A supreme result

Published Oct 16, 2020

The successful combination of Professor Jim Johnston’s scientific nous and entrepreneurial spirit has both inspired and generated careers for many of his students—last night, it also won him the Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award and the BNZ Supreme Award (overall winner) at the 2020 KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards in Auckland, after being nominated by Wellington UniVentures.

It was only fitting, therefore, that one of those former students—Dr Eldon Tate—also won his category as the Norman F. B. Barry Foundation Breakthrough Innovator, which recognises upcoming entrepreneurial researchers who are creating innovative businesses in New Zealand.

Professor Johnston was nominated for his category in recognition of his career as a world-renowned inorganic and materials chemist focused on commercial outcomes.

He has either founded, or been involved with, countless new ventures and technologies throughout his long and outstanding research career.  These include spin-out companies Wetox, Noble Bond Limited and, most recently, Inhibit Coatings Limited—which he co-founded with Eldon.

During his extensive and much-awarded research career, Professor Johnston has spent the majority of it at the interface between academia and industry. He has worked closely with businesses in New Zealand and overseas to utilise applied chemistry, materials science and nanotechnology to make new high-value products and chemical process technologies that meet business needs and create impact.

In addition to his success with research and commercialisation, Jim is passionate about developing his undergraduate and postgraduate students, nurturing them both academically and commercially, and making both pathways available to them. 

Eldon’s win recognises his success building Inhibit Coatings—which was spun out of his PhD research at Victoria University of Wellington, and focuses on developing products withthe potential to prevent bacterial contaminationduring the production of food and beverages. The company produces a number of high-performance, antimicrobial coatings that use a broad-spectrum silver antimicrobial agent to effectively kill over 650 different types of microorganisms, including E.coli, Salmonella, Norovirus, Campylobacter and Listeria

One of the technology’s main advantages is that the active ingredient in the agent is bound to the polymer resin of the coating, meaning that it doesn’t wash out and will retain its antimicrobial effectiveness for the lifetime of the coating.

Eldon saw the commercial potential for his discovery from the very beginning and, in 2019, led a successful $1.5m capital raise which allowed the company to start diversifying into new markets, such as medical and healthcare.

“What an incredible achievement that Victoria University of Wellington entrepreneurs took out the top spot in two categories,” says Dr Anne Barnett, Wellington UniVentures’ CEO. “It’s gratifying to see their hard work—and the teams that support them—acknowledged.”

Wellington UniVentures General Manager Commercialisation, Hamish Findlay, agrees.

“To see teacher and student win together, albeit in different categories, is a brilliant way to demonstrate the human side of the commercialisation journey. To have Jim take out the BNZ Supreme award—which demonstrates overall excellence in all core areas of research commercialisation as voted by the Awards Judges—is just the icing on the cake.”

Wellington UniVentures is a member of Kiwi Innovation Network (KiwiNet), a consortium of 17 universities, Crown Research Institutes, an Independent Research Organisation and a Crown Entity established to boost commercial outcomes from publicly funded research by helping to transform scientific discoveries into new products and services.