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Australia’s Neurotech Future

May 28, 2024
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Rachel Slattery creates and nourishes communities of curious minds around frontier tech and better ways of working.
As I delve deeper into better ways of ageing, I find myself increasingly focused on the brain. Initially, I believed brain health was something to prioritise as we age. However, the more I research, the more I realise how crucial it is to start much earlier. Our brains hold the key to our individual and collective futures. Neurotech is a window and a lever on our brains, illuminating how our brains function and guiding efforts for healthier, longer lives.

In a world where human ingenuity has created artificial intelligence (AI), we can surely build generative value from our own human brains. A global movement has begun for societies to accumulate Brain Capital. By recognising our brains as a unique resource, we can better address societal challenges and transition to a truly brain-based economy. And where best to start but in funding the research and tech that can help us find, see, and understand the best interventions to help our brains and the future brains of Australia?

It’s not just cool or nice-to-have. A major study has found neurological conditions are now the leading cause of ill health and disability globally, underscoring the critical importance of optimising brain health throughout our lives.

By recognising our brains as a unique resource, we can better address societal challenges and transition to a truly brain-based economy.

Neurotech is a gamechanger

Neurotech can help us see the brain as never before, revealing its remarkable capacity to adapt and repair. “Neuroscience is undergoing a renaissance,” reported The Economist in September 2022, noting that it was propelled by significant advancements in technology spanning from imaging and sensors to AI. In 2023, UNESCO stated that the world is “on the threshold of a new technological revolution”. By harnessing data analytics and imaging capabilities, we can delve into the intricacies of the brain, paving the way for personalised interventions tailored to individual needs.

Neurotech offers profound insights into our brains, allowing us to understand more about ourselves. Neurotech promises to mitigate suffering by unlocking treatments for numerous chronic neurological illnesses. It has demonstrated efficacy in alleviating migraines, treating depression, managing epilepsy and ameliorating dementia. Neurotechnology has already shown how it can help paralysed people to move.

Amazing brainy things are happening in our backyard

In 1999, Cogstate (ASX:CGS) was founded in Melbourne by a group of neuroscientists with the initial aim of simplifying cognitive measurement by developing rapid computerised cognition tests. Cogstate’s CEO Brad O’Connor often says that making measuring cognition as easy as measuring blood pressure is Cogstate’s north star. This is a huge ambition given that while we might test blood pressure, cholesterol and even diabetes on a regular basis, cognitive tests are far from routine when we visit the doctor.

Saluda Medical spun out from NICTA in early 2013. John Parker and many of the founding team had worked together at Cochlear on the first implantable neurostimulator to measure compound action potentials before Parker started the implants group at NICTA (which later became Data61 and rolled into CSIRO in 2015). Saluda raised US$150 million in 2023 and relocated it’s headquarters to the US. It’s spinal cord stimulation device called Evoke treats debilitating neurological pain and is now approved in Europe, the US and Australia. It is being implanted by physicians in all those jurisdictions resulting in the company’s revenues growing rapidly.

Tessara Therapeutics is building 3D models of ‘mini-brains” to fast track future medicines and treatments for conditions such as Parkinson’s and dementia. Tessara is located in the newly opened Jumar Bioincubator, located inside CSL’s Global Headquarters and Centre for Research and Development within the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct.

Also connected to the University of Melbourne is Synchron, founded by Australians Dr Tom Oxley and Dr Nick Opie. Synchron is making global headlines as it begins a trial of its revolutionary minimally invasive brain-computer interface (BCI). Now headquartered in New York, Synchron received $52 million through a Series B investment round led by Khosla Ventures and $15 million from the US National Institutes of Health to launch US trials in 2021 and raised a further $113 million in 2022 led by ARCH Venture Partners.

Sydney-based Omniscient Neurotechnology provides personalised insights based on data collected from maps of our brain to aid surgery and interventions. This is particularly critical given that neurological conditions are the second-leading cause of death. Omniscient has received $40 million in funding from Australian investors, including Gina Rinehart and Will Vicars.

The Neurotech Opportunity for Australia

Global investment in neurotechnology is skyrocketing, including massive government investment. In the United States, the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative took flight in 2013 and invested US$3 billion in the following decade. The European Union has the Human Brain Project, and there are other significant national initiatives in Japan and South Korea. The China Brain Project launched in 2015 alongside the country’s 13th Five-Year Plan, aiming to advance understanding of cognitive functions and develop technology platforms for treating brain disorders and creating brain-machine intelligence technologies.

Key players are well aware of the opportunities that await Australia. The Australian Brain Alliance, formed in 2016 and supported by the Australian Academy of Science, has advocated for an Australian Brain Initiative. Their funding ask was for $500 million over five years to facilitate linkages between discovery and industry to ‘crack the brain’s code’, develop treatments and establish an Australian neurotech industry. The Australian Brain Alliance is still waiting for that funding.

So much of brain research in this country continues to be siloed which is aggravated by the reliance on grants or philanthropy, that tends to hone in on specific areas. For instance, a review of The Medical Research Future Fund’s Australian Brain Cancer Mission found that while there has been an (albeit slight) increase in overall money for brain cancer research in Australia this has had “minimal impact on building links between research and industry”, with the Mission yet to boost commercialisation.

According to research published in 2023 by UNESCO, while Australia’s neuroscience research output is in the top 10, we are not in the top 10 for patents. The United States leads the pack in neuroscience publication output (40%), followed by the United Kingdom (9%), Germany (7%), China (5%), Canada (4%), Japan (4%), Italy (4%), France (4%), the Netherlands (3%), and Australia (3%). UNESCO includes Australia among the countries that “lag behind in effectively translating neurotech knowledge into patentable innovations”.

The very nature of neurotech is that it is transdisciplinary and relies on collaboration. While Synchron is in the news now for raising significant investment, it received its first investment of $1 million way back in 2011 from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for proof-of-concept, drawing on expertise across the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct and then secured a further development grant of $2.2 million from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council. Co-founder Dr Tom Oxley said of those early days: “By bringing together neurointerventionalists and neurosurgeons, coders, engineers and other disciplines, the concept started to become a reality, and it was very exciting to see it all coming together.”

Breakthrough Victoria has invested modestly in two companies that could be ground-breaking in this space. Cyban’s brain-oxygen monitoring detects and treats brain injury and Seer Medical’s tech enables home monitoring of epilepsy. In February 2024 Brandon Capital received a $50 million grant from the Federal Government to establish an incubator focussing on dementia and cognitive decline.

Australia can join the global movement in prioritising brain health and skills by leveraging our comparative advantage in neuroscience and neurotech. To do this, we need a coordinated approach that starts with blue-sky research, encourages collaborative investment and transdisciplinary approaches to address societal challenges and create new industries.

Australia’s future prosperity relies on building our Brain Capital—our collective cognitive health and skills. Investing in the tech that helps us do this is a no-brainer!

Further Reading

The Brain Capital Alliance was formed following the success of the OECD Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative and unites world-class contributors to explore how to best build brain capital at a societal scale.

The International Brain-Computer Interface Society is working on a clear and comprehensive definition of a brain-computer interface.

NeuroTechX Content Lab shares an approach on how to invest in neurotech.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Protecting Cognition: Background Paper on Neurotechnology and Human Rights has been published (March 2024) warning that safeguards need to be put in place to help guide development and adoption in Australia.

Melbourne is also home to a biological intelligence operating system developed by Cortical Labs. Cortical recently raised $15 million, led by Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures.

Cyban’s chair Andrew Maxwell wrote about the need for government funding to commercialise MedTech in an article for InnovationAus.