The technology transfer profession of Australia is in mourning after the passing of veteran Dr David Alexander Evans (b. 22/1/1941) on 19/9/2014.
David made a largely unrecognised, but exceptional, personal contribution to the culture of innovation and support for early stage commercialisation of technologies in Australia, devoting his career and life to providing leadership, vision, inspiration and mentoring support to a generation of innovation professionals.
Working with Australian innovators and commercialisation professionals David supported, facilitated or encouraged, technologies that have delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to the Australian economy and generated significant social and environmental benefits.
David was instrumental in transforming Uniquest in the mid-90s into the leading powerhouse that we all now know of it to be. David was also the visionary who noted the need for seed stage funding and in true leadership style went on to pioneer UniSeed, Australia’s first university based Venture Capital Fund (Uniseed) with an initial capitalisation of $20 million.
During a career that spanned more than 40 years, David demonstrated time and time again a remarkable vision for what Australian innovators could achieve. More impressively, his ability to communicate this vision with a passion that inspired others, backed up with skills to facilitate engagement and discussion, saw these visions convert into reality and have a significant positive benefit on the Australian technology transfer scene.
David’s passion for innovation was sparked early. In 1962, as a recently graduated engineer (BE Engineering, University of NSW), he joined M R Hornibrook (NSW) Pty Ltd working on Stage 2 of the Sydney Opera House Project. There he was inspired by the creativity of Joe Bertony, who had been able to design the engineering support structures needed to build the visionary sails of the Sydney Opera house. They remained lifelong friends and collaborators on innovation. David’s contributions as part of this team were recognised in “Building a Masterpiece: the Sydney Opera House” (Anne Watson ed, 2006).
A young David went on to study his Masters (MS Engineering-Economic Planning and MA Economics) and Doctorate (PhD, Engineering) degrees at Stanford University (California, USA) after receiving a Fulbright Travel Grant and a Ford International Scholarship in 1964. In 1965 he met Professor Doug Englebart (inventor of, among other things, the computer mouse) at a seminar. Caught up in the excitement of the potential of what he was seeing, David began to visit Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and work with Professor Englebart over the period 1966 to 1969, after which he returned to Australia with his young family.
In 1968, David was part of the team that produced “the mother of all demonstrations”, now seen as heralding the dawn of interactive computing. David is personally thanked by Professor Englebart at the conclusion of the hour long presentation (http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html). David’ doctoral thesis talked about the processes for innovation he had experienced at SRI and he was awarded his doctorate after he used the (then revolutionary) word processing technology they had developed, to revise his thesis overnight in response to suggestions from the examination panel. David is credited by Professor Englebart with having developed “the Journal” which has been described as “a predecessor of all contemporary server software that supports collaborative document creation. It was used to discuss, debate, and refine concepts in the same way that “wikis” are being used today”. The concept of collaboration to improve on and foster new ideas remained right at the core of David’s approach to innovation right until the very end.
After returning to Australia, David became a senior consultant at W D Scott & Company and carried out assignments for Australian Wire Industries, South Australian Aboriginal Lands Council and the Philippines Board of Investments. He subsequently founded and established W D Scott’s office in Papua New Guinea and won major assignments, just prior to independence, in economic development, localization and efficiency improvement.
From 1972 – 1974, David was seconded from W D Scott & Company as a member of the Priorities Review Staff, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – a policy task force / think tank set up by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. He acted as one of five Senior Advisers in the PRS (set up along the lines of Lord Rothschild’s Central Policy Review Staff in the UK) to provide an alternative view on long-term policy to the Australian Government. It was a role that fitted with his extraordinary capacity to envision a better Australia.
He went on to work as a management consultant (largely for governments) in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Before moving into technology commercialisation in universities in the late 1980s, he had established a consultancy company of his own (the Implementation and Management Group (IMG)), working throughout the Asia-Pacific region, and developed this into a boutique, seed-stage management and investment company starting up, facilitating and nurturing new companies based on innovative Australian technology in IT&T, physical sciences, engineering and biotechnology. Companies in the IMG group included VLD Consultants, IMG Consultants, LSE Manufacturing and LSE Technology.
