SAHMRI stays on course with Steve Wesselingh reappointed as executive director

12 Apr 2016
SAHMRI stays on course with Steve Wesselingh reappointed as executive director

A sense of unfinished business at the SA Health and Medical Research Institute, which has gone from naught to $60 million in turnover in two years, will keep Steve Wesselingh at the helm for another term. 

The state’s $240 million flagship organisation opened in November 2013 and Professor Wesselingh has driven it ground up through the construction stage since October 2011 and overseen its establishment. 

Last week, the infectious diseases physician and researcher in neurovirology, HIV and vaccine development, was reappointed executive director of SAHMRI for another five years. 

“In some jobs, five years is enough to make a major impact. But at SAHMRI, we have been putting together a building as well as an organisation. 

“While being proud of what we have achieved so far, there is still a lot to be done. 

“Getting the community to understand what it is that we do exactly inside that building is an important objective.” 

While the seven research themes and teams — Cancer, Aboriginal Health, Heart Health, Healthy Mothers, Babies & Children, Infection & Immunity, Mind & Brain, Nutrition & Metabolism — are now well established, the institute wants to be measured on how it has improved health and economic outcomes for the state, he said. 

While SA’s share of the national research money pool was still at around 7 per cent — where it was in 2013 compared to Victoria’s 46 per cent — it is a key performance indicator for the organisation. 

“I don’t want to make excuses, but it’s an important measure but we have gone from being a working group to an active organisation for just a short time.” 

SAHMRI was kickstarted with $200 million from the Federal Government, $15 million was borrowed to set up a cyclotron facility and another $25 million came from the universities and other stakeholders. 

It also owns sites at the Womens and Childrens Hospital, Flinders Medical Centre and at Gilles Plains 

The SA Government has allocated about $5 million a year toward its operational expenses. 

While the state had made a large commitment to health and medical research, other states haven’t stood still, he said. 

“It’s incredibly competitive area, but we are happy with the progress we have made so far through collaborating with the universities.” 

“SAHMRI’s annual turnover is now at $60 million with our commercial income at $18 million. 

“That is income through engagement with pharmaceuticals, contract research royalty and clinical research paid for by other external parties.” 

Commercialisation of research into products and therapies remains an ultimate aim and there are partnerships with organisations like BioSA to pursue a statewide model that integrates research from all three universities and SAHMRI. 

He said between 550 and 600 staff were working in the “cheesegrater-like” building on North Terrace — about 400 of them are SAHMRI employees. 

An analysis by consultants Ernst and Young in 2013 estimated SAHMRI will support more than 900 fulltime jobs by 2020 and contribute $277 million to the local economy by then. 

“We want to do more in terms of health and wealth because our success (and that of the precinct) is important to the SA economy at the moment.” 

While developing philanthropic revenue streams for SAHMRI has gone well, Mr Wesselingh believes building community awareness will be key to unlocking that support further. 

He is also involved in pushing for Federal assistance for SAHMRI 2, a $280 million proposed project next to the existing building, which will house 500 researchers and host Australia’s first Proton Therapy Unit — an $80 million machine delivering cancer-destroying protons to the tumour site of otherwise inoperable cancers, without affecting healthy tissues. 

So far the state government has promised $44 million and the Flinders University has committed $60 million to what will be named the John Chalmers Centre for Transforming Healthcare after Flinders University Emeritus Professor John Chalmers. 

“If we win Federal support, we can start construction in six months.” 

The SAHMRI board is also discussing renaming the existing building, but not decision has been made yet. 

Mr Wesselingh has been “instrumental” in establishing SAHMRI and creating a culture of excellence, said SAHMRI board chairman Raymond Spencer. 

“Under Steve’s leadership, we have begun delivering and translating innovative health and medical research into real outcomes for patients and the community.” 

SAHMRI has an “important responsibility and role” 

SAHMRI wants to be an increasingly important economic contributor to the state, Mr Wesselingh said. 

SAHMRI and the North Terrace precinct had an “important responsibility and role” while the automotive industry was shutting down and the steel industry was hit by Arrium’s debt problems. 

“SAHMRI and others on the North Terrace precinct need to attract investment, income and industry partners,’’ he said. 

“We have the level of excellence with our research that can attract industry, but together with SAHMRI 2, the BioSA precinct at Thebarton and Tonsley, we need to create the spaces that will enable working together. 

“We need a diversified economy, so manufacturing must remain. But we can also have the smart people, industries and positive health outcomes.” 

Already, there are projects being developed to make South Australia, “a perfectly-sized state”, a pilot in health outcomes — potentially attracting national and global interest. 

“For instance, if we were to use all the knowledge in the state around colon cancer, we could dramatically reduce the number of deaths occurring from that disease. 

“Of course, it would have to be a whole-of-state effort with screening, education programs, more resources and bringing in partners, but work on such projects is progressing as we speak.” 

He said other opportunities existed in improving outcomes related to cardiac disease, Aboriginal health and pregnant mums and babies health. 

“We expect to launch one of these later this year, but these are long term, about 5-10 year projects.” 

Mr Wesselingh is charged with driving the state’s science and health vision for the next five years, extending his influence to a decade at a critical time in the local economy. 

“I don’t have space in my building sought by pharmaceutical companies, global technology giants like Siemens and even small biotechs. 

“SAHMRI 2 will help with that and industry is important to build a seriously international precinct. It can’t just be us, the hospital and the universities.” 

Read online at The Advertiser on Tuesday, 12 April 2016.