Geelong: our economic bellwether

For over 150 years Geelong has demonstrated an impressive facility to transform its industrial base when required. That Protean adaptability is now serving the region well as it develops the bold vision, technological infrastructure and synergistic relationships between academics and entrepreneurs necessary to become a high-tech hub capable of the large-scale commercialisation of cutting-edge research.

Geelong, a port city located 75km south-west of Melbourne, has been defined by two things since it was settled in the mid-nineteenth century: its role serving as a gateway between rural and metropolitan Victoria and its economy’s ability to shape-shift. Over the last century and a half, the region has at various times been dependent on wool, gold, manufacturing and heavy industry. Today it is embracing a number of 21st century growth industries as those from the 20th century fade away.

In its most recent iteration, Geelong was most commonly associated with heavy industry. In the post-WWII period it was best known as the place where Ford made cars, Shell refined oil, Alcoa smelted aluminium and farm machinery company International Harvester manufactured tractors. When this sector of the economy began an ongoing period of contraction in the 1970s, chiefly as a result of tariff reductions and globalisation, Geelong was left facing the type of challenges that have sent many regions with a similar reliance on heavy industry into death spirals.

In recent decades, Geelong’s political, business and union leaders have accepted that some local industries had to be allowed to die and some had to be assisted to become more relevant. For example, when it became apparent Ford’s 90-year-old Geelong facility had to adapt or risk being shuttered, it demonstrated a particularly Geelongian responsiveness to changing market conditions by retooling in 2010 to produce vehicles that meet Euro IV emissions standards, along with brake rotors for Bosch, in a ‘greened’ factory that uses dramatically less electricity and a much greater proportion of recycled shredded metal and rainwater.

Along with mature industries adapting, a diverse range of new industries has emerged. Mark Sanders, president of Geelong Chamber of Commerce, admits it’s painful to watch local industries with a long and proud history contract but emphasises that responding cleverly to disruptive economic change is what will future proof the region’s economy. “This is an adaptable community that’s always been about not just surviving change but thriving from it,” he says. “In the past our wealth has come from gold, wool or carbon-intensive heavy industry, in the future it will come from the commercialisation of research, professional services and advanced manufactures.”

Geelong residents who once could have been expected to spend their worklng life at one of the heavy industry behemoths are increasingly being employed by a burgeoning collection of smaller, more nimble enterprises involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to green energy to fashion to agricultural products to weekend getaways.

Cotton On, a clothing company started in East Geelong in 1991, now boasts 1000 retail stores in 11 countries and will soon employ 1300 people in Geelong and 12,000 worldwide. Boundary Bend Limited, established in 1998, now exports its multiple-award winning Cobram Estate olive oil to North America, Europe and Asia; consults on growing and processing techniques with olive producers in North and South America, South Africa and New Zealand; has gone into a joint venture with MacTeq Argentina to manufacture an innovative over-the-row harvester and is working on a way to convert olive pomace, a waste product created during olive oil production, into fertiliser.

Around the turn of the millennium, ChemGenex Pharmaceuticals was formed to develop targeted medicines for cancer, diabetes, obesity and depression. The company was later sold to the US biopharmaceutical giant Cephalon for $225 million with the company’s former executives going on to spawn several new Geelong-based biotech companies.

In 2004 the local airport, Avalon, was upgraded, allowing it to serve as the headquarters of Jetstar, Australia’s leading low-cost airline, and laying the groundwork for it to transition into the international airport it’s now in the process of becoming. In 2007 Greenearth Energy started work on Geelong Geothermal Power Project, which aims to provide 140MW of clean, base-load energy. In 2011, local engineering firm Austeng began producing the world’s quietest wind turbine, the 30-blade Eco Whisper, which provides clean energy with only a fraction of the noise and visual pollution created by larger, three-blade turbines. And in recent years the local tourism industry has blossomed and the region, known for its beautiful beaches, unspoiled national parks and events such as the Australian International Airshow, now attracts four million domestic and international visitors a year.

The marriage of science and commerce has an illustrious history in the region; in 1851 Geelong polymath James Harrison patented an ether liquid-vapour compression refrigeration system that played a significant part in the development of commercial refrigeration and was embraced by local breweries and meat-packing houses. Nowadays Harrison’s heirs straddle the worlds of academia and industry, operating in a space where pioneering experimentation becomes difficult to separate from sci-fi fantasies about creating invisible musical instruments, electricity-producing clothes and textiles made from powder.

Geelong’s Deakin University and the Geelong-based research centres of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are working closely with local businesses to commercialise the most promising research breakthroughs. Both organisations are attracting top-flight researchers from around the world and these tenacious, trailblazing scientists are laying the groundwork for the growth industries of the future.

CSIRO researchers have created a virtual guitar based on a T-shirt with built-in movement sensors as well as garments that harvest biomechanical energy when the wearer moves, which is then used to power electronic devices. They are also collaborating with the University of Texas to create the next generation of intelligent textiles by developing yarns made from carbon nanofibres capable of conducting heat and electricity.

Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) is researching electrospun nanofibres for use in advanced filtration, protective clothing and biomedical applications. And a collaboration with Wuhan University of Science and Engineering and Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology to convert wool fibres into powders that can be used to manufacture hybrid fibres with enhanced properties is underway.

The Australian Future Fibres Research and Innovation Centre (AFFRIC), based at Deakin University and hosting the CSIRO’s material science research facilities, is a world-leader in carbon fibre composites. In partnership with local company Carbon Revolution, AFFRIC has produced the world’s first one-piece carbon fibre wheel. In 2013, a production facility will open, producing 250,000 wheels a year, though production is expected to skyrocket once the global automotive industry becomes aware of the weight savings and performance benefits the wheels offer.

Gary Heyden, head of Deakin University’s research commercialisation arm, has few doubts that Geelong’s next transformation will be to a high-tech centre of excellence. “Products such as the carbon fibre wheels are going to be game changers, providing employment for Geelong’s skilled workers as the old industries close. And affordable carbon-fibre products are just the start of the shift to technology-based industries; we’re also close to manufacturing nanotech products, for example.”