OPINION: Newcastle know-how to our region and the world

Friday, 22 November 2019

If I told you Australia’s biggest-earning innovation for the past quarter century came from Newcastle, would you believe me? Indeed, it has outstripped earnings from other icons like WiFi and the Black Box, but is little known for its economic contribution to the country.

Professor Jameson with the Jameson cell
Laureate Professor Jameson with the Jameson cell

And were you aware that our city was the birthplace of a company purchased in one of the largest biotech deals in our nation’s history?

Both of these examples have something in common. Something that has helped enable our city to punch above its weight for quite some time. The answer is they both involve the work of The University of Newcastle Research Associates – or TUNRA, for short.

Last month TUNRA celebrated its 50th anniversary, so it's the perfect opportunity to reflect on its success. Over half a century it has played a crucial role in bridging the gap between industry and the University, connecting researchers with organisations that may require specialised testing on products and/or samples, or expert knowledge for a particular problem they need to solve.

During that time it has developed a reputation for service excellence and industry engagement, and has a proud history of success.

A major success came in 1989 when it helped commercialise Laureate Professor Graeme Jameson’s invention, the Jameson Cell, which many consider to be the nation’s biggest export earner in the last 25 years, earning Australia more than $36 billion. It also led Professor Jameson being awarded the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in 2015.

TUNRA’s longest running division is Bulk Solids. It was first established in 1975 by Emeritus Professor Alan Roberts, a pioneer in the materials handling field who continues to be an active member of the group today. More recently, Professor Mark Jones, who is also recognised as an international leader in his field, directs the Bulk Solids activities at the University. The TUNRA Bulk Solids group, while initially founded in agriculture, has a strong presence in the resource sector and has contributed to major advancements in the industry.

A great example of TUNRA’s high impact work is Laureate Professor Kevin Galvin’s reflux classifier – an award-winning technology that separates fine particles on the basis of density or size. It was TUNRA that helped connect Laureate Professor Galvin’s brilliance with a commercial partner in Ludowici, now FLSmidth, resulting in a device now sold across the world that not only helps save the global mining and minerals processing industry billions of dollars, but also provides significant environmental benefits. To date, there have been more than 150 Reflux Classifiers installed worldwide across 10 countries and multiple commodities.

More recently, Viralytics – a company that develops viruses to infect and kill cancer cells and was commercialised through TUNRA’s work with Professor Darren Shafren and his team – was acquired for $502million by US pharmaceutical company, Merck. This transaction, one of the biggest biotech deals in Australian history, is a prime example of world-class research enabling the Hunter region to develop a start-up business to a global scale.

And today there is Mineral Carbonation International, a project hosted by TUNRA at the University’s Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources, which is developing technology that could turn carbon dioxide emissions into valuable building products such as concrete and plasterboard to create green construction materials.

What has contributed to these successes – and the many other examples I did not mention – is TUNRA’s outward-looking agenda. Its team spend time embedded in industry, working on challenging problems which often involves application-based research. Innovation takes the form of both step-change solutions, such as the Reflux Classifier or the Jameson Cell, but more commonly it’s the incremental innovation gains that can have large flow-on effects for businesses. Not only has this led to Newcastle-based researchers providing expertise across Australia, but it has also resulted in work with organisations in more than 40 countries.

It’s a wonderful example of how innovation and expertise in the higher education sector can drive economic growth for Australia, create jobs, establish us as a world-leader in certain markets, and solve some of the world’s major issues.

After 50 years, TUNRA is still very much open for business. All of us in Newcastle look forward to seeing what the next half century will bring.

Professor Alex Zelinsky AO
Vice-Chancellor and President

*This article first appeared in the Newcastle Herald.

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.