Are 3D-printed COVID tests the tip of the iceberg for Australian medical device manufacturing?

Are 3D-printed COVID tests the tip of the iceberg for Australian medical device manufacturing?

BRC Group and 3DMEDiTech founder Paul Docherty. Photo credit: Nicole Cleary.

Australia's high labour costs have traditionally made it tough for manufacturers to compete on the global stage, but the advent of 3D printers has levelled the playing field giving medical technology specialists new opportunities that would have been out of reach before.

Melbourne-based 3DMEDiTech has taken the bull by the horns with this new technology, opening up new horizons not even its founder had envisaged, most notably its 3D-printed saliva swab COVID-19 tests that have supported Australia's sovereign stockpile.

The lightbulb moment for entrepreneur Paul Docherty came in 2015 when he encountered an executive from major global 3D printer group Stratasys during a Harvard management course. 

"I was fascinated and made contact with a couple of my friends in the medical fraternity down here in Australia," Docherty tells Business News Australia.

Like Docherty, many believed 3D printing would be the future and thus he was able to attract investment for a new 3D medical device incubator called 3DMEDiTech, based out of Port Melbourne and with backing from investment vehicle fund and managing partner BRC. 

In a short space of time the incubator created two successful spin-off businesses by 2018 - the clear aligner company SmileStyler which competes with US-based multinational Invisalign, along with an orthopaedic bracing business.

"What the technology means is that we don't need to compete globally in relation to cheap labour and manufacturing," Docherty says.

"It means we can use a clever way of taking a digital print using our software and algorithms to ensure we get the right file, and once we've got that file it's sent on to the machines, it prints and turns around in a matter of days as opposed to weeks of patient in-and-out.

"So patient outcomes are better. What they call 'patient dosage' is better as they are much more amenable because the products are lighter and feel better."

Before these products were commercialised 3DMEDiTech forged a crucial partnership with the University of Melbourne in 2017, laying the groundwork for product development that would put it in centre court for Australia's sovereign COVID-19 testing capability.

"At the moment in the incubator we've got a project called CMIT (Centre for Medical Implant Technologies) in partnership with the University of Melbourne where we are building a spinal implant, and it's that partnership that is really the reason why we were able to move really quickly in the pandemic," he says.

In March 2020, while the incubator's dental work was "bubbling along" in a couple of states and the 3D orthopaedics printing was slated for emergencies only, priorities pivoted to the most urgent needs raised by the university - face shields, HAZMAT suit filters, parts for ventilators and testing kits.

"We had a nasopharyngeal swab designed and to market and in product and being used in 172 days. If you took any medical device and got them through that pace previously, it'd be an absolute impossibility," Docherty explains.

"We've been supplying them to the Victorian DHHS, the NSW Government, the Queensland Government and the WA Government, so if you're an Australian talking about capacity around testing, everyone's able to take a deep breath and say now we've got some sovereign capability," he says, adding these contribute 10 per cent to the national medical stockpile.

The testing kits include a 3D-printed sterile nasopharyngeal swab, viral transport medium and a bio hazard bag all packaged ready for use.

In addition, he says the incubator has also developed a "world-first" saliva swab for surveillance testing which is based on 3D-printed manufacturing, designed so they could get to market quickly, effectively and safely with robust testing from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

"One of the issues that that they [the Doherty Institute] had prior in relation to confidence around saliva testing was that there were a range of issues around the cotton swab that sat on the top of the piece of plastic - there are a whole lot of problems around absorption, the amount of saliva saliva that you get and whether that's relevant in relation to the test that's been being done," Docherty says.

"With a 3D design and 3D printing it meant that we didn't have any of those cotton swab issues when we were doing saliva testing. All of that was absolutely a world first.

"We were in market in December with the NSW Government, we were testing in Victoria in January, we did a large portion of testing in the Australian Open, and since then that has been a component part of surveillance testing using PCR, the gold standard."

Docherty says 3DMEDiTech is in advanced discussions to supply testing kits to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK and has also fielded requests from agencies in Sri Lanka and India.

"Part of our issue here has been that keeping up with local demand has been our priority. As that starts to slow down a little, these [overseas] markets are starting to take off," Docherty says.

" Now we're starting to really have a look at what the future looks like for this product."

"Obviously it's going to reduce as we hopefully move out of the worst parts of COVID, but the swab business in its own right is a $3 billion global annual industry. It's not even an industry that we considered at the outset but now we're well and truly saying we can be a reasonably-sized player in this industry, even if that only takes a regional view of what we do."

The group went from manufacturing 5,000 kits to 40,000 kits per week fairly quickly, and is currently producing 80,000 per week.

"While it doesn't sound like a lot, we are looking at how we develop injection moulding around our saliva swabs...we're now going through the regulatory framework there which will allow us to do 80,000 a day," he says.

Manufacturing by its nature however is very capital intensive, and securing the funding required for a project of this scale was not easy. Docherty is thankful of the Myer family as great supporters of BRC and 3DMEDiTech, which provided quick operational cash to help expand the Port Melbourne facility.

"We were flying machines in from Germany and we had to do it super quick, so the Myer family stood up," he says.

Meanwhile, the executive claims to have found little interest in the project from Australia's leading financial institutions, and was able to turn to a neobank instead.

"The big challenge for advance manufacturing is when I talk to banks about robots and 3D machines, they don't really want to know," he says.

"So we ended up as our last resort after four years of knocking on the doors of big financial institutions, Judo Bank said 'let's get to know your business', which they did and said they wanted to be involved.

"They gave us a $20 million line of credit from the get-go and said anything that you can provision for the government that we can assist with, we're up for it and we're here to help."

He thinks the company would have had no chance of achieving a line of credit like that three years ago, but the successful 3D-printed medical devices established a reputation for the incubator of activating commercialisations quickly and well.

"We doubled the size of our manufacturing capability within four months, and we now employ 50 people down at Port Melbourne in new collar manufacturing jobs, and we expect there'll be another 50 in the next 12 months as those product lines and businesses in their own right start to grow," he says.

"I think that ability of advanced manufacturing, certainly designed around 3D printing, is just the way of the future, particularly in medicine.

"Much as Australia did two decades ago in the biotech industry - we built big companies like CSL and Cochlear and many others and then we built the ecosystem around that we became a world centre for biotech - I think we can do exactly the same thing in the personalised medical devices industry.

"We've really got great people down here we've got got the capability and the capacity. We just need to focus on it and say 'this is where we're going'."

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