Health & Wellbeing

Building halfway houses for scientists


Published Nov 28, 2022

Most of Matt Nicholson’s eclectic professional life, he reflects, has been defined by a struggle between purism and realism. On one hand, Matt is a scientist who reveres the pursuit of knowledge. On the other, he’s seen the impact big R&D companies can have on lives and careers. Distraught by the scarcity of meaningful opportunities for scientists in New Zealand, Matt dreams of building halfway houses for scientists – companies driven by good science as well as commercial outcomes. In his role as Senior Commercialisation Manager at Wellington UniVentures, he works with university researchers to turn this vision into reality.

Matt’s career began in academia. Following a brush with pharmacology, Matt found his true love in molecular biology. He completed a PhD at the University of Manchester focusing on fungi (moulds), which kicked off a lifelong fascination with the application of these microbes in industrial biotechnology. His PhD was also his first taste of the start-up environment. His supervisor left the University halfway through Matt’s PhD to spin out a company developing anti-fungal drugs and, as a result, Matt got to be a fly on the wall in a young biotech start-up.

“I loved the practical application of the science, but also the thrill that comes with blazing a trail and the uncertainty about what the future might hold,” says Matt.

He recalls how one of his co-workers changed the Windows start-up chyme on the lab’s only computer to the line from David Gray’s Nightblindness that sings, ‘What we gonna do when the money runs out?’. Matt says, “It’s a hand to mouth existence, where you’re always looking for your next meal, your next bit of funding,” then warns: “If you want to get rich, don’t start your own biotech company.”

After graduating, Matt moved his young family to New Zealand to join AgResearch as a scientist. The Crown Research Institute (CRI) environment offered an uncertainty of a different – less thrilling – kind. “It was an uncertainty where there should have been stability”, he explains, “There was a constant threat that the focus of the science would change.”

Matt left his CRI role to pursue a post-doc at Massey University under Professor Barry Scott doing pioneering work to understand biosynthetic pathways of filamentous fungi.

A chance meeting in Boston with a scientist from Merck Research Laboratories led Matt to a fascination with the possibilities of nodulisporic acid (Nod A), a natural insecticide produced by fungi, that has defined his career to date. “I had seen Merck publish on these compounds that had promising practical applications for flea and tick treatment but, as far as I could see, it hadn’t gone anywhere.” Matt asked the scientist from Merck what happened: “He told me that the company simply changed direction.”

Matt began investigating Merck’s patents to see whether he could take over the work. “I had this idea to engineer Penicillium, a common fungus, to produce the Nod A rather than harvesting it from the rare fungus that naturally makes it” says Matt. But at that time, the idea couldn’t go anywhere: having finished his post-doc, Matt needed to find a job.

The shift from academic environment to the “shiny business world”, as he puts it, was uncomfortable. “In academia there is a type of stoicism about your work. Nothing matters more than getting to the truth and expanding knowledge. In the business world, none of that mattered anymore. It was all about the dollar. That was hard for me – I was still quite a purist.” But Matt quickly learned the ropes and found success in the business world even if it still felt too shiny. “I missed being a scrappy scientist,” Matt says.

Matt couldn’t ignore the siren song of Nod A and, almost a decade later, he left his promising career in business to pursue research on the organism – a step that required Matt to go back to academia. “I remember grumbling that I shouldn’t have to go back to doing post-doc work to study this. There should be jobs in biotech companies, but in NZ, if you want to do science you have two options – a CRI or a University,” says Matt.

It was Professor Juliet Gerrard, now NZ’s Chief Science Advisor but, at the time, Director of the Biomolecular Interaction Centre at Canterbury, who encouraged him to pursue his research into Nod A through a Smart Ideas grant. “She said, if you can get the grant, you get a job at Canterbury,” so Matt got busy writing the application.

Matt knew that, if he was successful, he wanted to do the work in Professor Emily Parker’s lab. “I asked Emily for some help with my application, and she realised I was woefully out of my depth. But luckily, she liked the idea so much that she agreed to help me.” After a few non-stop all-nighters, he almost gave up. “Basically, Emily had to drag me across the finish line kicking and screaming.”

The hard work paid off. They secured the Smart Ideas grant despite a dismal 8% success rate, but Matt had gotten a new job while waiting for the result. He joined the project part-time, with Emily at the helm. Emily eventually moved the project to the Ferrier Research Institute at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. “We knew at that point the project had commercialisation potential, and we wanted support to do that. Wellington UniVentures [Viclink at the time], was able to give us that.”

Matt followed Emily to Wellington, taking a job as Senior Commercialisation Manager at Wellington UniVentures where he gets to blend the commercialisation acumen he has developed throughout his career with his passion for scientific research.

Alongside his role at Wellington UniVentures, Matt is still involved with the work in Emily’s lab. Most recently, he contributed to a research paper in the world-renowned chemistry journal, Angewandte Chemie. “I wouldn’t call myself a researcher, but I’m certainly proud of the contribution I make in Emily’s lab,” he says. Matt sees his most valuable contribution, though, as the business sense he brings to the research. He’s still a purist, but with an entrepreneurial bent.

What started as a vision to bring the natural insecticide Nod A to market has turned into a passion for research commercialisation in general. “It’s frustrating because I see how money makes the world go ‘round and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve seen what a billion-dollar company can do – how many lives it can impact, the jobs, the development, it can be so good. I want to support researchers to create this kind of opportunity in New Zealand by starting businesses based on their research,” he says.

As well as Emily’s lab, Matt works with other researchers throughout Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences and Ferrier Research Institute to support them to bring their research to the world through commercialisation. Matt’s vision is to create new companies that can grow and give scientists alternative career opportunities. “At the moment, so many of our early career researchers are being lost to science because there aren’t enough professional opportunities outside academia.”

He sees new ventures born from university research as a kind of halfway house for scientists. “It’s exciting, cutting-edge science done by scruffy scientists, but it’s driven by commercial outcomes – it’s in no way inferior to pure academic research,” he says, “It’s just different.”