Episode 22 – Leadership and Relationships with Paul Wood

Jun 29, 2023

About this episode

In this episode, we were pleased to have a wide-ranging discussion with Professor Paul Wood AO. We talk about his start at CSIRO and the pathway to his breakthrough in TB tests for cattle in the Northern Territory, and how it opened a pathway into animal and human health research leadership. We discuss a few ‘sliding door’ moments with Paul around Qiagen, Cellestis, CSL and Pfizer, and how he ended up with the ‘keys to the lolly shop’ with Pfizer Animal Health (now Zoetis) in North America.

On Paul’s return to Australia, as both mentor and entrepreneur, we discuss external collaborations, coaching and the need to be thinking globally early in terms of markets and financing. We close with Paul’s reflections on innovation leadership and management in Australia, and his current commentary and insights into the tech transfer challenges of alt-protein, pointing to the Business 101 failures as much as the scale-up challenges.


CB: Hello everyone, and welcome to Tech Transfer Talk. My name is Cameron Bailey, Managing Director of Spiegare, and we have the great privilege of joining us today, Professor Paul Wood AO, who is going to share with us some of his perspectives, not only on the current trends of alternative protein, of which he is a commentator on many social platforms, but also to reflect on his journey, his technology transfer journey, from his time at CSIRO and in the research community, through the private sector and into his current roles, and advising companies and organisations and mentoring the next generation of scientists. Paul. Hello.

PW: Nice to be with you tonight.

CB: Thanks very much, Paul. It’s great to have you and such an esteemed career that you are still in the process of, very much, and I’m just interested to start almost at the beginning and your entry into CSIRO and Animal Health. How did all that come about? Was it something from high school that got you in there, or did it take you at university? How did the journey begin?

PW: Look, I think the first thing I can really reflect on is a conversation with my dad when I was about 15, and he came into my room and he said, ‘You’ve just finished junior high school’… this is in Perth – I’m a Perth boy…’Are you going back to school next year?’ And I was a bit shocked. It’s like, ‘What do you mean? Can I not go back to school? Is there something…?’ you know, and he said, ‘No, you know you don’t have to go back to school. I just thought I’d ask you.’  And I went, ‘Yeah, well, I’m going back to school’. He said, ‘Now, is that sure, that’s what you want to do?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but then he gave me a bit of great advice. He said, ‘Look…’ and my dad left school to go to the war, you know, so a different era, a different sort of, everything was so different, you know. But he said to me, ‘Look, if there’s something you love doing, see if someone will give you a job doing it.’ And honestly, I think I’ve done that. I think I… I went back to school, I had a love of biology, I went to Uni and did biology, microbiology and that. And I’ve now got to… I’m 67 and my career has been as a researcher, my whole career… hands-on research, managing large research programs. So I feel quite privileged that, in many regards, people have paid me to do something that I love doing. So, Dad’s advice was pretty good.

CB: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, and you were in the CSIRO postgraduate, I think you were into CSIRO relatively early, and is that where the tech transfer bug started to get a hold, or were you sort of, if I could phrase it, a bit of a hardcore researcher at the bench early and, and that, and that, sort of came a little bit later.?

PW: Look, joining CSIRO was an interesting scenario because I was actually doing a postdoc at University of Melbourne. I’d done my PhD at the John Curtin School in Canberra.

CB: Okay.

PW: And I was doing a postdoc, and I was on NHMRC funds, and we’d actually had a pretty good run. We’d published quite a few good papers, and it was just one of those years, a tough year, and the grant that I was on was not renewed. And suddenly I was given notice that I had like six weeks salary left. And that was it. My wife was expecting our second child, and I had no job, and I had to sort of somehow go home and tell her that story. But in the meantime, I furiously started ringing around and a mate said, ‘Look, there’s a job over at CSIRO. I think it’s closed, but I’ll give them a call and tell them about you.’ And they said, ‘Look, yeah, you know, he’s got an interesting background. Get him to come in and have a chat with us.’ Yeah, which I did, and they, I finished the interview, and they offered me the job literally after the end of the interview.

CB: Wow.

PW: So, I started with CSIRO in 1985 on a short-term contract to come up with a new test for TB in cattle. So, a bit of a challenge. You know, the test we were using was developed by a guy called Robert Koch.

CB: Yeah, I’ve heard of him…

PW: Over 100 years ago. And I started on that and…. in the end, we actually cracked it. And we can talk a bit more about that. But that really started my journey because once we’d done the basic science… I was about to publish a paper and CSIRO Tech was the commercial arm of CSIRO in those days.

