Swinburne turning PhDs on their head

Monday 30 March 2015

Swinburne BioReactor students during a team building workshop.

Swinburne BioReactor students during a team building workshop. Image credit: Lucy Campbell, Swinburne Design Factory.

In summary

  • This article written by Natalie Chapman was originally published by gemaker

A new program at Swinburne University is turning the doctoral qualification on its head by embedding students in medical technology companies before they’ve even chosen a research topic.

From the ARC Training Centre in Biodevices at Swinburne University, new PhD candidate Jonathon Miegel and nine fellow students are coming up with 100 ways they can make the world a healthier place. Or to be more precise, they are identifying problems in hospitals, pathology labs, clinics, nursing homes and aged care facilities, and developing 100 opportunities for the medical device industry to solve them.

It’s an unorthodox start to a PhD and the result of a complete rethink of the qualification by Swinburne. The students are still a year away from choosing their topic and will skip the obligatory literature review. Instead, they’ll be expected to get their hands dirty and immerse themselves in industry, perhaps by scrubbing up to watch surgery or interviewing a company’s technical and management staff. This world first qualification is known as the BioReactor PhD program and it aims to link exceptional university research with industry. The project is backed by a $1.8 million ARC Industry Transformational Training Centre grant for the creation of the ARC Training Centre in Biodevices—funding that will support the 10 PhD students plus two postdoctoral researchers for three years.

“We’ve rewritten what a PhD is here from the ground up,” Swinburne BioReactor deputy director Gianni Renda says. “We’re receiving massive support from the university, access to workshops and labs”. One of the earliest tasks for the students is to whittle down their initial list of 100 projects based on cost benefit analyses and commercial outcomes. At the same time they will take coursework units from Swinburne’s Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, studying opportunity discovery, creativity and innovation, opportunity evaluation and product innovation. After nine months, the students will present a Dragon’s Den-style pitch to medical device companies and will be embedded in industry. It is the organisation that chooses the project and the PhD candidate they want to work with their company.

Students, it seems, are voting with their feet in favour of the overhauled degree. In its first year, the program attracted 68 highly qualified applicants for just 10 positions. The application process included a three-minute YouTube video and enticed entrepreneurial students looking to work in research and development in industry or even start a business themselves. Among the successful applicants are an emergency physician, a Masters graduate from Harvard-MIT Health Science and Technology and the inventor of a 3D-printable prosthesis. Mr Miegel, for instance, completed a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechatronic Engineering (with first class honours) concurrently alongside a Masters in Biomedical Engineering, and designed two ultra-low cost prosthetic hands for developing countries as part of his thesis.

But whatever their background, the students all have one thing in common—a burning desire to make a difference in the medical world and improve people’s lives. Mr Miegel says he was drawn to the program over a traditional PhD because of the opportunity to link academia and industry. “It gives me more options at the end of it,” he says. “Whether I want to go into industry and work on R&D… or with the innovation side of it I could potentially look to start my own business.”

The launch of the new program comes as a November 2014 report from the Office of the Chief Scientist Ian Chubb slammed Australia’s level of collaboration between research and industry as one of the lowest in the OECD. The report found Australia fairs poorly when it comes to patent applications and the proportion of researchers employed in the business sector is lower than any other comparable country for which data is available. European countries, for instance, average 56 per cent of their researchers working in industry, while in Japan the figure is 76 per cent and in Korea it is 79 per cent. In Australia, just 32 per cent of researchers are employed by the business sector. Perhaps this is why businesses too are lining up to take part in the BioReactor program, with Dr Renda saying industry is “incredibly excited” by the new course.

Businesses are changing their view and beginning to view universities as hotbeds of innovation, and can see massive advantages in the new course. Companies that take part in the BioReactor program can expect benefits such as additional revenue, new intellectual property, an independent analysis of current opportunities, exposure to a range of new opportunities, tax credits and access to expertise and potential employees. A diverse range of medical technology companies have signed up to host students, including Blamey Saunders hears, Grey Innovation, MiniFAB, Optotech, Small Technologies Cluster, Streamline Solutions, Aqua Diagnostic, and the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing.

Just three weeks into the program, Mr Miegel, says he has already met these industry partners in Melbourne. Together with his fellow students, he has been finding out more about the challenges the businesses face, and where there might be opportunities to make things better. “I am very interested in the bionics area and hearing,” Mr Miegel says. “But I'm also interested in the efficiency of hospitals and emergency response.”

Mr Miegel and his fellow students will ultimately be embedded with an industry partner for at least a third of their PhD, where they will develop a detailed project plan and execute their ideas. “Hopefully this will be an incubation for massive change,” Dr Renda says. It is all part of an approach that is turning the PhD and what it means to do research in Australia on its head, and the developers of the BioReactor program hope to see it rolled out across Swinburne and later emulated around the world. The students will represent Australia internationally, attending innovation workshops and touring manufacturing hubs in places such as Boston and Singapore. “Australia is already a biodevices capital of the world,” Dr Renda says.

“This program gives the Australian centre a stage to compete globally on and the opportunity to build brand Australia in R&D.”