into that category.
The audiology industry in Australia is a tightly controlled dominated by the billion-dollar multinational hearing aid manufacturers, with high profit margins to customers that can generally ill afford them but have no alternative. Elaine has long seen this as a problem needing to be fixed, and has set about doing this with persistence and passion over 20 years. No industry wants to be disrupted, and Elaine founded Blamey Saunders Hears with her eyes open about the likely industry response, having already weathered IP and legal challenges.
She wears her title of “the most hated audiologist in Australia’ as a badge of honour with bittersweet pride, seeing the censure from her peers as evidence that her efforts to disrupt their world are successful, and more than offset by the appreciation of clients who would otherwise be unable to access services for their hearing loss, or were dissatisfied with the quality of the service provided. The Blamey Saunders Hears website has a long list of inspiring customer testimonials from both eminent and everyday Australians.
Elaine’s contribution to the industry through the application of technology has been significant in its own right, and in partnership with Professor Peter Blamey. Australia has many stories of brilliant inventors who were unfortunately unable to translate their inventions into successful products, through a lack of entrepreneurial and business expertise. Elaine and Peter have successfully partnered to overcome that barrier.
Her contribution centres on an ability to bridge science, business models, the possibilities of technology, and customer needs. Holding both an MSc and a PhD, Elaine understands what drives scientists and engineers, and can frame market‐facing problems and build teams leveraging these drivers to enable inventive solutions that can be built into business models to take to market. Elaine has repeatedly demonstrated this expertise, leading two different teams to win Australian Design Awards (2000 & 2015), bringing together the Monash Vision Bionic Eye initiative, and co‐founding two Australian startups: Dynamic Hearing and Blamey Saunders Hears. Her expertise has also been acknowledged through multiple business leadership and entrepreneurship awards, won in her own right.
Elaine actively promotes entrepreneurship and Australian manufacturing. The Incus is Australian-designed and manufactured, and BSH is now on a path to also manufacture modular hearing aids in Australia, part funded by the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs program.
Clunies Ross Knowledge Commercialisation Award
Professor Maree Smith AC FTSE
Professor Maree Smith’s breakthrough discovery that the angiotensin II type 2 (AT2) receptor has a key role in the pathobiology of neuropathic pain, and that a novel antagonist of this receptor could alleviate neuropathic pain, led to the insight that a peripherally acting pain drug could be developed, thereby avoiding the central nervous system side-effects inherent in most current pain medicines.
Her drug candidate, EMA401, is being developed as a first-in-class oral treatment for neuropathic pain and chronic inflammatory pain. With a completely novel mechanism of action and no or minimal central nervous system side-effects, EMA401 is positioned for major competitive advantage over existing treatments.
EMA401’s initial Phase 2 clinical trial in patients with postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), a debilitating long-term neuropathic condition that can follow shingles infection, demonstrated a statistically significant reduction in mean pain intensity relative to placebo and was published in The Lancet.
Working closely with UQ’s commercialisation company, UniQuest Pty Ltd, Professor Smith responded to due diligence questions, pitched the commercialisation opportunity to venture capital investors, and prepared development plans.
In mid-2005, the start-up company Spinifex Pharmaceuticals (Spinifex) was formed by UniQuest with $3.25 million in venture capital to protect the initial neuropathic pain patent and to fund early development work including patent enablement, lead characterisation, and drug candidate selection studies.
In 2006, UniQuest filed a second patent to protect the unexpected discovery by Professor Smith that AT2 receptor antagonists also alleviated chronic inflammatory pain. This second patent was subsequently in-licensed into Spinifex.
Funding from a successful Commercial Ready grant, together with capital raised from Symbiosis, GBS, Uniseed, and Brandon Capital Partners, was used to conduct an IND-enabling preclinical toxicology program, research on the mechanisms through which AT2 receptor antagonists alleviate neuropathic pain, as well as Phase 1 safety and tolerability clinical trials.
In 2011, the company raised $18.3 million to fund clinical efficacy trials of EMA401 for the relief of peripheral neuropathic pain. Spinifex won the BioSpectrum Asia-Pacific Emerging Company of the Year 2012, and Johnson & Johnson Innovation 2015 – Mature Australian Company of the Year. In June 2015, Spinifex agreed to its acquisition by Novartis International AG.
Professor Smith holds 11 patents in pain relief, over half as sole grantee, with patented novel analgesics technologies licensed to three spin-out companies (Spinifex, Qrx Pharma, and QUE Oncology) demonstrating a sustained and tenacious pursuit of translational research. Professor Smith was awarded the Johnson & Johnson 2015 Industry Leadership Award for service that “goes beyond the ‘job description’”, and is the Inaugural Inductee into the Life Sciences Queensland (LSQ) Hall of Fame.
Clunies Ross Innovation Award
Professor Peter Murphy
The plastic mirror is the world’s first lightweight, injection-compression moulded and highly durable polycarbonate rearview automotive mirror. It results from a collaborative research and development partnership between Peter Murphy (with Drew Evans and Colin Hall) at the University of South Australia (UniSA) with SMR Automotive (SMR), funded through the Collaborative Research Centre for Advanced Automotive Technology (AutoCRC).
The plastic mirror provides a viable market alternative to glass-based external car mirrors. The product is highly reflective, distortion-free, shatterproof and resistant to abrasion and vibration. These unique features are delivered through the application of nano-engineering developed at UniSA. Accordingly, a thin plastic structure is transformed into an effective mirror by applying multiple layers of thin films known as a “coating stack”. The stack consists of resin, silicon, chromium zirconium alloy and a water-repelling material individually layered at 10 nanometre to 3 micrometre thicknesses.
Murphy oversaw the transformation of the plastic mirror project from fundamental research science into manufacturing processes and a commercial product over a period of seven years. The concept of the coating stack was first conceptualised and presented to SMR in 2008. This included Hall’s apparently counter-intuitive idea of placing a scratch-protection layer underneath the reflective layers in the stack. In the end, this step turned out to be critical for retaining key optical properties in the plastic mirror. Evans devised the concept of using a layer of chromium zirconium alloy to generate an optimised reflective surface, and added broad expertise in materials science.
With potential applications quickly identified, Murphy, Evans and Hall lodged the first of six patents relevant to the technology in 2009, and commercial arrangements with SMR were established. Validation of processes to supply Ford USA with car mirrors and the design of a plastic mirror production facility also occurred in that year.
By 2011, Murphy and SMR were designing, sourcing, installing and commissioning production equipment. Transfer of know-how from UniSA to SMR soon followed. Federal Senator the Hon Kim Carr opened SMR’s production facility in 2011. Supply of Ford USA F250 truck mirrors commenced in 2012, and continues to the current day.
The plastic mirror intellectual property is jointly owned by UniSA and SMR. SMR has exclusive royalty-free rights to use the technology for automotive use, according to the terms of the agreement set up via the AutoCRC.