CB; Oh, I remember CSIRO Tech, yeah.

PW: And the guy who was my CSIRO Tech contact was a guy called John Grace ,that people might know, quite famous in tech transfer in Australia.

CB: Yeah.

PW: And John said to me, ‘Are you going to patent that?’ and I went, ‘Well, what do you mean, patent?’ You know, it’s bloody obvious. And because everything …when you finish a piece of work, in retrospect, it seems rather obvious. Yes, but I then started to learn a bit about intellectual property and realised that it wasn’t. And I… I had great advice, Davies Collison & Cave, again strong in in the patent thing. So, we patented the idea and away it went from there. I started working with CSL, and that was probably my journey into commercialisation… Is that…what is it all about? What are patents about? What is product development about? Yeah, that was – so this is 1985. I mean, it’s quite interesting that I joined CSIRO in January of ’85, and I actually patented the invention that year, late that year.

CB: That’s pretty remarkable.

PW:And then it rolled from there. So that was my journey. But, I sort of… I learnt a few things along the way, because early on, I…the guy I worked for, he was asked to go up to the Northern Territory to talk to them about the work we were doing.

CB: Yep.

PW: And he wasn’t very interested, and he said, ‘Look, Paul, you can go up and talk to them.’ So up I went to the Northern Territory, pretty hardcore sort of guys, you know…’you’re from the South. What would you know?’

CB: And Paul, you’re a scientist.

PW: Yeah, exactly. So, what happened was I started to understand the context in which whatever we came up with had to work. We had to test thousands of animals in a day. We had to get an answer… relatively quickly because these animals are being held. The current test was, they’re skin tested and then held for three days to read, and they’re losing condition. So not only did it need to be more sensitive, but there were a whole lot of practical things that had to be factored in. So, when I went back to Melbourne, I decided to reframe what we were trying to do, and I ruled out things that couldn’t translate into that, into that sort of framework, and what I didn’t know, was that I was doing, I was actually developing a product profile, something that would become very familiar to me when I eventually moved into industry. The fundamental of all, of all industry research. What’s the product? How’s the customer going to use it? What are their expectations? And I was doing that without knowing. So, look, that was the start of commercialisation. And I was really lucky. A CSL guy called Hugh Middleton was the head of the Animal Health Division there. He was very sympathetic to R&D, took on this test even though they weren’t in diagnostics… to be honest. And, and we developed it through, we developed the basic test. We took that out in the market. You know, our early results show was quite promising. Yeah, but they weren’t significant. I didn’t have a, … the sensitivity was better than skin testing, but I was backed by the industry. I was backed by the cattle industry, and they said, ‘So what do you need to demonstrate that it really is significant?’ So, we went away and we worked out what the protocol would be. And we came back. And remember, this is 1985. We said, ‘Look, this is what we need to do. And it’s going to cost $1 million.’ Now that was a huge amount of money and I just thought they would go, ‘Look, bugger off’ like and they went, ‘Well, we’ve come this far. We’d better find out whether it really works. Here’s your money.’

CB: Right. That was cattle industry money?

PW: Yeah, that was the cattle industry. That was the levy…levy money from the cattle industry…the precursor to the MLA. It was called AMLIDC. So, it’s the Australian meat, but basically the meat industry…cattle producers. And away we went. And not only did we prove that it was a good test, but in the end CSL came back and said, ‘Hey, look, do you think this will work in humans?’ So, they eventually develop the human product that is now… basically a standard of care around the world. I think they’ve just…Qiagen now has the product. And they just celebrated selling 100 million tests.

CB: Wow. That’s pretty impressive.

PW: So, it’s been a great commercial success. But to be honest, it changes people’s lives. You know…people get diagnosed and they get treated. So, it literally saves lives, which as a scientist, it’s all you ever hope for. All you ever hope for is to…you walk into a clinic and there’s a product you invented sitting in the shelf.

CB: Pretty cool.

PW: It’s pretty cool. It’s, it’s something I’ve remembered my whole career.

CB: I mean, the circumstances are fascinating because you’ve been backed by the cattle industry to develop a diagnostic to address their challenge. And yet a connection was made with CSL who saw the adjacent opportunity which, which is the bigger opportunity in human health. So how did that connection come about with CSL? You’re inside CSIRO. Was that through CSIRO Tech? Was that through the cattle industry? I’m curious to know how that sort of, that moment, catalytic moment in time came about.

