Research facilities: An inside look at the Monash innovations

The role of research facilities is changing at an unprecedented rate, especially in the wake of greater focus on cost management and space utilisation. From retrofits to new-build designs and ongoing facility management, there is a pedagogical shift introducing interdisciplinary research models and multi-purpose functionality.

But while the needs of researchers are being addressed with priority, commercial partnerships and university outcomes are also strategically taking centre-stage. By combining these three elements, universities are driving innovation and upping the ante on operational pressures.

In Melbourne, Victoria, Monash University has gone through leaps and bounds in its effort to become a hub of innovation for research facility development. With 24 research platforms that centralise Monash’s research capabilities into a one group function (called Monash Technology Research Platforms – MTRP), the university is able to establish collaborative partnerships at a new level.

Ahead of Research Facilities Design & Development 2016, Professor Ian Smith, Vice-Provost – Research and Research Infrastructure at Monash University, shares exclusive insight into the unique ‘ecosystem’ of innovative facilities. Now six years into the role as Vice-Provost, Ian says the setup has changed dramatically since he first took over the reins.

“When I arrived at Monash about 10 years ago, one observation I made was the high amount of duplication of equipment. Much of it was only utilised about 20-30 per cent of the time,” he explains.

“So to me, it made sense that we should look at having just one piece of equipment that would be used more than 80 per cent of the time. And the money we would save could be put towards a skilled operator for that equipment.”

This perspective on making the most of specific equipment would allow both Ian’s team and researchers obtain more reliable data, and buy the best quality reagents. As a result, Ian subsequently focused on having the team think about the quality operation and management of these core pieces of equipment, and establish ownership and responsibility by the managers.

From creating key performance indicators (KPIs) to standard operating procedures (SOPs), the approach centred on using equipment in the context of an individual business unit.

“By having KPIs and SOPs in place, we could ensure our researchers could access the facilities without fear or favour, and have guaranteed access to an instrument that is well-maintained, running optimally, and a skilled operator to help them both process samples and interpret data,” Ian observes.

Once these indicators and operating procedures were established, Ian and the team realised that many other organisations – commercial and academic – couldn’t afford the type of infrastructure that Monash was investing in, or the expertise to operate them.

Upon this realisation, the team considered how they could translate facility designs into platforms not only available for the research community, but their collaborators as well.

“It was an exercise of best-use in limited resources for purchasing infrastructure, and making sure that the infrastructure was used optimally,” he adds.

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Monash Biomedical Imaging refurb, courtesy of Ian Smith

Development of the 24 platforms began in the faculty of medicine, which aligned with Ian’s background as a medical researcher. But this gradually shifted to extend across engineering, science and pharmacy.

The platforms – 12 of which are now ISO 9001 certified – are what he calls a ‘dance card’ for the university. If a company approaches MTRP to use one of the facilities, Ian’s team can deliver a quality product, on-time with good reporting, web access and sample tracking services.

The ISO certification is a strategic move by MTRP to take quality to the next step and ensure that companies have a positive and seamless experience, thereby recognising the skills and quality of the university.

“First-time clients are far more likely to look at Monash for longer-term for research and development programs. When I look at major industry interactions that we have across all sectors, one of the common themes is they start small and then grow big. And they grow big because we build trust. We’re recognised as being able to deliver a quality product and understand our industrial partner’s needs,” Ian explains.

The platforms have been instrumental as a dance card, introducing the university’s technology to different industries. Many companies – major players included – do not have the range of research infrastructure, as well as the expertise to operate such facilities and interpret related data.

Through ISO certification, specialised managers and monitoring services, MTRP is able to operate as a CRO and provide the capability to support R&D efforts. Currently, around 70 per cent of the platforms’ time is used by researchers; while 30 per cent is taken up by industry.

Each core piece of infrastructure across MTRP’s portfolio has a manager responsible for running the respective facility, particularly:

  • Maintenance & service;
  • Compliance for ISO certification;
  • Monitoring grant access on behalf of MTRP;
  • Customer satisfaction surveys; and
  • Reporting on income from industry and research collaborators.

