Mallee Regional Innovation Centre Executive Officer, Rebecca Wells. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By VINNIE RODI

A $1.7MILLION investment by the Victorian Government to establish the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre (MRIC) is set to address key challenges facing the region, while driving research and practical implementation of ideas.

The MRIC – a joint venture between the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and SuniTAFE – will be officially launched today from 2pm at the Mildura Rowing Club, with Victorian Minister for Agriculture, Jaclyn Symes, expected to make an appearance.

The MRIC aims to pair in-depth knowledge from the local area with the world-leading research capabilities of the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University, and will be based at the former Centre for Sustainability at SuniTAFE’s Benetook Avenue campus for at least the next three years.

The initiative also aims to unite local stakeholders with research expertise to develop and adopt “world’s best practice”, and will prioritise research projects to strategically address key challenges in the region.

SuniTAFE will roll out training courses to ensure that research and development outcomes are translated into effective, practical capability on the ground, which will deliver “tangible benefit to the Mallee community.”

MRIC Executive Officer, Rebecca Wells, spoke to the Mildura Weekly prior to the Centre’s launch, and said the initiative had been born out of “the seed of an idea developed through the Mallee Regional Partnership.”

The Mallee Regional Partnership was established by the Victorian Government in 2016, and aims to recognise that local communities are in the best position to understand the challenges and opportunities they face.

The Partnership’s role is to engage and consult with the community, and develop project ideas that can then be taken to the Victorian Government for consideration.

“Once the idea behind the Centre was formed, Melbourne University quickly got involved, and spoke to key organisations,” Ms Wells said. “Part of what was crucial was the partnerships they formed with La Trobe and SuniTAFE.”

Ms Wells said that four key areas had already emerged which will dominate the Centre’s focus, including water, renewables, environment and agriculture – more specifically horticulture.

“The Centre will be looking at a number of things, and some of that will be those four key areas, but there will also be opportunities regarding bringing in early career researchers to the region from La Trobe and Melbourne Uni,” she said.

“Export markets are expanding, which represents significant market opportunity. MRIC will take into consideration fierce competition, variable exchange rates, bureaucratic constraints and political instability.

“Energy costs are also a significant production cost, with innovative approaches needed to minimise costs and ensure the profitability of local production sectors. Water resources, meanwhile represent a major challenge related to access, availability and cost in the Mallee. 

“Locally, producers have shown ingenuity and leadership to develop and implement water-use efficiency to make every drop count. The region also has high value environmental assets in the Murray River, widely recognised as the irrigator for the food bowl of the nation and famed for its forests and wetlands.”

Ms Wells said that a Strategic Advisory Panel had also been formed, and would act as the MRIC’s overarching body.

“The panel will be chaired by Leonie Burrows, and will feature key people in the region who boast expertise in different areas,” she said. 

“One of my first tasks will be getting working groups finalised and up and running, and a key component to the success of MRIC will be collaboration across businesses and industries. 

“Once the working groups have come together and they have an idea, that will be tested, and if there is value to be had in terms of moving a program along, it will go to the Strategic Panel, where a decision will be made on the best process going forward.

“A key role for the group will also be sourcing funds for projects identified. We’re talking to industry peak bodies… and there’s a number of different organisations which will bring elements of expertise.”

Ms Wells was appointed to the Chief Executive’s role last month, and was born in Mildura and raised on a vineyard in Merbein. She returned to the region in late 2008 after several years successfully working in the media both in Australia and internationally. 

Throughout the past decade, Ms Wells has re-immersed herself in community and professional networks in the Mallee. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts with Honours, Master of Business Administration and is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors course. 

As an alumni of the Northern Mallee Leadership Program, Ms Wells has also successfully advocated to retain the program in the region, and later became chair of the Committee of Management from 2016-17.

She has also juggled multiple Chair, Director and representative roles for organisations including Merbein and District Community Bank Branch of Bendigo Bank, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s Community Bank National Council, the Mallee Regional Partnership, while also recently working as communications manager for the Australian Table Grape Association.

“Joining the MRIC team is a real thrill,” Ms Wells said. “The concept of an innovation centre in our region aligns with so much of what we are already doing here, and have done in the past. 

“I look forward to working with the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and members of the Strategic Advisory Panel, and I think I’ve got some great networks in the region that will be key to moving the Centre forward.

“It is more widely recognised now that collective efforts can instigate real impact and change. I look forward to seeing the priorities come out of the working groups and how the Centre can translate those ideas into the practical.”

More information about the MRIC is available by emailing rebecca.wells1@unimelb.edu.au, or visit eng.unimelb.edu.au/mric.