Entering the world of technology commercialisation
In the late 1980s he began his direct contribution to technology commercialisation in running his own “hatchery”. He took up positions as CEO of University Partnerships Pty Ltd at the University of New England (Armidale) from 1989 to 1994 then CEO and Managing Director of UniQuest, the technology commercialisation company at the University of Queensland from 1994 to 2000.
David transformed UniQuest from an unremarkable university commercialisation outfit into a robust company, nationally recognised as ‘best practice’ and as a leader internationally. He introduced and implemented a fundamental shift in the way commercialisation of technology from public sector R&D was handled, from a focus on stockpiling non-exploited patents to licensing to third parties and establishing start up and spinoff companies. (http://www.uniquest.com.au/index.php?sectionID=14)
The University of Queensland (UQ), largely through the work of UniQuest, is now ranked in the top deciles for research commercialisation outcomes in the world on a number of metrics. The foundations for this success were laid by David. David was the courageous and persistent person who coaxed/encouraged and forcibly convinced UQ to invest in commercialisation. His leadership and vision laid the foundations for continued success, notwithstanding the fine work of those who have succeeded him. Without his input (and the support of two consecutive Vice Chancellors) UQ would not have achieved the national and international outcomes that make them so proud today.
In terms of specific examples, David negotiated with UQ to provide significant ‘patient’ funding (that is, funding invested to make a return over a long period, rather than immediately) in his early days as Managing Director. David was “inspirational in getting the university (of Queensland) to capitalise its commercialisation arm to the tune of $5 million…No other university had ever done that – it was almost heresy.”
David conceived, garnered high level support for, and then successfully implemented the faculty/head office ‘hub and spoke’ model which is still the basic model for UniQuest today. Under this model, for the first time in Australia, commercialisation professionals were physically co-located with university researchers supporting them in identifying and then commercialising university IP. This significantly reduced IP ‘leakage’, made a generation of researchers commercially aware, and helped increase economic, social and environmental returns from publicly funded R&D. The approach is now an internationally recognized and successful technology transfer model.
During his tenure at UniQuest, David played a leading role in more than 50 commercialisation deals, including Prof Ian Frazer’s (2006 Australian of the year) Human Papilloma Virus (Cervical Cancer) Vaccine deal with CSL/Merck. They also included a deal with GE Medical Systems and Siemens to commercialise Prof David Doddrell’s eddy-current correction method for MRI. These deals are both regarded as benchmarks that set the standard for Australian commercialisation. Moreover, successful commercialisation of these technologies resulted in very significant economic returns to Australia, greatly increased the international profile of the strength of Australian science, and inspired a new generation of scientists and engineers. Professors Frazer and Doddrell have, rightly since, both been recipients of many awards for their contributions to science, the economy and society, including the ATSE Clunies Ross Medal.
David also worked extremely hard to make sure that UQ received a fair return from its investments in technology development. For example, with the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, he was instrumental in ensuring the original deal with CSL benefited the university (as well as the inventor and investors).
David also introduced his ideas and successes to other universities, and the model he implemented has subsequently been adopted in other public sector institutions, increasing ability to gain returns from public sector R&D.
In developing his model for technology transfer, David identified the lack of seed stage funding as a significant hindrance to innovation. Showing characteristic leadership, vision and persuasion, in 2000, he established and became CEO of Australia’s first university based Venture Capital Fund (Uniseed) with an initial capitalization of $20 million. $10 million from the University of Melbourne and $10 million from UQ. David’s legacy has subsequently seen Uniseed’s capitalisation exceed $60 million with the University of New South Wales and Westscheme (Western Australia’s largest non-government superannuation fund) joining as members of Uniseed.
Uniseed was set up to invest at the pre-seed stage in UQ and University of Melbourne start-up companies, giving them a better chance of reaching the seed capital investment stage. At the time this approach to commercialisation of university technology through support of the institutions themselves was revolutionary.
While David was CEO, Uniseed’s investments supported 15 new technology companies, including 12 in the life sciences. Among these, David identified, encouraged and/or supported the development of many of the now successful UQ start-ups: Magnetica, Xenome, TripleP, and Fultech. These companies alone have contributed many millions of dollars to the wider economy and The University of Queensland, supporting hundreds of research positions and providing resources to fund other university activities. The flow on economic, social and environmental benefits of their success and the resulting increased profile of Australian science are hugely significant.