All platforms are rigorously reviewed every three years by both internal and external reviewers, to ensure they are operating effectively and are still relevant. This way, Ian’s team can justify the required expenditure.

Managing the ongoing operation of all 24 platforms – which although not a major challenge – is a key priority for MTRP.

“The management per se is not such an issue. We need to ensure that the organisation has the latitude within its reward and performance evaluation, especially for people who decide to take a career route in managing one of these facilities.

“That way, they can be promoted and can climb the ladder based on what they do with the platforms; as opposed to what they might do in terms of numbers of papers, numbers of students or size of budgets,” he says.

The core challenge, according to Ian, lies in recovering operational costs. Running each platform and keeping them state-of-the-art is not cheap by any means.

“Another major challenge is persuading researchers not to own equipment; that they’re far better off donating equipment into one of these facilities and accessing it through one of the facilities, rather than using it themselves,” he adds.

A recent innovation through which MTRP invested heavily is 3D light metal printing, by way of a new Monash Centre for Additive Manufacture (MCAM). Creating this platform led to a unique achievement in concert with Microturbo and Safran Engineering in France (which services Airbus): they managed to print a functional jet engine.

“We now have a spin-out company that works with the aerospace industry, because when you print something in light metal then it can be lighter, you can do rapid prototyping. The jet engine was shown at the Avalon Air Show last year and received some great national and international press coverage,” Ian notes.

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Example of equipment setup at MCAM – Trumpf TruLaser cell 7040, courtesy of Ian Smith

Additionally, MTRP has a successful partnership with Pfizer, having recently joined the collaborative research network Centres for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI). This invitation came about for two reasons: firstly, MTRP has highly-specialised researchers in the area of generating monoclonal antibodies.

And secondly, there is a high-throughput monoclonal antibody facility that enables the researchers to generate potential monoclonal antibody therapeutics.

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Monash Antibody Technologies Facility, courtesy of Ian Smith

Focus areas and lessons learned

MTRP’s focus area for 2016 is two-pronged, according to Ian. The first relates to ISO certification for the remaining 12 platforms; while the second involves looking at the platforms not in isolation, but how they can form an integrated pipeline of capabilities.

“If it’s drug development, we can do drug discovery, drug evaluation, drug optimisation, pre-clinical trials and then phase one, two, three and four clinical trials. There’s an awful lot that we can do as part of that pipeline.

“So, we can work with industry and we can work with our researchers. I won’t say that we’re a pharmaceutical company, but there are a lot of aspects of that drug discovery pipeline that we’re capable of doing in-house.”

Having presided over the MTRP group function for a decade and overseeing management of all 24 platforms, there are three distinct lessons Ian has taken on board.

Firstly, when it comes to cost recovery, there are some platforms that industry is very keen to use, and that can offset a significant proportion of these costs. While for other platforms that don’t attract as much industry attention, the university itself can gain enormous benefit by focusing on research outputs.

“Regarding the platforms, you should have a broad approach as to what your return on investment is. It might be dollars, but it could also be scientific achievements,” he explains.

The second learning relates to operations, in which Ian stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Different platforms will operate under different regimes in the context of if it is a subscription, hour, or by an analysis that is taking place.

“It’s a bit ‘Topsyesque’ in the different areas of research, different platforms operate on different parameters and we are fairly agnostic when it comes to that. We don’t subscribe to one-size-fits-all. We look at each platform individually.”

While for the third learning, Ian says planning for an integrated pipeline is crucial: “When one platform can integrate with another, the output is greater than the sum of the individual outputs.”

“By using platforms we can actually save money; we don’t duplicate resources. We can improve standards, and provide capability for the much broader research community and increase our capacity to engage and work with industry.”

Ian Smith will conduct an in-depth presentation at the upcoming Research Facilities Design & Development conference in May. Be sure to check out the brochure or visit http://www.researchfacilities.com.au to know more.