Nicholas Opie and the future of Australian deep tech

Stuart Mason

With a world-class university system, pioneering medical researchers and growing tech manufacturing capabilities, Australia is well primed to become a deep tech powerhouse.

But long-standing commercialisation shortcomings are holding back the development of the industry, with many promising companies moving offshore for better access to funding and markets.

Even so, there are some deep tech pioneers leading the way in Australia.

Synchron founder and chief technology officer Professor Nicholas Opie is front and centre in this crowd, demonstrating that it is possible to take world-leading research, gather private and public funding, and start turning it into a potentially life-changing company from Australia.

Professor Opie is also the Laboratory Head of the Vascular Bionics Laboratory in the Department of Medicine at the University of Melbourne.

In this episode of the Commercial Disco podcast, he spoke to InnovationAus editorial director James Riley about the journey to commercialisation, his rivalry through Synchron with Elon Musk and how his technology could change countless lives.

Professor Opie said that to overturn Australia’s commercialisation issues, academics need to realise they can be researchers and focus on commercialisation at the same time.

“A lot that I’ve spoken to don’t appreciate that they have all the tools they need to be able to do the commercial side of things,” Professor Opie told the InnovationAus Commercial Disco podcast.

“These are incredibly smart people… they can do a company, they’ve got all the skills, they’ve got the knowledge and intelligence.

“I think historically there was a view that you could only do one or the other — you could only be in industry or in academia. I don’t see it that way. I think that you should be able to do both, and the industry part just follows on from the academic work.”

Synchron is a neural interface company based in Melbourne and New York that has raised more than $217 million in private funding and grants since it was launched more than a decade ago.

The company’s first product, a brain-computer interface to enable people to use their thoughts to control a digital device, is aimed at helping people with debilitating medical illnesses.

Synchron founding director Professor Nicholas Opie

Synchron has conducted its first in-human trials in Australia with a man with motor neurone disease, and received US FDA approval with a Breakthrough Device designation in August 2020. It then received an Investigational Device Exemption in July 2021, and implanted its device in its first US patient in July 2022 in New York.

This journey has required resilience and patience, Professor Opie said.

“It takes a lot of commitment – you have to be able to ride the very exciting times with the times that you’re pulling your hair out because something’s not working, or you’re waiting on funding or any other problem that you’ll face,” he said.

“A lot of resilience is required – it’s a long journey. If that’s what you’re in for, then you’ll love it, but that’s not for everyone.”

The use of implantable neural technology has come into prominence with Elon Musk’s Neuralink company. Opie said he welcomes other entrants to the market.

“We started quite early on in the piece, but I think it’s great that there are a number of players in this field now, particularly the high profile one – it’s great for the field,” the professor said.

“There’s a lot of excitement around this area now and often it takes someone with a bit of global swagger to encourage others to get excited about what they’re working on.”

Synchron expects to have a product available in the market within the next five years.

“In five years I’d love to see that the device has hit the market and that we’re actually getting people outside of our clinical trials using it and having a lot of benefit from it,” Professor Opie said.

“There’ll be a number of other companies that are starting to do trials in Australia or in the US or even in Europe looking at neuro-technology and the benefits of it, and I think that’s going to be exciting.

“I think there’s a lot of movement, there’s groundswell happening towards this.”

This episode of The Commercial Disco podcast was produced in partnership with CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency and innovation catalyst.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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