Engagement

Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people and University of Queensland

Spinifex research and commercialisation agreements

Colin Saltmere and the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people are building new and innovative industries in remote northern Australia. Their vision is one of economically sustainable industries based around spinifex farming, harvesting, and bioprocessing that will empower Indigenous communities in north-west Queensland.

The Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people are the traditional owners of areas around the upper Georgina River including the small town of Camooweal not far from Queensland’s border with the Northern Territory.

In 2002, the traditional owners, led by Saltmere, established the Myuma Group of companies, including Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation, which manages the group’s native title and cultural heritage interests.

Since then, Myuma Group has successfully developed and expanded a suite of Indigenous civil construction, hospitality, catering, labour hire and training businesses.

In the last few years it has also struck research and commercialisation agreements that could see Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people realise their vision for new industries in the north of Australia.

In 2015, Myuma Group and the University of Queensland (UQ) signed a Spinifex Research-Umbrella Commercialisation Agreement to develop nanotechnology platforms. The nanotechnology platforms could have significant commercial applications in global industries such as latex products, packaging and road surfacing.

UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN), working in partnership with the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu People, developed a method of extracting nanocellulose from spinifex that could be used an additive in latex products such as condoms and gloves.

Professor Paul Memmott, UQ; Phil Nelson, UniQuest; Sue McKell, UQ; Sally Sheldon, Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation;  Colin Saltmere, Dugalunji managing director, Professor Darren Martin, UQ, Professor Peter Gray, UQ, Professor Mark Western, UQ; and Erica Davis, UQ. Copyright: The North West Star
'There is certainly an overwhelming amount of traditional knowledge involved in the management and use of spinifex, so we have to connect and work on this together.'

Professor Darren Martin, Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, University of Queensland

The spinifex commercialisation agreement recognises traditional-owner knowledge about spinifex and ensures the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people will have ongoing equity and involvement in the commercialisation of the nanofibre technology.

In recognising the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people’s contribution to the research, the agreement provides the traditional owners with opportunities to participate as an equal partner in commercialisation decisions arising from the research.

‘We’re very excited by the prospect of commercialising the technology, but there’s a bigger picture out there and that’s remote Australia,’ says Saltmere.

Commercial harvesting and extraction of spinifex nanofibres could provide for the foundation for new enterprises in remote Australia.

‘The agreement with UQ will enhance the opportunity for employment in remote regions,’ says Saltmere, who is also a member of the Queensland Government’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Business and Innovation Reference Group.


Advance Queensland

In July 2017, Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation and UQ received a $995,000 grant from the Advance Queensland $5 million Biofutures Commercialisation Program to support efforts ‘to build a clean, green, Queensland-based bio-refining industry’.

Announcing the grant, Leeanne Enoch, Queensland Government Minister for Innovation, Science and the Digital Economy, said: ‘Bringing together traditional knowledge, nanotechnology and spinifex – Australia's most extensive vegetation type – to create the products of the future, this project is designed to produce cellulose nanofibres for ongoing and future commercial trials.

‘Within five years, it’s predicted these nanofibres will have been transferred into dozens of applications and be manufactured at a commercial scale for a number of key markets.’


Negotiating the agreement

Myuma Group and UQ spent three years negotiating matters such as who would hold any intellectual property resulting from the joint research project into spinifex. The agreement, the details of which are confidential, seeks to reconcile traditional knowledge with Western intellectual property law.

Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation staff carrying out patchwork burning of spinifex during research on harvesting and re-growth techniques, near Camooweal

When Myuma Group and UQ first engaged they realised they had different sets of priorities and cultures, according to Professor Paul Memmott, Director, Aboriginal Environments Research Centre at UQ.

Myuma Group wanted to create small-scale industry in the bush to give local people jobs, enabling them to stay on-country. The university was focused on product discovery and development, patents and royalties.

‘Myuma was interested in jobs and building an industry in the bush as opposed to just receiving royalties,’ says Memmott.

Myuma Group was determined to be an equal partner with UQ. Initially, it was UQ that was applying for – and receiving – the grants that would be expended under the agreement.

