Published Apr 27, 2023
Dr Janice Cheng is Head of Health & Wellbeing at Wellington UniVentures. She leads a team of Commercialisation Professionals and Business Development Managers who specialise in translating life sciences research into innovations that have real-world impact.
From Penang to Wellington
Janice describes herself as a classic Malaysian Chinese growing up in Malaysia. There was family expectations that she would become a doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer.
“I was always determined to do my undergrad study abroad, but I knew I’d need a scholarship. So I was very happy to be able to come to Victoria University of Wellington with a full international fee scholarship for my undergraduate study.”
She chose to study for a Bachelor of Biomedical Science majoring in Molecular Pharmacology and Medicinal Chemistry. A further scholarship, part-funded by the Ferrier Research Institute, allowed her to complete an Honours degree in chemistry. She followed that with a PhD in immunology, which applied chemistry to a biological setting, and is typical of her desire to challenge herself and keep learning.
“It was during my PhD that I developed my negotiation skills and learned the value of being able to bring others on a journey, whether they were supervisors, collaborators or fellow students.”
Whilst completing an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Melbourne, Janice was exposed to the world of research translation and commercialisation.
“I went along to various bootcamps that showed me how to position an invention in relation to other products and prepare a pitch to get the right investment.”
Janice came back to Wellington to take up a Commercialisation Manager role with Wellington UniVentures, which quickly turned into a Senior Commercialisation Manager role, working closely with researchers at Te Herenga Waka, especially the Ferrier Research Institute. Recently she took the helm to lead the Health & Wellbeing team.
She describes the transition from lab to the business world as bittersweet: “My research career was really rewarding but I thought commercialisation was really exciting too. I felt some grief that I was about to hang up my lab coat – maybe for good – but I realised the skills I’d learned in the lab would never be lost. It was time to apply myself to other challenges.”
Market ready research
According to Janice, giving a new idea the best chance of success relies on quite varied skills that her team possesses. “There’s the intellectual side of being able to understand the technology and what is new or interesting about it so we can position it to solve the right industry problem and secure investment from investors.
"There’s also the ability to connect with people, especially scientists. It helps that many of us were trained as scientists or have worked closely alongside researchers.”
She talks about having the ability to put a discovery in context—what problem could this solve, and what is the biggest problem it could solve? Understanding what is patentable, freedom-to-operate and protecting intellectual property of an invention is also essential.
“We often feel like mediators, people who understand what is truly unique but also what is truly inventive that will create an impact and derive commercial value. We can also pull in IP experts and industry advisors and provide market insight to guide researchers down the right path to make good decisions to maximise the outcomes from their research.”
Janice’s team of Commercialisation Managers specialising in biotechnology are working on a variety of exciting projects in the pipeline, including:
- A novel bioassay that can test for nitrogen in wine samples
- A natural pesticide that can improve the way we kill parasites
- An adjuvant that can offer stronger vaccine protection against disease
“We may not be the scientists at the bench who discovers a cancer drug but we're here to help someone else get there. It’s exciting to be part of the chain and help position a new technology for success.”
Capital city connectors
As well as research commercialisation, Wellington UniVentures connects industry and government to world-leading commissioned research and advisory services within Te Herenga Waka.
Wellington UniVentures approaches this task with the understanding that Te Herenga Waka researchers represent some of the very best knowledge in New Zealand across a broad range of topics.
"We want to make it easy for our researchers to find, secure and administer contracts, so that they can focus on what they do best: applying their expertise to solving real world problems.
“From developing new drugs to shaping government policy, there is so much potential for impact through commissioned research and advisory.”
A good example of this is Wellington UniVentures’ long-standing joint venture partnership with the Ferrier Research Institute and GlycoSyn, which has enjoyed global success. The venture takes on projects which aim to address the unmet need for therapies such as cancer, viral infections, rare genetic diseases and chronic pain conditions.
“With Ferrier and GlycoSyn working literally side by side, we offer clients around the world a unique ‘package service’ of pharmaceutical research, from drug discovery at Ferrier through to development and manufacturing at GlycoSyn.”
Wellington UniVentures is poised to expand its work in the commissioned research and advisory space, and Janice sees health, chemistry and synthetic biology as three fields ripe for growth.
Facing the future
Janice is clear-eyed but optimistic about the shifting landscape of the innovation ecosystem in the years ahead.
“The world is facing an economic downturn, and with that there will be more scrutiny around where people place their investment.”
But biotechnology research is a sound investment, Janice argues. “Crisis or not, there is always going to be a place for really good ideas that solve long-term problems around health, climate, agriculture – these issues aren’t going away.”
High quality research can also spin-out into new companies that attract and retain talent, contributing to a dynamic and strong domestic economy.
Janice invites investors to get in touch for early access to exciting opportunities that have been thoroughly assessed by her team of commercailisation professionals. “We are extremely well connected across the research happening at the University – we see a lot of early-stage inventions and ideas.”
“We have a rigorous and robust screening process that we put invention disclosures through. This includes scrutinizing the patentability, inventiveness, and commercialisation pathways and opportunities of a new idea.”
“It ensures the inventions we move forward with through commercialisation have solid ground to stand on, both in terms of a patent position and responding to a commercial need.”
“We have truly world-renowned life sciences research here at Te Herenga Waka, and there is lots of opportunity for growth in both commercialisation and commissioned research and advisory. We’re excited about the future.”