In making these commercialisation successes, he also showcased the now well known researchers working on the technologies. Not only Professors David Doderell, and Ian Frazer (mentioned earlier) but also Stuart Crozier, Roger Drinkwater and Matt Sanderson.
David was also instrumental in securing key early stage investors for many start-up companies. He has the understanding of the venture capital environment and the passion to understand and explain technologies that allow investors to feel comfortable about the prospects that lie ahead. Redflow Limited (now trading on the Australian Stock Exchange – ASX RFX) is one such company.
In the period 2002 – 2005, David also made several significant contributions to other research based organizations looking to his leadership and vision for commercialisation. He provided consulting advice to the Australian Institute for Commercialisation and to the four universities that are Members of the National Stem Cell Centre Ltd (UNSW, Adelaide, Monash and Queensland). He acted as a Director of IMBcom, the commercialisation company for the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Queensland; Anutech, the commercialisation company at the Australian National University; CAST Centre Pty Ltd, the management company for the CRC for Cast Metals Manufacturing; and two companies commercialising a new internal combustion engine technology, Ron Richards Engine Technologies and Toroidal Technology.
At the end of 2004, David was appointed Managing Director and CEO of Magnetic Limited. At Magnetica, David worked closely with the founding scientists, investors and the Board to commercialise magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology developed at UQ. His leadership and vision resulted in international partnerships (including Jastec, a subsidiary of Kobe Steel) and a collaboration that won a tender to develop a new ‘disruptive’ technology, a very high performance MRI magnet, now being sold to and incorporated in a new MRI system distributed globally by GE Healthcare.
Up until June 2010, he continued to seek out universities in Australia and overseas that might benefit from his ideas, and has inspired them to start thinking further about how best to create the structures that will support and nurture innovation, and enable the creators of new ideas as well as broader communities to share in the value they create. In 2008-2010 he worked in collaboration with the University of Sydney, University of Western Sydney and the University of New England in relation to what he calls “intentional innovation communities”. He also worked in collaboration with Penn State University to explore ways of piloting similar ideas in rural communities in Pennsylvania.
Many individuals, both commercialisation professionals and researchers/inventors, credit David with either seeding or supporting their careers. A generous mentor, David passion for innovation and the ability to implement a grand vision is contagious. He saw solutions where others see only obstacles; potential where others saw mediocrity and has an uncanny knack for spotting the ‘spark’ that becomes a great person, company or idea. Another constant throughout his career was his proud support and promotion of Australia and its ideas and impact.
Employees and colleagues from David’ time at UniQuest and Uniseed have gone on to set up and staff innovation sector enterprises around Australia. Anne-Marie Birkill is General Partner and Executive Director of One Ventures Innovation Fund, a $40 million innovation fund that is part of the Australian Government’s Innovation Investment Fund program. She is also one of the few female directors of an ASX listed technology company (RedFlow Limited). Michael Finney is the founding Chief Executive Officer of QUTbluebox, the commercialisation arm of the Queensland University of Technology. Andrew Davis is General Manager of UniQuest’s technology commercialisation team. He is also a Director of Magnetica (a company based on the magnetic resonance imaging capabilities developed at UQ); Coridon (a company commercialising new vaccine technologies developed by Ian Frazer and his team); and a number of other Australian technology start-ups. Nicky Milsom is Managing Director of Magnetica Limited.
Like many great men, David actively avoided seeking personal recognition or reward for his work; but his contributions should be noted and recognised. Thank you David. You gave so much. The Australian technology transfer profession is very grateful. May you rest in peace.
*Thank you to Michael Finney for providing KCA with the above prose which was the basis for a nomination put forward for an Australia Day Honour in David’s name in 2013. This was ultimately successful with David being recognised in the Australia Day Honours list for 2013 for his long service to innovation and science in Australia. David was made a “Member of the Order of Australia” with the full citation being: Dr David Alexander Evans, for significant service to science and innovation through commercialising and developing new technologies. On the right is a photo of David accepting his honour in Canberra.