More recently it has been Myuma Group taking the initiative and securing grants. ‘Myuma wanted to be equally empowered,’ says Memmott.

There are currently four sub-agreements that under the Spinifex Research-Umbrella Commercialisation Agreement. The percentage ownership of each sub-agreement reflects whether it was UQ or Myuma Group taking leadership of the project, including efforts to secure collaboration partners. For example, one sub-agreement is a 70:30 split between Myuma Group and UQ. Another is a 30:70 split.

Myuma Group has broadly taken the lead on the upstream activities – such as harvesting spinifex and the initial processing of the nanofibres – and is constructing a bio-processing plant at Camooweal in north Queensland.

UQ, meanwhile, leads downstream activities. The university is expanding an experimental facility at its Long Pocket campus at St Lucia, near Brisbane, where its tests new technologies.

The Spinifex Research-Umbrella Commercialisation Agreement is built on consensus. No one group can make a decision without the other’s agreement. This also means Myuma Group effectively has a power of veto over commercialisation of intellectual property.

This veto might come into play if there were, for example, commercial pressures for the development of new products that might be ethically unacceptable to Myuma Group. In any such case, Myuma Group and UQ would need to negotiate and find a way forward.

Spinifex and nanotechnology

Indigenous Australians have collected spinifex for tens of thousands of years.

‘Spinifex grass is an ancient and sacred material to Indigenous people, but also a material we use all the time,’ says Saltmere.

‘We’ve used it for building shelters, making beds, and as a glue in making instruments like spears and boomerangs. We know that the oils and the waxes can be used to treat wounds and in other medicines,’ he adds.

The research, led by AIBN’s Professor Darren Martin, has found that the nanofibres from spinifex significantly improve the physical properties of latex, and can be used to make products such as condoms as thin as a human hair without any loss in strength.

‘We can make a stronger and thinner membrane that is supple and flexible, which is the Holy Grail for natural rubber,’ says Martin. ‘The nanofibres that we can extract are long, thin and stretchy – only a few nanometres wide but thousands of nanometres in length.’

Professor Martin has established the benefits of the nanofibre technology are of interest to latex manufacturers across the world and could also significantly impact other industries.

Work is under way to add spinifex nanofibres into other rubber compounds and plastics – even carbon fibre. AIBN is researching the benefits of adding nanofibres to bitumen to create more durable road surfaces.

‘There is certainly an overwhelming amount of traditional knowledge involved in the management and use of spinifex, so we have to connect and work on this together,’ says Martin.

New industries in the north

While mining and cattle farming provide some employment in north-west Queensland and other parts of northern Australia, Saltmere says remote Australia did not have a recognised industry to call its own.

‘If you look at the demographic of local people in the labour market, there’s not much work available. Spinifex farming can create employment,’ he says.

‘You can naturally harvest the spinifex, which Aboriginal people have always done, bring it back to a central point and process it, then send it on for homogenisation to extract the nanofibres.

‘There’s potential to create industries from that product, tyres, plastics and rubber, from a centralised location in central Australia. We also think we can use the region’s Indigenous rangers to manage the environment where the spinifex grows.

‘We want to provide our own employment so that we’re not drawing on government resources to employ rangers on country. Income from this industry could also help these workers move into managerial roles,’ he says.

Myuma Group needs to equally fund its joint research and commercialisation activities with UQ. To this end, the group has been talking with international investors that are interested in the group’s spinifex vision.


Image 1: (From L-R) Centre: Professor Paul Memmott, UQ; Phil Nelson, UniQuest; Sue McKell, UQ; Sally Sheldon, Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation; Colin Saltmere, Dugalunji managing director, Professor Darren Martin, UQ, Professor Peter Gray, UQ, Professor Mark Western, UQ; and Erica Davis, UQ. Copyright: The North West Star.
Image 2: Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation staff carrying out patchwork burning of spinifex during research on harvesting and re-growth techniques, near Camooweal Photo by Dr Susanne Schmidt, UQ.