Published Mar 16, 2021
Commercialisation and entrepreneurship play vital roles in helping Victoria University of Wellington’s researchers to address national and global challenges, and create significant impact as a result.
“It’s the individuals who can think, behave and act in an entrepreneurial manner that drive innovation—and ground-breaking innovation helps to solve the myriad of pressing problems faced by the world today,” says Hamish Findlay, Wellington UniVentures’ General Manager, Commercialisation.
He says that Professor David Ackerley—Deputy Head, School of Biological Sciences—is the perfect example of what can happen when a world-class academic blends their research expertise with an entrepreneurial mindset. “He constantly seeks inventions with commercial potential and positive impact on society.”
Professor Ackerley is a microbiologist and enzyme engineer, primarily focused on the discovery and development of anti-cancer strategies and novel antibiotics to counter the spread of multi-drug resistant bacteria. He is also the Director of the University’s Biotechnology Programme which places a strong focus in the areas of Microbial Biotechnology, Reproductive Biotechnology and Drug Discovery.
“Biotechnology is a ‘science first’ course that emphasises problem-solving in molecular biology, and looks at the impact that our solutions could have on society,” says Professor Ackerley.
Professor Ackerley says that while he has always loved fundamental, curiosity-driven science, conducting research that holds genuine potential for public good is even more exciting. He sees commercialisation as an important means to enable research to have life-changing impact on society—particularly as it relates to drug discoveries.
“The cost of new drug development can be insanely prohibitive, primarily due to the large clinical trials required to ensure safety and efficacy before drugs are approved for sale,” he says. “This means companies won’t invest in developing a new drug unless they know that the intellectual property (IP) is protected.
“If you don’t protect the IP, a competitor could copy the final product and sell generic drugs at a far lower cost—and the company that did all the work and footed the bill won’t recover their investment, much less make a profit. Which means the drug will never get to make a difference for those it was designed to help.”
Professor Ackerley says that Wellington UniVentures has been invaluable in providing advice around the best way to protect an idea once it has been deemed to have commercial potential. He is, however, the first to admit that not every idea will prove commercially viable.
“When you first disclose a research discovery to Wellington UniVentures, the team takes it through a screening process, to look at the potential markets that could stem from your research,” Professor Ackerley says. “There is a lot of value in this process as it gives you a full picture of what your options are, allowing you to make fully-informed decisions about how you want to proceed.”
Hamish says Wellington UniVentures then works with each inventor to tailor, then wrap, the right support around them. “Every invention and every inventor is different,” he says. “So we never take a one-size-fits-all approach; we listen to what each researcher wants from their commercialisation journey and work with them to achieve the best possible outcomes.”
Professor Ackerley sees the value in this approach. “Not everyone wants to run their own company,” he says. “Right now, I don’t have the skills or desire to go beyond the early discovery and proof-of-principle stages—but by engaging with Wellington UniVentures early, researchers can protect their work and still create impact, regardless of who ultimately takes it to market.”
He says that taking a commercial approach to his work has also helped him to successfully apply for traditional research funding. “My discoveries primarily evolve from fundamental science, so it strengthens my case for funding if I can say that I have protected my work and therefore retained the potential to make a difference further down the line.”
Finally, Professor Ackerley says that he sees great advantage in teaching his students to think entrepreneurially as well.
“It gives them a different dimension to their training outside of basic science—and is something that could ultimately make a difference in them being selected over other job candidates in the future.”