PW: Yeah. Look, I think CSIRO had a long relationship with CSL, particularly in the animal health. And so, they were the logical…we didn’t have a lot of options in those days for, for a local commercialisation. But we were very fortunate that the visionary sort of nature of Hugh Middleton was to say, ‘Yeah, look, we’ll have a crack at this’ and…and developed it. And, as I said, it was successful. But then, because we were working with CSL…I think it was largely…and I’m not absolutely certain of that because…chatting to some of my colleagues from back those days, I think they had a collaborator in Japan who really…and Japan had a massive TB issue and they chest x-rayed everyone. And anyway, they asked the question. I had all this data and I said, ‘Oh yeah, well have a look at my data.’ And away we went. So, you know, they then started to develop the, human version. And Stephen Jones, you know, was at CSL. He developed the assay. Away it went. And we were…we were basically within a couple of years, we were in front of the FDA. Yeah. But CSL was changing and, and they were focusing on being a blood product company. So, they then decided to exit the diagnostic….and a group of us formed, decided to form our own startup company called Cellestis, and decided we’d take the technology licence from CSL and develop it. And that was another decade. Now, in the end, I didn’t actually end up going with them. A guy called Tony Radford and Jim Rothwell and that ended up taking four… But they spent a decade getting FDA approval, getting it developed, running trials all around the globe. You know, I had a…I had intended to go with them, but Brian McNamee decided that he didn’t want me to leave CSL. So, he basically said, ‘No, you can’t go.’ But, you know, they went off and that was fantastic. You know, they did a fantastic job. And they eventually then sold that company to Qiagen for $380 million. So, it’s yeah, it’s one of the great biotech success stories in Australia. I mean…like we floated, we didn’t float the company early. We just got…angel investment of $1 million and away we went. The other thing that came across in the early 90s was the CRC scheme. So, I’m sitting there, I’ve moved across from diagnostics to, to vaccine development. I was, I must admit, I was having a conversation with the Chief of the Division of Animal Health and thinking I had another five years of sitting around writing papers and going to conferences. And he said, ‘No, you’ve done that, what are you going to do now? You’d better come up with another idea.’ So, I came up with this sort of idea of getting into vaccine work and then the CRC scheme came along. We eventually put in a bid via CRC for vaccine technology. Michael Good was the Director. I ended up as the Deputy Director and I did that for ten years.

CB: Right.

PW: And in the middle of…

CB: The CRC thing…time brought the next opportunity.

PW: And it was revolutionary. I mean, here was suddenly like seven years funding… $3 million a year. I mean, this was like…we couldn’t believe…when I first saw this scheme cross my desk, I thought it was a joke. Ralph Slatcher, who was a guy, who was the sort of person who came up with it. I think Ralph even admits he pinched it from the Canadians. But that’s fine. But it was just revolutionary, to scientists to have that level… And also, you had to work with industry. So of course, CSL then became our commercial partner on that, partly because of the relationship I’d already built. So that always also started me down that journey of it’s all about people in the end. It’s about relationships you’ve built, you know. So, we built this relationship on the back of the diagnostics. CSL came on board, now both in the animal health and human health. And away it went. And then somewhere in the middle of that CSL said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you come and run our R&D program,’ you know. And I went, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’ I was being groomed to be the next head of, Chief of Division for Animal Health. And I thought I said ‘No,’ you know. And then I thought about…a week later, I thought, ‘What would life be like if I switched?’ and I did, and not because I thought it would be better. I just thought, ‘I don’t know what it will be. Let’s have a crack at it.’ So…and I never looked back.

CB: Yeah. It’s a new adventure.

PW: Yeah. And so, I joined CSL in ‘97 heading up their Animal Health Division. Not long after that, I also took over the R&D for their Biosciences Division. So, I had two sort of full time jobs… so yeah, it was pretty crazy for quite a few years, but that was the start of me…and I suppose the other thing I learned then, when I moved from CSIRO, which was, sort of, you think, ‘Oh, I’m close to industry’ and I suddenly was in the industry, I realised that I really knew nothing.

CB: Right. Interesting.

PW: You know, there was a realisation that my understanding didn’t match the reality of what industry was like.

CB: What were the…That’s a really interesting comment. And I don’t think that’s a CSIRO-specific comment. I mean, that’s your experience from being at CSIRO, but I think you could generalise that from any researcher moving from a research institution into industry. I think you could generalise that pretty comfortably. what were the key differences that you found in that step from what you might call a research leadership in a research environment to research leadership in a commercial environment?

