Auckland scientist wins KiwiNet supreme award for sperm-sorting technology

Entrepreneurial physicist and chemist Cather Simpson has won the Supreme Award in the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards for what judges described as "addressing a series of high-profile industry problems in a commercial fashion."

In 2010 Simpson founded The Photon Factory within the University of Auckland's science faculty, which has attracted over $2 million of commercial contracts by providing high-tech laser pulses for a wide range of applications.

She has also founded two start-ups – Engender, which has just raised a further $4.5 million to commercialise the use of microfluidic and photonic technology to improve sorting of sperm by sex for the dairy industry, and Orbis Diagnostics, which has attracted seed investment to develop technology that analyses milk composition in the milking shed at "point of cow."

Earlier this month, the American also won the AgTech section of the Third Annual World Cup Technology Challenge in the US, the first ever win by an Australasian company.

Simpson said she was "over the moon" about winning, which she put down to the fact that "the innovation we're doing really resonates with people who are trying to take university science and do something good and useful with it."

She joined the staff at the University of Auckland in 2007 and her research now ranges from fundamental spectroscopy to applied device development.

Award judges said of Simpson who currently has nine PhD students under her wing: "She inspires the next generation of scientists with her entrepreneurial competence and enthusiasm."

Andrew Kelly, lead judge and executive director of BioPacific Partners said the award entrants were now using more sophisticated commercialisation processes such as public private partnerships and long-term research business collaborations.

The commercial deal award went to biotech start-up Zeakal, an international spin-out from research done by Nick Roberts and Greg Bryan at AgResearch into improving New Zealand's most important crop, perennial rye grass.

Their technology focuses on increasing plants' intrinsic photosynthetic capacity, making them harvest more sunlight, fix more carbon dioxide, and use less water. Forecast yield improvements for farmers are as much as 20% and the technology has been validated on six crops, including soy beans and rice.

The US-based start-up raised $US5.3 million in Series B capital in February, taking its total amount raised to date to $US9.1 million. At the same time it acquired Algenetix, a biotech company developing renewable materials and energies from plant-based sources.

Collaboration between Crown Research Institute Scion and European MDF manufacturer Sonae Industria has seen them win the research and business partnership award for establishing a commercial value chain for wood fibre-reinforced plastics.

Stronger and stiffer than plastics alone, the new fibre's bulkiness previously proved a handling problem. Scion's patented process forms it into "dice" that can be made in existing MDF plants and easily added to a range of plastics. Sonae has an exclusive licence for the Scion technology in North America and Europe under the Woodforce brand.

As a result of the partnership, the CRI has also developed relationships with other manufacturing industries to develop new products.

The joint winners of the emerging innovator award went to Daniel Holland from the University of Canterbury who is using novel measurement and mathematical analysis techniques to improve efficiency in the chemical industries and Carla Meledandri, a nanoparticle specialist at Otago University and the MacDiarmid Institute who has been harnessing silver nanoparticles to treat and prevent dental disease.

The annual awards, now in their fourth year, celebrate commercialisation success.

Bram Smith, general manager of KiwiNet, a consortium of universities and CRIs working together to increase science and tech-based innovation, said one finalist told him "sometimes even science that is initially seen as operating in the fringe, ends up creating immense commercial value for the New Zealand economy."

"That's a story we see often in research commercialisation," Mr Smith said. "Whether it's using gaming technology to find oil, using lasers to increase productivity in the dairy industry, or fungi instead of fungicides to help plants grow, the opportunities are diverse and exciting."


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