Kiwi carbohydrate chemist wins supreme award for commercialising innovation

The Ferrier Institute's Professor Richard Furneax wins for his strong track record of helping commercialise his team's research.

One of the country’s leading scientists, Professor Richard Furneaux, has won the supreme award at the fifth annual KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.

One of 12 finalists in the awards, Professor Furneaux leads a 40-strong team of carbohydrate chemists at the Ferrier Institute at Wellington’s Victoria University.

His scientific ability and entrepreneurial spirit has generated tens of millions of dollars of economic activity for the country over the past 25 years. The team’s innovations include the first New Zealand-developed drug to gain registration since the 1980s and a breakthrough synthetic vaccine to treat cancer, allergies and auto-immune disease.

Lead judge Andrew Kelly, executive director at BioPacific Partners, says the quality and sophistication of presentations rises every year. “It’s great to see the commercial focus getting sharper. Yet again, we’re seeing the benefit of previous research commercialisation success stories, and some failures, and people are learning from those.”

In an interview with NBR when named as a finalist in May, Professor Furneaux said he liked to test his socialist tendencies in the real work – referring to his model of sharing the rewards of successful research and development as best he can across the team and making it a caring environment.

“I’m convinced the model has worked well,” he then said.

Along with the supreme award, the professor also took out the research entrepreneur award.

VicLink, Victoria University’s commercial arm, was also a finalist for best commercial deal for licensing the anti-lymphoma drug Mundesine to US Nasdaq-listed Biocryst Pharmaceuticals but the award went to Auckland’s UniServices for its spin-out company Soul Machines.

Mark Sagar, the Oscar-winning Auckland University professor behind the world-renowned Baby X emotionally responsive avatar, launched Soul Machines last year from research done at Auckland University, after attracting $US7.5 million in series A financing led by Horizon Ventures with Iconiq Capital. The venture capital investors took around a 35% stake in the deal while Uniservices retained a 17.5% stake and Sagar 37%.

Professor Furneaux has been involved in the synthesis of forodesine hydrochloride, the active ingredient in Mundesine, which is the only the second New Zealand-invented drug compound to become a registered drug product and the first for its American partner, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a leading US institution.

The exclusive licensing deal for Mundesine with Biocryst follows a lengthy licensing partnership with the university that has resulted in four generations of novel compounds, 160 granted patents, and yielded six lead drug candidates for applications as diverse as cancer, malaria and Ebola viruses. The relationship led to the establishment of the local GMP manufacturing business, GlycoSyn, in Wellington and the professor was also involved in the spin-out of Avalia Immunotherapies from the university.

The awards are designed to celebrate commercialisation success within New Zealand’s universities and Crown research institutes and run the Kiwi Innovation Network, which is a consortium of 16 universities, Crown research institutes and a Crown entity set up to boost commercial outcomes from publicly funded research.

Award winners:

Norman FB Barry Foundation Emerging innovator award: Dr Geoff Rodgers, University of Canterbury, for his work on seismic damping for buildings and joint implant diagnostics.

MinterEllisonRuddWatts Research and Business partnership award: University of Auckland, Orion Health and Waitemata District Health Board for Precision Driven Health, a seven-year $38m research partnership which improves health outcomes through data science.

Baldwins Researcher entrepreneur award: Professor Richard Furneaux, Victoria University of Wellington, for carbohydrate chemistry innovations.

PwC Commercial Deal award: UniServices: Soul Machines – humanising the interface between man and machines.

BNZ Supreme Award: Professor Richard Furneaux, Victoria University of Wellington, for carbohydrate chemistry innovations.

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