Three ways COVID-19 is driving innovation

By Georgia Kelleher

14 July 2020

4 minute read

CSIRO is seeing COVID-19 innovation across many areas of science. This picture shows (left to right): people at wastewater facility, COVID-19 cell, researcher looking in microscope, COVIU software on a computer screen.

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven innovation in a range of research and industry sectors.

COVID-19 has driven us indoors, it’s driven us online, it’s even driven the sales of toilet paper – but a silver lining of the pandemic is the way it has driven scientific innovation.

So have we learned anything from Australia’s response to the pandemic? And can COVID-19 innovation help prepare us for the future?

Our Chief Executive, Dr Larry Marshall, thinks so. Here’s why.

1. We’re all mates here – COVID-19 innovation, driven by collaboration

During the pandemic, we’ve seen incredible levels of collaboration across Australia’s research sector and industry. As well as strong international collaboration from our friends abroad.

Vaccine development, in particular, has seen universities and research organisations come together. The University of Queensland, the Burnet Institute, Monash University, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Griffith University and The Westmead Institute – as well as us, of course – are all working together. We’ve worked collaboratively with Australian manufacturing partners and pharmaceutical companies to give our country the best chance of finding a viable vaccine.

Our international partners, including the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), The University of Oxford and INOVIO Pharmaceuticals, have enabled us to continue this collaboration on a global scale. By bridging academia and industry we have been able to share learnings, accelerating global efforts.

But it’s not just vaccines. Scientists are also developing new ways to manufacture PPE. They’re looking at how we can harness big data for modelling and forecasting. And they’re coming up with new ways to detect COVID-19 in neighbourhoods using wastewater. Not bad for a bit of Aussie ingenuity when things are tough, huh?

“If we can carry this collaboration through after the pandemic, we have an opportunity to vastly improve our track record when it comes to commercialising our research,” Larry said.

2. Dialling into accelerated opportunities

Australia has demonstrated its ability to scale-up existing services to support new needs caused by the pandemic. Larry said Australia has accelerated its digital transformation during COVID-19.

“Australia has demonstrated its ability to take up services like telehealth, adapt materials and manufacturing to meet an immediate need, and mobilise large workforces to work differently – at home. These are all critical to collaborating to swiftly rally around a truly great challenge,” Larry said.

“We’ve been able to rapidly adapt materials and manufacturing to meet immediate needs. We’ve seen large workforces mobilise to work differently. And we’ve seen how technology can be used to facilitate collaboration around a truly great challenge.”

Services like telehealth have seen significant growth during the pandemic. Coviu is a start-up that spun out of our organisation. It secured investment from the CSIRO Innovation Fund, which is managed by Main Sequence Ventures. It saw a surge of interest. The cloud-based healthcare system makes visiting your doctor possible online.

Since the pandemic, Coviu has gone from supporting about 400 consultations a day to more than 10,000. They also secured the national Health Direct Australia contract to support GPs around Australia in moving to a telehealth model. There’s no doubt a service like this had immense value in a pre-COVID-19 world. But during this pandemic? Essential.

3. Pivot, pivot, pivot!

You’ve probably heard this in a Zoom meeting recently. Whether it was in relation to pivoting focus on work priorities or fitting a work chair inside your guest-bedroom-turned-office-space. For research and industry, the need to pivot our focus toward the different future we now see before us has never been more important.

So, where does research and development need to focus as the country recovers and prepares for the next global pandemic?

Larry said scientists saw this pandemic coming and prepared for it. This is why Australia has been quick off the mark to start testing vaccines and redirecting manufacturing to PPE, because we invested in innovation in those areas.

Now we’re investing in the disruption we expect to see coming next. Like the world’s transition to a low emissions future. That’s why we’ve been investing in hydrogen as a fuel, and we believe Australia is poised to grow an exciting new industry around it.

Larry said while the challenges we face won’t change, we will see a push to accelerate our response to them. Challenges like drought, bushfires, plastic waste and antimicrobial resistance will be pursued with the focus on future resilience.

“We’ve been looking at each key Australian industry to seek out those threats and disruptions. And targeting our science at unblocking the roadblocks on growth for key Australian industry,” he said.