PW: Probably the first one, which might sound trivial, is that you didn’t have meetings that didn’t have real outcomes. You know, CSIRO was an organisation. Everyone loved a good meeting, and suddenly you went into industry. And if I called a meeting and someone said, ‘What? What’s the agenda or what are we deciding?’ and I didn’t have an answer, they didn’t turn up. 

CB: Meetings had a purpose.

PW: Meetings had a purpose. Every project had a team, and that team involved not just my group in R&D, but it involved people in regulatory, it involved people in marketing. So, from the very start, you’re looking at that product profile. Marketing was thinking about who’s the customer?; what are they going to pay for this?; what do they want? And then, of course, that then determined part of your research program. So, this concept that you did a lot of, you know, just general…a bit of science here and there, and it suddenly turned into some idea at the end was thrown on its head because now we actually designed what the product would look like. And then we said, ‘Okay, that’s what we want.’ And you went, you know, and you went backwards, and you think, well, ‘No use doing that because…’ you know, ‘I can’t, I can’t inject it intravenously.’ So, an intravenous vaccine is ridiculous…it’s got to be subcutaneous or intradermal. You know, we’re not even…subcutaneous or intramuscular. So, it flips everything on its head and time suddenly matters. You can actually work out the cost of time, you know, because if you say, ‘:ook, if we launched here in so many years, this is what we’d sell,’ and then you can work out, well, a year’s delay, is sales that we will never catch up. So, you can actually work out what the cost of time is. So, you know, it’s a pretty fundamental changes. You also never, never sort of….under any misconceptions, you know, misconception about why you’re there. I mean, if you aren’t making money…

CB: Yes.

PW: …the business doesn’t exist.

CB: Yeah, yeah. So, it’s shareholder value.

PW: It’s shareholder value, you know.

CB: Yeah. Fascinating.

PW: You know, I had the beauty of going in front of the Board at one stage and being able to show that 50% of our sales in animal health, were products we’d brought to the market in the last five years.

CB: Which is a metric these days, people, people look at the recency of their products as a function of their investments, right.

PW: So, it actually made a lot easier to get money because they looked at our track record. You know, Ian Gust was heading up the Human Health. And I remember him in the meeting. He went ‘I wish I had that metric,’ you know, ‘because human health had a longer time frame.’

CB: Yeah. That’s right. It’s going to say. to be fair to Ian, you are, you know, what the market you were addressing ran at a different clock speed.

PW: Different pace, you know. So, look, it was a great, it was a great time. You know… I had a really good team there. But then, of course, that evolution of CSL continued. And come 2004, they’re now exiting the Animal Health Division. And they’re focusing more on blood products. So, in the end Pfizer out of the US, Pfizer Animal Health, buys us. Part of that is the fact that we’ve already licensed to them some of our key assets. So, it’s a bit… a lesson for startup world. You know, you when you’re licensing a product, you’re looking for them to actually acquire you in the end. That’s the ultimate game is that you make yourself so attractive, they go ‘Why don’t we just buy you guys? It’s cheaper if we buy you.’ So , that’s 2004. I’m now working for Pfizer. Look, and again, I expected to exit, you know, they said, ‘Hey, look, we don’t need you.’ You know, here’s, CSL’s already said, ‘Look, you know, stay on and we’ll pay you a package when you leave.’ The day the deal closes, they ring me up and say, ‘Would you stay on? We’ll double your team and double your salary,’ you know, and I’m going, ‘Let me think about that.’

CB: Yeah. How long did you think for Paul?

PW: Sorry?

CB: How long did you think for?

PW: I let them…I let them hang for a week.

CB: That was a very good of you.

PW: Yeah. I was going a bit cocky in those days.

CB: Oh, right. So, it was…

PW: Yeah, I joined them and, you know, what’s that, 2004 and then 2008, I eventually moved to the US and headed up Global Discovery, you know. So, you know, I’ve now got I’ve got 200 staff, I’ve got $60 million a year in budget, you know. So, I use the phrase I suddenly got the keys to the lolly shop.

CB: Yes, yes.

PW: I’ve got the biggest R&D group in animal health in the world. I’ve got access to all of Pfizer‘s human health assets. It’s also scary because you’re no longer got an excuse for failure. You know, when you’re a researcher in a university, you never have enough money. I never could do the right trial and that, now, that excuse is gone. So, the only excuse now is we’re not smart enough. We’re not aggressive enough in what we’re doing.

