Could Ballarat become a national and global centre for the research, development and manufacture of medical technology?
This was the question at the centre of a Committee for Ballarat webinar on Thursday and one triggered by the story of engineering company Gekko Systems' creation of a new prototype ventilator.
Gekko Systems co-founder and managing director Elizabeth Lewis-Gray shared the story behind the GeVentor project that was developed and built in just six weeks in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton said the ventilator project proved what was possible when collaboration, innovation and expertise intersected.
There is no way we would have got to where we are now without that collaboration.Elizabeth Lewis-Gray, Gekko Systems
He said the project created new potential growth opportunities for Ballarat in the medical technology and advanced manufacturing sector.
Mr Poulton referred to Ballarat as a city 'just the right size' with highly regarded hospitals, the presence of six universities and the Ballarat Innovation and Research Collaboration for Health (BIRCH).
Guest webinar panelist federal member for Ballarat Catherine King said industry clusters were successful when driven by community and then supported by government, as in the Gekko ventilator project's case.
"We know where successful industry clusters are, they generally happen naturally. Government might have come in with some assistance or money to help do that but they are not the catalyst," she said.
"In essence, it is where communities have identified what is it we are good at, what brings wealth in and then what are the gaps in that.
"We use examples across the country whether we look at Torquay where Ripcurl etc are, we look over in a particular area of Western Australia where we pretty much all of the winter cucumber crops for the country are growing. They have been areas that have said what is it that we are good at.
"The thing Ballarat has throughout its entire history, and Gekko is such a shining example of this, is in advanced manufacturing and that capability of coming up with new ideas and innovating in that."
PREVIOUS COVERAGE OF THE GEVENTOR:
Ms King acknowledged the two hospitals and six universities in Ballarat that enabled strong partnerships gave the city an 'incredible advantage' over many other regional and metropolitan centres.
"I think (our history in advanced manufacturing) keeps us in good stead," she said.
"But there are some real challenges. We are not the only players in this med technology space. There is a lot of competition and a lot of challenges in doing it as well."
Ms Lewis-Gray said quickly creating partnerships and collaborations enabled Gekko Systems to achieve a prototype ventilator so quickly.
The idea was formed after a text from Mr Poulton at the start of the COVID crisis that shared concerns within the medical sector about a small supply of ventilators.
Within two days the company had registered with the state government as a responder and by the end of the week Mr Gray had developed the first prototype.
Gekko put forward a proposal to the government the following week and collaborations allowed the project to progress.
Runway printed 3D parts, community fundraising including a $60,000 grant from the Buninyong Community Bank backed the project, experts from across the medical sector met and continued providing medical expertise throughout the project.
"It was a pretty quick and light speed project," Ms Lewis-Gray said.
"There is no way we would have got to where we are now without that collaboration."
BIRCH executive director Associate Professor Mark Yates said the project highlighted the advantage of having agile medical research capabilities in Ballarat.
Ms King said it showed Ballarat businesses were capable of 'terrific innovations' if they were prepared to go outside their own business and sector to seek out expertise.
"We are incredibly proud of having Gekko in Ballarat but we also have some incredibly great manufacturers who have been innovating for a long period of time whether it is in the car and defence development space or food technology," she said.
"It is how do we support them to look at how we get the new and expanded to grow out of the old or existing.
"I think that is the challenge and that is probably where community and the universities and the health sector can really play a strong role as a catalyst."
The team behind GeVentor is now working to secure Therapeutic Goods Administration approval and is preparing to get an export certificate.
Ms Lewis-Gray said while there was no current requirement for ventilators in Australia, the company was looking at export markets and humanitarian opportunities for the GeVentor.
She said the ventilator was designed to enable use in an intensive care unit in a hospital or in environments outside of a hospital as it was portable and capable of being a part of a first response to disasters.
If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat's story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.