Entrepreneurial talent encouraged

Published May 11, 2020

PhD student Shalini Divya recently became the ninth Victoria University of Wellington researcher to be awarded a place in the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme—an initiative designed to inspire and nurture early-stage career scientists towards commercial success. Of the nine researchers that Wellington UniVentures has nominated for the programme, all nine have been accepted, signifying the high level of entrepreneurial talent at the University.

Open to researchers from universities and Crown Research Institutes across New Zealand,the Emerging Innovator Programme aims to provide targeted support to scientists who have disruptive new ideas that could potentially solve industry challenges.

“By seeding new ideas and fostering industry engagement, we will ultimately increase the quality and quantity of new innovation opportunities emerging from research organisations,” says Dr James Hutchinson, KiwiNet’s CEO.

Each Emerging Innovator receives $20,000 in project funding to engage with industry, build a proof-of-concept of his or her disruptive new invention, and explore markets for that product or service.  

Dr Michael Jackson from the University’s School of Biological Sciences says the funding was an invaluable stepping stone towards transforming his research discovery—chemical compounds with an odour that attract rats—into a commercially-viable, rat-lure product. The fast-growing global pest market is expected to reach US$28 billion in 2026.

“That initial funding enabled me to assess channel-to-market options, secure interest from key local and international industry players, and engage with a business partner to undertake a range of commercial activities,” says Michael, who participated in the Emerging Innovator Programme in 2018. “All of which propelled me through that early-stage development phase, and put me in a much stronger position to secure further funding and investment.”

The same funding helped Ben Parkinson—a senior engineer with the University’s Robinson Research Institute—to develop a helmet-style prototype MRI magnet for a highly novel brain-imaging project. Led by the Centre for Magnetic Resonance Research at the University of Minnesota, the project opens up a world of new possibilities for neurological research. 

“It’s no longer just about how clever the science is,” says Ben. “Commercialisation is about knowing which problems you’re solving, who wants your technology, and how it can be developed and sold in the market to have impact. The Emerging Innovator Programme plays an integral part in that process.”

The programme also provides participants with a range of initiatives and resources to support them on their commercial journey—including a business mentor (matched to each individual’s needs and project), expert legal advice from KiwiNet corporate partner MinterEllisonRuddWatts, and intellectual property advice from Baldwins.

Dr Brendan Darby—another former participant who discovered a new and simpler way to analyse ‘cloudy’ solutions while completing his PhD at the University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences—says the additional support was critical to his professional development.

“The programme taught me invaluable skills that scientists wouldn’t normally learn, like how to communicate scientific concepts and pitch ideas to a business audience or the media.” Today, the finalist in the 2019 KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards’ Breakthrough Innovator category is running his own company—MaramaLabs—which was spun-out last year from his initial research.

The other six participants from Victoria University of Wellington include: Dr Nick Monahan, who developed a prototype handheld device that enables border authorities to identify organic substances that X-rays can’t; Joseph Bailey, who developed a tool that ‘sees inside’ concrete poles so their failure can be predicted; Dr Tim Brox, who created a new technique to study the rheological behaviour of materials; Dr Andreas Zeller, who combined nanocrystals into silicone-based polymers to create ‘smart polymers’ for a range of applications; and Dr Ged Finch, whose building design has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of waste produced, and raw materials consumed, by the building industry.

“Our scientists don’t just have clever ideas, they also have what it takes to work closely with industry and commercial mentors to develop their technologies,” says Dr Anne Barnett, Wellington UniVentures’ CEO. “Transforming their cutting-edge discoveries into new marketable products and services will drive prosperity for New Zealand.”