CB: Yeah. It’s a double-edged sword isn’t it…

PW: It’s…and as the R&D director, you know, that weight is on your shoulders because you’re the one facing the Board, telling them what’s in the pipeline, and I’m heading up Discovery, which, you know, I didn’t know at that stage…but,…later on, you find out that…our track record is 5% of what we work on makes it to the market. So, you better really be successful big time, and I’ve discussed that over the years with a lot of different people who’ve run similar jobs. And it’s about the same sort of figure.

CB: Yeah. Okay. It’s interesting though. ..you generally experience around…

PW: Yeah. You know, from early discovery…all the way and this is….like every project starts with a product profile. So…but…a lot of those projects would have tripped because they never made, met the market needs or the market needs changed. What was the science? Yes, sometimes the science fails.

CB: Sometimes markets change.

PW: So the markets change.

CB: Regulations change.

PW: Yeah…So, but look, it was just, you know a glorious time, because I had that resource.

CB: You’ve got back to it there Paul, and you mentioned it earlier in in the CSL to Pfizer relationship, is this concept of relationships kept bubbling through. The fact that you’re dealing with people on, on a regular basis. And clearly those relationships are strong and going well. And, of course, I’m sure there were moments where they were strained. That’s normal. But you’ve got those relationships, and those relationships are enduring and are carrying you into all sorts of different conversations or taking you in, in the direction because of those foundations.

PW: Yeah. And I think they’re both internal and external. You know, when you join a company like Pfizer that’s as big as that, you also have to build those relationships internally. So, I had to have a good relationship with the head of marketing, the head of manufacturing. Because they had to be able to trust when I was telling them that we’ve got this product, this is what we think, you know, that’s happening. These are the challenges. We needed to have honest conversations. and develop the relationships. And then, of course, it’s the same, we would have had maybe 300 external collaborations, you know, with, with researchers. And, you know, what researchers didn’t understand is, if they had a problem, they had a tendency not to tell you or we won’t tell, tell them because they might shut us down. So, when you found out about it, it was often too late to actually fix anything.

CB: And then guess what? And you shut them down?

PW: And you shut them down and, and whereas the person who comes to you and says, ‘We’ve got these challenges,’ I can actually think about it and go, ‘Well, what if we give you some more resource to see if we can overcome those challenges?’

CB: Yeah. You know, so use the resource and try going this way rather than the way you’re on. You might, there might be another approach that I know that you don’t know.

PW: You know when I’m coaching now and I’m, so I’ll do a lot of coaching of startups and individuals. I try to keep them about that message it’s never too early to talk to industry, and stop thinking about industry as just a bank. They have so much intellectual capacity to bring to the table that you’ve got to start thinking about. It’s a partnership. And that’s probably the main message I say. Talk early, even before you want a partnership. Talk to them about what you’re trying to do and they go like, ‘Oh look, they’ll steal our ideas.’ It doesn’t happen, guys. I’ve got no interest in stealing ideas. Well, I might actually help you understand how you protect your ideas, because I don’t want anyone else stealing them. If I’m going to license them from you, I want to make sure your patents are really solid, because I don’t want someone else breaking your patent. So, it’s about telling them about the relationship. And I think things are starting to change but there is this sort of…And after a while, it became a red flag. As soon as I talk to a research group, you know, an academic group, and they did this they… ‘I couldn’t, I couldn’t possibly tell you that it’s all top secret.’ It was a red flag. I knew this was bullshit. I knew, you know, like, just walk away.

CB: Yeah. I don’t…I do I do agree with you, Paul. It’s changing and changing slowly. And I think that notion of looking at industry as a bank is, is something we talked about a few episodes back about relationships versus transactions. And the transactional view is, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to my ATM industry or Rural Development Corporation, stick my idea in and the cash will spit out.’ And that’s the transactional approach. Whereas the relationship, as you say, is get in, talk more, explore the ideas. I don’t think industry has actually enough time to steal all the ideas that they get or the interest. I think you really summed it up nicely there, Paul, where you said, you know, you want their ideas to be good because you want to license them. You want them to be successful, so you’ll be successful with them.

PW: The thing about startups is…you know, you never have enough money…you always ask, you’re always looking for money. You know, it’s not that hard to get those first couple of million to begin in Australia. I mean, we keep telling those there’s no money around. Well, look, to be honest, that’s not true. For a good idea, I can get the first half a million. It’s that…the trouble is getting the ten to 20 to 30 million for the next stage. Generally it’s a bit harder then, and you often end up overseas. What happened with Next Step? We did end up bringing, you know, raising that we raised in America. And then of course, the people who gave you the money say, ‘Guess what? You’re coming to America.’

CB: Yeah, yeah.

