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Biological electronic nose developer wins research commercialisation awards

Plant & Food Research scientist Dr Andrew Kralicek is harnessing insects' sense of smell to develop new electronic sensors.

Fiona Rotherham
Thu, 05 Jul 2018

Andrew Kralicek has spent the past decade working out how to harness insects' amazing sense of smell to develop a biological electronic nose that could have a number of commercial applications.

The scientist at Crown research institute Plant & Food has taken out the supreme award at the sixth annual KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.

This was the first time the public has been allowed to vote on the supreme winner and it meant for the first time that none of the four category winners won the ultimate prize.

Dr Kralicek, a finalist in the breakthrough innovator category, has developed a prototype sensor that shows insect odorant receptors can be used to detect minuscule amounts of volatile compounds.

"We've worked out how to take these receptors out of the insect, how to make them in the lab, and how to couple them to sensor surfaces and show they can detect volatile organic chemicals down to parts per quadrillion levels," he says.

The leader of Plant & Food's molecular sensing team was the first in 2015 to receive a $20,000 grant under the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Fund and backed by pre-seed accelerator investment he's been talking with potential customers, collaborators, funders and advisers to better understand the commercial opportunities for the technology platform. He's planning to approach sensor manufacturers and diagnostic companies to partner with them on commercialising the technology.

Potential applications include human health, air quality, defence, and disease and pest control but the most exciting is medical diagnostics on a patient's breath, he says.

"One hundred per cent of people get excited about the sheer potential, not only for the business proposition but probably also because of the good it could do," he says.

Other winners
The winner of the award for a research and business partnership has gone to AUT and the New Zealand SKA alliance, for work on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope.

The SKA is the world’s largest mega-science project of the next decade and the New Zealand alliance partners led by AUT are jointly undertaking research and design to deliver the unprecedented computing power behind the telescope.

Two tangible results were earlier reported in NBR. AUT’s radio telescope operation at Warkworth was created to support Australia and New Zealand’s bid for the project and also saw the university win a 10-year contract to track flights for Elon Musk’s Space X. Waikato supercomputing startup Nyriad was borne out of the SKA research and already has 100 staff and has raised $US8.5 million recently for expansion.

The New Zealand alliance consists of three universities, AUT, University of Auckland and Massey University, and the companies are Catalyst IT, Compucon NZ, and Open Parallel.

Established in 2013 and aiming for construction of the SKA phase 1 through 2019-2025, it will be one of the longest and largest academic-industry collaborations in this country.

Alliance director Andrew Ensor says to the outside world New Zealand is one of the more significant players in the project and it also provides great insights for companies on where technology is heading in the future.

Catalyst IT director Don Christie says while it has been a multi-million dollar investment, the overlap of commercial working with scientists on massive science projects will really pay off, in particular for attracting and retaining smart young talent to the country.

“Usually when science progresses like this there has to be a world war. This is our opportunity to do science without killing anybody,” he says.

Former Callaghan Innovation scientist Dr Vlatko Materic (pictured) won the breakthrough innovator award for his technology that recovers clean C02 from burning waste organic material and then releases the clean C02 into greenhouses to improve crop yields by 20%. His spin-out company, Hot Lime Labs, raised $1.2 million in its first investment round last year led by Powerhouse. 

The technology has the potential to increase the revenues of growers globally by $40,000-80,000 a hectare compared with using other sources such as natural gas or liquid CO2.

Mr Materic says the world is expected to need to produce the same amount of food in the next 60 years as it has produced in the history of humanity due to population increases. He’s planning to build a pilot plant next year before rolling out the product globally.

The winner of the researcher entrepreneur award is Associate Professor Taehyun Rhee (TJ) (pictured) from Victoria University’s engineering faculty.

His spin-out startup, DreamFlux, was started five months ago to commercialise the breakthrough technology he’s built while at the university. He has already worked on a virtual tour project with Wellington International Airport, providing software for interactive cinematic experiences that apply lighting, reflections, and shadows into real world 360° videos in real-time.   The technology will also be showcased at SIGGRAPH 2018, the annual conference on computer graphics.

“I want to create a virtual world that is similar or better than the real world,” he says.

Professor Rhee has a $1 million, three-year research grant to further develop the technology for augmented and mixed reality applications, an area that is attracting a lot of investment worldwide.

 He’s also the deputy director and research director of Victoria’s Computational Media Innovation Centre, which will incubate potential startups and industry pipelines.

The commercial impact award winner is Plant & Food's amarasate extract (pictured), a 100% plant-based supplement that helps people manage food cravings and calorie intake. It has been licensed by Kiwi company Lifestream International, which has launched it direct to customers online in the US and New Zealand. Lifestream chief executive Sarah Kennedy says bitter substances have always been known to help manage appetite. 

Calocurb contains amarasate, a New Zealand grown hops extract that helps with food portion control once the bitter extract is released into the duodenum and triggers taste sensors in the gut to release peptides that tell the person they're not hungry any more. It's a world-first technology and Ms Kennedy says the bridge between science and commercial has "worked very well" and Lifestream wants to take it to the world from New Zealand.

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

Award winners:

BNZ Supreme award

Winner:  Dr Andrew Kralicek from Plant & Food Research. He’s been working for a decade on harnessing insects' sense of smell to develop a prototype electronic sensor that shows insect’s odorant receptors can be used to detect even minuscule amounts of volatile compounds.

Norman F.B. Barry Trust breakthrough innovator

Winner: Dr Vlatko Materic,  CEO of Hot Lime Labs which has developed technology to sustainably boost glasshouse yields while reducing their carbon footprint.

Baldwins Researcher entrepreneur

Winner: Associate Professor Taehyun Rhee from Victoria University. The director of  Victoria’s new Computational Media Innovation Centre started his own spin-out company Dreamflux five months ago which provide innovative technology for interactive cinematic experiences.

MinterEllisonRuddWatts Research and business partnership

Winner: AUT and the NZ SKA Alliance, for R&D on the computing required for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope and largest mega-science project of the next decade.  It is also New Zealand’s largest involvement in an international ICT collaboration.

PwC Commercial impact

Winner: Plant & Food amarasate extract, a 100% plant-based supplement to help reduce food cravings. Calocurb has been licensed by NZ company Lifestream International and launched in the US.

Fiona Rotherham
Thu, 05 Jul 2018
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Biological electronic nose developer wins research commercialisation awards