Dr Anne-Laure Puaux is the Head of Business Development at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). With a background in pharma and biotech, she started her career as an immunologist and has held multiple postdoctoral roles in academic institutions plus staff scientist positions within research and development departments of biopharma companies.

Decades of work across Australia, Singapore, Europe and the US have placed Puaux at the forefront of research commercialisation, so she understands the unique challenges we currently face in Australia in turning academic research into real-world business applications and viable commercial solutions.

Puaux recently completed Wade Institute’s investor education program VC Catalyst and sat down to talk with fellow alumna Madeleine Grummet.

“The biggest challenges in this country are the significant costs of developing solutions in the life science sector. It can cost as much as two billion dollars to develop a new drug including the cost of failure, which is still very high. So while there are a lot of investors and firms in Australia who are committed to investing in innovation outside of the life science sector, we are still very limited because we just can’t access most of the investment players given the big capital commitment required,” Puaux says.

While the commercialisation of research is high cost it also needs patient capital given the longer timelines on achieving product-market fit for deeptech and IP-heavy research. The slower returns on investment can also often mean VC investors will not consider investing in the life sciences sector.

Puaux believes another part of the problem is the smaller market size of Australia, tyranny of geographic distance and lack of awareness of life science and biotech investment opportunities in this market. Australia is a long way from established global life science hubs which can make it difficult to attract leading investors and global industry partners to the sector.

“Boston and London – these are the places where things happen – but we are just not known for innovation. So our distance is not helping us at all to be honest. When I talk to people who are travelling the world all the time to look for innovation, some of them have never even been here. So we’re not even on their map – they just don’t think about or associate Australia with medical innovation or even innovation at all.”

This lack of awareness also contributes to an inability to attract the right talent to Australia. Despite our strong science base and world-class, university-led research institutions, Puaux says there is a dire shortage of experienced life science entrepreneurs and executives in our talent pool.

“There’s definitely a talent gap but there’s also a critical skills gap. We do have some people who have developed and commercialised new drugs and have been successful but there are very, very few of them. So you can inject as much money as you want but if you don’t have the right talent to lead those projects to success, you will not actually succeed,” she says.

Recognising the need to address these challenges and the lack of investment in the sector, WEHI recently launched WEHI Ventures – a $66 million dollar internal strategic investment fund designed to invest in early-stage life science companies and build relationships with industry and investors both in Australia and overseas. 

Puaux completed the VC Catalyst training program in 2023 and now leads the Business Development department at WEHI as part of the partnerships and venture team.

Responsible for designing and implementing the strategy for commercialisation of WEHI’s research, Puaux supports 90+ research laboratories on value creation, entrepreneurship and industry partnerships, and also manages business development projects which capture and translate intellectual property and broaden the impact of scientific outcomes to improve public health and economic growth. Commercialisation strategies can include licensing of intellectual property, collaborating with industry, spinning off new startup companies or creating joint ventures. But Puaux says evaluating investment opportunities in biotech and life sciences is always stage dependent.

“When we start from the idea stage, it really needs to be something where we have the best science or something that is completely new or novel so it is defensible. Super exciting science would be our first criteria for investment, and then it’s about really focussing on building the commitment or commercial vision into it.”

“To do that, we think about the combination of scientific skills that we will need to grow the opportunity, and this includes strong global scientific leadership and then building a multidisciplinary team with the right mix of commercial skills,” she says.

One of the well-known speedbumps when working with research teams is transitioning them from being lab-based scientists to commercial sales-focused entrepreneurs. Puaux says having the funding to support scientists to develop their early-stage ideas is the first step, but upskilling them in business and entrepreneurial practice needs to happen alongside it. 

“We’re developing programs internally to improve awareness of entrepreneurship so some of the young and bright scientists who are actually interested in startup career pathways can be better supported. We help by building their skills and gaining them more market exposure so they can go on to succeed and lead these companies,” says Puaux.

But Puaux acknowledges not all great scientists make great entrepreneurs or even want to step out of the lab into the high-risk, high-velocity world of building startup companies.

“One area that remains relatively weak is really embedding commercial aspects into the training of young scientists because I have a lot of people coming to me who might have a PhD and 10 years of postdoctoral experience behind them, but they may have little idea what working in a business looks like or have some wrong ideas and assumptions,” she says.

“We’ve also found that some researchers are not so interested in entrepreneurship. They love their academic career, and they’re more interested in seeing their discoveries commercialised by others. So it’s a matter of supporting and enabling those who have that passion, to take an opportunity forward.”

Puaux says to optimise commercialisation success WEHI usually increases industry input at the discovery and development phase of research by bringing in people from specific  industry verticals or with previous startup experience. Securing top talent is competitive in the life sciences sector but Puaux says they either leverage high-performing local talent or actively recruit people from the US or Europe who are wanting to come back to work in the Australian ecosystem. 

“Right now we’re working hard on that piece to make sure that what we are growing here is a kind of ecosystem where those people with the track record and knowledge and networks can actually coach the new ones to develop them into the founders of tomorrow. This way we will create a virtuous cycle,” Puaux says.

Despite the significant challenges, Puaux remains excited about the future of life science commercialisation in Australia. She believes the growing number of research-led startups, increasing investment from the Australian government and greater investor awareness of the commercial potential of research will all grow the opportunity pie.

“I really think there is a huge opportunity in Australia because today we have this wealth of ideas and really great science to leverage so I’m super optimistic about the future! In my five years in Australia, I’ve already seen things start to move in the right direction so this is really encouraging.”

“If done right, we can boost innovation, increase job creation and aid societal progress. And if we continue to invest in creating new research-led companies today maybe a few of them will go on to become CSL in 15 years! That’s my vision!”