Innovation and Enterprise

Interview with Prof Darren Kelly

Professor Darren Kelly on turning his fibrosis research into a commercial success and effective treatment for fibrosis.

In 2008, Darren Kelly challenged – and changed – his life as an academic researcher by testing whether his work on fibrosis could be made into a medicine.

Fibrosis is the scarring and thickening of damaged tissue in the body. When it affects crucial organs such as the heart and kidneys, fibrosis can be fatal. Kelly knew that a successful fibrosis treatment would save lives.

For more than 20 years, Kelly’s work had been funded by National Health and Medical Research Council grants. His decision to take his research from the lab to the marketplace was a leap into the unknown.

“I wanted to see the product to the end,” he says. “To take it further down the continuum . . . It was a risk at the time, and well worth it.”

I wanted to see the product to the end, to take it further down the continuum. It was a risk at the time, and well worth it.

Kelly took his chance in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. He contributed his own savings and received $7 million from Brandon Capital’s Research Commercialisation Fund and Uniseed, a venture capital fund that operates at the universities of Melbourne, Sydney, NSW and Queensland, and with the CSIRO. Kelly also joined forces with Ann Hamer, who has a corporate management background, to build the company Fibrotech; it was the first such company to secure funding from the Brandon research fund.

Kelly’s gamble paid off. Fibrotech made a pill to treat fibrosis; the research was purchased by the Irish company Shire for $75 million, with $500 million more expected as the commercial development progresses. Since then, Kelly and Hamer have founded a new company, OccuRx, which continues Kelly’s fibrosis research and also mentors researchers who wish to develop their work for the marketplace.

Kelly sees innovation as a process that contributes to resolving a problem. How can medical research be advanced practically to make products that improve health and wellbeing?

Australian medical researchers are innovative thinkers, he says, but in this country they have been slow to translate their work into products. The Melbourne biomedical precinct is ranked third in the world for the quality of the research papers it publishes, but has been far less successful in using this world-class work to make saleable products.

Fear of failure is part of the problem, Kelly believes. He acknowledges that the commercialisation process is difficult; failures are inevitable. In the US, which has a more entrepreneurial culture, failure is seen more positively. Failed ventures are not hidden on CVs, but regarded as an important career component. “It means a person has experience, that they have learned something from it.”

Kelly has been Associate Dean, Innovation and Enterprise, for 18 months. He says the University’s leadership has welcomed his contribution and post-graduate students have been open and positive about pursuing the “alternative career path” that commercialisation offers. He mentors interns in his research lab and biotech companies, which he says involves talking to them about their ideas and sharing his experiences.

“The millennial generation is very career-focused,” he says. “They are very driven to do something, to give something back to society and to climb the career ladder.”