The ventilator developed at Ballarat's Gekko Systems is just one of several medical technology projects that point to an interesting future for jobs in the city.
High-tech, advanced manufacturing could be a way to spur investment and bring more skilled workers to Ballarat, as well as medical research leveraging the expertise of several universities, two hospitals, and a host of research institutes.
Using the Gekko GeVentor prototype as an example, the Committee for Ballarat's chief executive Michael Poulton said Ballarat punches above its weight in collaboration and creative leadership.
"All the mechanisms are set for a terrific medical technology environment, both in terms of research and production and manufacture, as well as service delivery - it's an exciting opportunity," he said.
"As well as Gekko and Deutscher (a company contracted to make hospital beds), Westlab have been shifting to PPEs, (C.E.) Bartlett has done some work in oxygen tents and encapsulated areas in a hospital environment, and Haymes Paint, with their sanitisers, is a really simple example."
On Webster Street, the Ballarat Innovation and Research Collaboration for Health is pursuing several projects, linking together researchers with clinicians to produce real results.
Associate Professor Mark Yates, who heads the centre, said he is proud BIRCH has been able to support Gekko's ventilator.
"We were pretty clear they were going to need some assistance, as it's a piece of technical medical equipment," he said.
"I put in a call and said what can we do to help."
As well as sourcing some essential technical parts, like a gas pressure flow analyser and a variable compliant test lung, they also reviewed the clinical evaluation for the prototype, an important aspect in taking the device to full production.
"Much more into our skill set was the literature review for the clinical evaluation report, which the Therapeutic Goods Administration requires in order to know the equipment we've got will avoid, or mitigate, potential adverse outcomes - it won't make people sicker than standard accepted risks," he explained.
Gekko managing director Elizabeth Lewis-Gray said she wanted to thank her team, and community backers, for helping get the prototype to this point.
"We're ecstatic, but we're still working long hours, because there's manuals that need to be completed, that stuff always takes a lot longer than you ever expect," she said.
"There's certainly a sense of fatigue in the team, we've been working flat-out for two months, but there's a real sense of joy in what we've been able to achieve.
"It's a great thing for our team at Gekko, it's a positive way for us to contribute."
Right now, an application has been submitted to the TGA, and there is a "fully functional" finished unit.
A report will be delivered to the state government on May 31, detailing the manufacturing strategy and completion of all requirements, including the TGA application and procurement analysis.
From there, a TGA exemption will be required, and an export certificate, to see if it can be sold overseas.
Ms Lewis-Gray said the company had been approached by several charities hoping to use the finished ventilator for humanitarian purposes - an advantage of the design is its flexibility, which could be important in developing countries needing a ventilator in intensive care units.
"I'd feel a lot better if we went through all of this and we were able to save some lives," she said.
"We're hopeful the state government may invest in buying a few units to take it to manufacture, but the question will be whether we can deliver it to humanitarian projects overseas."
If it takes off, Ms Lewis-Gray said there's no question Ballarat could become a medical research and technology powerhouse.
"There's a group of people who think Australia should be Switzerland of Asia when it comes to medical devices, and there's no reason why not, we've got cracking research here, a privately-funded medical research centre in Ballarat, and BIRCH," she said.
"The competitive advantage for Ballarat is that it is quite well networked - innovation takes place when you get people really working together closely, in a small geographic area, that's a great way to leverage innovation and speed it up."
Her husband, Gekko's technical director Sandy Gray, said there was a lot of potential, particularly as other Ballarat manufacturers were pivoting into the medical technology space.
"There was talk of a research centre out at (the Ballarat West Employment Zone), a designated area for some sort of advanced manufacturing and research centre," he said.
"The jobs will be in smart thinking and design, they're high quality jobs in designing clever bits of equipment.
"Medical devices, certainly in the foreseeable future, and not just with Covid-19 but with an ageing population and the desire to look after our people, I think medical's going to become a pretty major focus - we don't have a lot of it in Australia.
"The limitation, obviously, is the number of people we have here, so the next thing to work out is how we can get the foreign markets, and how does government help us make that happen."
Mr Poulton said to accelerate the industry's development, governments of all types should be focused on local procurement.
"This notion of a regional economy says let's look within before we look overseas, let's look at what our own capabilities are first," he said.
"I'm not advocating for a nationalistic approach, I'm not saying let's not look overseas for the best tech and best manufacturing opportunities.
"There's this loophole, or back door in, where some of the government's own policies and procedures aren't being seen through, and invites a whole range of other operators into the system - if we're serious about local procurement, we do need to be serious about applying policies that are currently in place to ensure the quality is demanded.
"Our role, in collaboration with industry groups and manufacturers, is to hold government accountable to its standards, and therefore you encourage and enable good quality businesses who are looking to set themselves up on an equal playing field to come to a town like Ballarat."
The depth of knowledge and support in organisations like BIRCH, the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute, and hospitals like Ballarat Health Services St John of God is also essential, he added.
Associate Professor Yates said Ballarat is "uniquely placed".
I think there's huge opportunities, and I think we have to think about them in a number of different ways," he said.
"The first thing that people's minds go to, post-Covid, is building a new road, or a new wharf, not to say it's not a good idea, but to me, it's a very literally concrete idea, it's building something we can see.
"That's great for an industry that's predominantly male-dominated.
"But if we're going to change what we do, and the way we act as a community - we will have to do that in a Covid-19 environment - we probably need to change the way we deliver services, and in particular the way we deliver healthcare.
"That has a very large female (component).
"I think that medical research that is going to investigate and improve the efficiencies of the services - and that's a broad thing - that's a key area that often gets left behind a bit.
"Ballarat can be a leading example of this translation of research work that doesn't necessarily have a new widget attached, but changes outcomes for people because we're changed services."
He pointed to current projects, focusing on dental health in residential aged care homes, the use of anti-psychotic drugs on the elderly in hospital, and statistical analysis of obstetric procedures, were also examples of how research was enabling new and better ways of looking after people.
BIRCH is also open to collaborating with the private sector again on new projects, or helping doctors, nurses, and other clinicians to solve problems they're encountering as the world enters the post-Covid recovery phase.
Ultimately, Mr Poulton said, that sort of openness and strategic creativity will lead to those future jobs.
"A workplace that promotes flexibility, creativity, and enterprise - those things lead to greater efficiency," he said.
"Look at Ballarat's examples - their ultimate efficiency and productivity is being driven by creativity and collaboration, and that's what we can do in a regional environment."
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