PW: You know, you’re going to you’re going to list on the NASDAQ, not the ASX. You know, the money talks, money tells you, you know, what, what’s going to happen. So, you know there’s those realisations. So, you do have to start thinking about global markets early. And that then takes you into global finance, so it’s probably just also a reality of where we sit.

CB: The interesting thing that we touched on with Catherine Woodthorpe a few episodes ago was the scaleup piece. That, and that comes back to the tens of millions in the…checks, in contrast to the seven-digit checks which get you out of the blocks in the startup modality. So, there’s a…there is an undiagnosed issue as to why we can’t quite flip. But I do think that the point you made around global markets might be a very useful clue in that investigation. We don’t scale into a market of global significance. You’re not in broker. You’re in a globally significant market.

PW: Yeah. I mean, Cellestis does realise that early on, they moved operations to the US. They realised they had to start manufacturing in the US as well as here, because that’s where the market, you know, you’ve got to think about cost to ship product around the globe. Probably the remarkable thing I’d say is that there’s too much mediocre leadership, you know…leaders…I want leaders who are, who are visionary. You know, it’s not about being popular, you know?

CB: No. So that’s an interesting, that’s an interesting insight, Paul. Is that a function of the depth of the talent pool or the breadth of the talent pool, or maybe a bit of both?

PW: Oh, I think it’s just that we don’t start early enough. I mean, we had this conversation at times about entrepreneurship and when it should start. And in the end, the answer is, ‘lLt’s start at kindergarten. Let’s start with kids thinking about what creativity looks like.‘ We talk a bit about the tall poppy syndrome in Australia…and I’ve experienced that when you’re successful..I’ve been well acknowledged with awards and that, but there is that mentality that something I got they didn’t get. You know, it’s just like, celebrate your friends, celebrate when someone gets acknowledged. If you’re leading something, make sure you share that. You know, one of the things I did in Pfizer was I actually awarded prizes in my…this is my discovery group…I awarded some prizes for teams that actually successfully wrapped up their project…because they did the right experiments. And they proved, you know. So, I made sure that when in our annual awards, I, I acknowledge the teams that projects moved into development, but I also acknowledge the teams that did a really good job of defining that, that area, ‘We’re done. ‘

CB: That is, that is, I think, that is exceptionally laudable, Paul, because so often those things, well, either they don’t get rewarded, but I would suggest far more frequently, they never get wrapped up. They just linger. You have zombies all walking through organisations, whether it’s patent filings we’re paying for because no-one can make a decision to stop or, you know, that, that pet project that gets done between 5 and 8 P.M. on a Thursday evening or happens.

PW: I used to describe people when I led, that led Discovery, that one of my roles was to painlessly put projects down.

CB: Yes.

PW: I never got a project leader that came along to me and said, ‘Please kill my project.’ I would tap them on the shoulders and say, ‘Look, I think we’re done. And this is why. And I’ve got a really great project I want you to work on. I think you’re a really good leader and, or a technical person, and…but let’s wrap this up. Let’s wrap it up. Let’s write it up properly and wrap it up. And let’s move on.’ And that was my job. I had to make those calls. And you just hope you get them right. You just hope that you pick the right ones to go forward. And you…knock the ones on the head. But look, to be honest, the other easy thing is say no to everything. If 95% fail anyhow, just say no to everything and you’ll get…

CB: And you’ll be certain of getting nothing and have a low risk portfolio.

PW: Nothing will ever get out there, but you’ll be 95% right.

CB: But that’s not quite the metric we’re looking for, though, is it?

PW: But if you’re 10% right, you’re 100% ahead of everyone else.

CB: Yeah. I’ve never heard it quite put that way, Paul, but it’s rather sad when you think about it can be 95% right by stopping everything.

PW: Yeah. Because that’s the right track record and that’s a…

CB: That’s a sort of a mildly distressing concept. I have to say.

PW: It is a distressing concept. And it’s like being in the startup world, you know, the majority of startups won’t actually make it.

CB: Won’t make it. No.

PW: But it’s no reason to not start.

CB: No, no.

PW: But it is a realisation to be really, really…listen well. Spend your money very wisely because, everything takes longer and costs more. Don’t bullshit…because someone will remember it and someone will have written it down and said, ‘You said you’d have done this by this time. What’s happened?’ Company, in the company life, that really happens…like people…it’s all recorded.

CB: Well, that’s the notion of being held to account.

PW: Yeah.

