Medical technology: a valuable – and growing – Australian export

Medical technology: a valuable – and growing – Australian export article image

Australia has carved out quite a niche in medical devices.

The industry has a turnover of $10 billion and in 2013-14, it generated exports of over $2.1 billion.

Cook Medical, ResMed and Cochlear are just three companies that between us contribute almost 20 percent of the total inventions filed in the medical devices field for Australia, according to the latest Australian Medical Devices Patent Analytics Report.

Our companies focus on research, production and sale of products in specialised areas of technology: respiratory (ResMed), hearing (Cochlear) and cardiovascular and IVF (Cook Medical).

Last year proved to be a record-breaking year for Cook Medical with 92.5 percent of locally manufactured products exported at a value of $119.3 million. This illustrates the significant contribution medical technology makes to Australian export.

Department of Industry research identifies 2706 medical device inventions that came out of Australia between 2001 and 2012.

Indeed, Australia produces two per cent of the world’s medical devices and ranks 13th in medical device patents globally, comparable to China and the Netherlands. As expected, the United States dominates patent activity, generating half the patent applications globally.

Australia does very well when one examines the Relative Specialisation Index, which looks at countries that generate the most patents. Australia sits behind Israel, Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, Cyprus and Switzerland but it’s ahead of Sweden, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Singapore.

‘Hot spot of inventive activity’

In terms of regions within Australia, most of the research and patent activity is going on in NSW (1200 inventions) followed by Victoria (504). Queensland comes in third place at 297.

This corresponds with the 2013 report of the Medical Technology Association of Australia Limited, which found that most medical technology companies in Australia were in NSW (55 per cent), followed by Victoria (24 per cent) and Queensland (12 per cent). The Department of Industry report identified NSW (160) as a hot spot of inventive activity followed by the ACT (105).

Australia has developed specialist niches in medical devices. These niches are in syringes, eye and lens related inventions, implants and orthopaedic devices, catheters, dental, imaging and computer related innovations, and cardio-related innovations. Again it is Cook Medical along with ResMed and Cochlear which are doing much of the work here.

The CSIRO also plays an active role. CSIRO inventions have included the delivery of telemedicine, polymeric coatings for contact lenses; expandable catheters; an apparatus for delivering dry aerosols to the respiratory tract; use of acoustic energy to determine blood pressure; an image processing technique used to analyse abnormalities in MRI images; contrast agents; motion accelerometers and other mobility performance measurements; methods of acquiring brain data to determine Alzheimer’s disease to name a few.

The universities are also playing a significant role here, collaborating and working with the publically funded research institutions.

All this suggests that Australia, despite its relative small size, has developed an ecosystem to create a position for itself in the global medical devices market and export products to the world. There are also potential markets with Europe’s ageing populations and Asia’s rising middle class.

So what is holding Australia back?

Deloitte Private blames it on a lack of corporate and government support, access to capital and a culture afraid of risk. Commentators like Elizabeth Webster from Swinburne University’s Centre for Transformative Innovation have argued that Australia badly needs public private partnerships in research and technology to turn the research into products and services.

These suggestions would affect innovation in general. But they would build on the global presences that Australia’s medical devices industry already enjoys.

*Barry Thomas is Director Asia Pacific and Managing Director of Cook AustraliaExports_BarryThomas


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