CB: And, and, and once you get past the, the hyperbole and the hopium, it’s, it’s the business disciplines of doing what you’re going to say and then doing them. Paul, I do want to talk about alternative protein. And I know just before we recorded the podcast today, you mentioned you’ve been on a few other podcasts recently. So rather than recounting the…some of those perspectives, I want to come in on this protein question on a particular trajectory, which perhaps won’t be a surprise to any of the listeners. I’m interested in the tech transfer challenges of alternative protein, and I’m interested in that not only from perhaps the more recently imploded market of alternative meat. I’m interested in the tech transfer challenges there, but I’m also interested to quickly touch on the tech transfer challenges of the cellular agriculture, which is, which is, I think, sort of front of the imagination at the moment with that alternative market. The the tech transfer bit I’m really keen to explore with you, Paul.

PW: Yeah, look, I think the, the interesting thing about what’s happening in this space, is it’s generally not a failure of tech. If we look…let’s just talk about cellular agriculture. This idea I can grow cells…all the tech works. I mean, we’ve been growing cells and using, making monoclonal antibodies and drug and vaccines for a long time. All of that works. What’s wrong is the business model. The concept of using high tech and competing in a commodity market is a business 101 failure. If I’ve got a high-tech approach, an expensive tech, I want premium products. You know, it’s like Wagyu cattle. You know, they grow slower that…I want to get the 100 on $200 a kilo price to justify the expensive genetics and all that I put into it. I don’t want commodity. I don’t want to be selling hamburgers. I don’t want to be selling sausages. That’s the problem with cell-based ag is that they’re using this high-tech approach. But what are they making? Sausages. Hamburgers. Meatballs. You know, it just doesn’t make sense. And that’s the fundamental question…issue that I keep having over and over again with people. And they say, ‘Oh, but don’t you worry about that. All tech comes down in cost. You know, Moore’s Law.

CB: So, we’ve had that conversation about hydrogen.

PW: Yeah. And the answer I say to it is, Moore’s Law has never been applied to biology. You know, I can make an engineering widget cheaper. Yeah, but cells have limits. They won’t grow above certain densities. They won’t grow in water. You know, they talk to each other, they signal each other, you know, so biology limitations are there. And that’s what means that you’re going to have problems just simply scaling this stuff up.

CB: So, it’s very interesting you say that Paul, because we do talk about the biophysical limits of systems from time to time. You can only get to what thermodynamics can give you. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t beat…or the thermodynamics or the biophysical limits take you to a point. But this interesting idea that everything scales, what perhaps is getting missed here, is that all the scaling being done in industrial biotech, we figured all of this out with a whole bunch of other technologies over the last 20, 30, 40, 50 years, like that bit’s been done. There’s no scaling learning effects to happen here. Is that a reasonable sort of assessment?

PW:  I think it is. So, the thing that I find is amazing is, generally when I’m debating this stuff, I’m not debating with someone who’s understands the tech, I’m debating with a VC person who’s come out of doing digital and ‘Go, oh, well, I’m doing food now’ and they have no understanding of the margins, how thin the margins are in the food industry. So, there’s going to be a lot of tears. I was in Singapore last week and we’re starting to hear it. The first of the companies are going down. We expect to see a big washout in the next year or two. A lot of lack of differentiation across companies.

CB: So, I find this really interesting. You preempted my question a little bit there. Paul, about who are these people. And it sounds from, from what you described there that the cultivated or cellular agriculture societies are new to maybe two years behind the alt protein crash that we would probably be just coming out the back of at the moment.

PW: Well, look, I think, I think there is, you know, I mean, the number of people I, LinkedIn people, will see follow, if they follow me on LinkedIn. You’ll see the arguments I have with people. It can be very frustrating because they actually don’t understand agriculture and they want to debate with me about we can get rid of all those animals, we’ll just grow crops and all that land. And I have to point out that most of it’s not arable. And they go, ‘I better just check up and see what arable means.’ You know, we don’t actually have the water in many areas. So, food’s a fascinating area. You know, fundamentally people also forget that, we’ve…that the fundamental reason for food and experience is taste. So, if you look at cellular ag, no-one’s yet produced any nutritional data. So, we’ve got $3 billion been invested in these 156 companies around the globe. And not a single company has talked about nutrition.

CB: Yeah, yeah.

PW: That is the fundamental reason we give food.

CB: Yeah, yeah. The order of service that was offered up to me, Paul, about 12 months ago was taste, texture, price, nutrition, sustainability, is sort of the order in which a consumer will assess an offering. Would you consider that about right?

PW: I mean, yeah, I think it’s pretty, you know, taste, texture. Absolutely. Price. yeah. Those first three, you know, there are subsections of the market where people are more foodies and they know more about nutrition, but you only have to look at our obesity epidemic to realise that whether we know the answer to it or not, we’re not very good at it. Food’s a really fascinating area. We don’t also understand enough about the cultural significance of food to many countries. People will try to tell me, ‘That you know about the Indians. They’re all vegetarians.’ And I’ll actually say ‘They have the largest dairy sector in the world…in the world.’ Dairy products are religious and significant.

CB: And I think that cultural piece, Paul, is, is so important.

PW: Well, one of the first slides I use in these presentations is, I show them a slide of where the 10 billion people will be in in 2050. And they’re not in New York, they’re not in Sydney, they’re not in Tokyo. They’re in Nigeria, in Bangladesh and Indonesia. So, the question I ask people is, if your solution is not addressing someone in this part of the world, then you’re not helping to feed 10 billion people. You’re just feeding people who have plenty of food, you know, who make bad food choices often. So, you know…

CB: That’s a really good starting point.

PW: Yeah. Don’t tell me you’re feeding 10 billion people because you’re not feeding 10 billion people.

CB: I have said to people that there will be a place for this stuff, but nowhere near the scale everyone imagines.

PW: You know, in Singapore, where I’m sitting in front of a room of VCs, I made this statement that is not, this is not impact technology because a lot of these people are running impact funds.

CB: Oh, wow.

PW: As I say, it’s not impact technology because it will not actually make a significant change in our eating patterns.

CB: How did that go down?

PW: Oh, no, it’s a lead balloon. You know, sort of like I’ve just killed their favourite child, right? Whether I’ll ever get invited back, but it’s just the reality. It’s just pointing out to them that if you’re running an impact fund and you’re investing in this tech, you’re kidding yourself.

CB: Well, I think it’s important. I suspect that we obviously. Paul, we obviously live and breathe this environment and are aware of a lot of the complexities. There will be a lot of people, a lot of consumers who are still trying to make their mind up about all of this, but hear things and are trying to make some sense of it for themselves. So, I think it really is important that, that all the information is tabled and equally importantly, discussing where that information is not available. You know, it is okay not to know. It’s about actually saying ‘I don’t know.‘

PW: Yeah. So, I was asked recently on LinkedIn what makes me optimistic. And I said, ‘Look, as an R&D person, I know the majority of things that we do will fail. However, when we’re successful, we change the world.’ That’s what makes me optimistic. I’ve had the privilege of having success that has changed the world in a particular area, so that that’s what any scientist ever in their career wants, you know.

CB: Yeah, absolutely.

PW: So that’s, you know, and you know, by that, by the nature have to be an optimist because most things fail so…

CB: So, we have to be in the optimism business if we’re in a research environment, you have to start with the belief that it will work out. With optimism coming to the fore, Paul, I’d like to just get your last couple of thoughts…it’s been a terrific conversation…a couple of final thoughts for the listeners, given the trajectory and the… that you’ve gone through and the experiences you’ve gathered up.

PW: Yeah. Look, I think I think the reality is our investment in R&D is really important for this country. You know, our…it continues to slip. You know we’re well behind global averages now on our STEM investment. We’re well behind on our education, you know. Engineering alone, we lack 50,000 engineers a year. So even with immigration, we cannot catch up. So, we’re getting to a really difficult point, if we do not start ramping up our spend in the STEM field. So we need to do everything we need in that possible. It’s why I sit on the Academy (Australian Academy of Technology & Engineering) board, because I honestly believe that message needs to get across. We’ve actually got a great minister now but we need to get that message about that we continue as a, as a percentage of GDP, we’re coming down, we’re still falling. We’ve seen, you know, look, I’m a, I’m a vaccine guy, you know COVID, what a great time to be a vaccine person.

CB: What a great time to be in vaccines.

PW: And I actually know those guys, you know, the the Pfizer vaccine is made in the town that I lived in, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. That’s where they make it. So it’s a great time to be a scientist. I go out, I spend time with, with kids in schools, you know, in the CSIRO Scientists in Schools program, trying to tell them about what a fun career it is to be a scientist.

CB: Fantastic. I think, I think finishing with that optimism is really appropriate. Paul, thank you again for joining us on Tech Transfer Talk. It’s been absolutely wonderful chatting with you today. Thanks a lot.

PW: Thanks, Cameron.

spotify-podcast-badge-blk-grn-165x40 Created with Sketch.
EN_Google_Podcasts_Badge Created with Sketch.