The year that was

Published Dec 15, 2021

As the year comes to a close, I take the opportunity to draw breath and look back on what has been an incredibly productive year for Wellington UniVentures. We’ve welcomed new expertise and experience as our team has grown, which has helped us to not only advance existing projects but drive new opportunities and ventures. The research we are shaping is inspiring and impactful, both economically and in addressing societal challenges.  There are many highlights, but my column space allows me to mention only a few so please do look out for our updates on LinkedIn and through our newsletters.

A highlight for 2021 has been our achievements in advancing our Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s research-led solutions to achieving carbon zero goals and eco diversity. Liquium, a recent spin out company resulting from a project we’ve supported since 2017, is revolutionising the way ammonia is produced, with the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions in the process. Assoc. Prof Franck Natali, who leads the research and development programme for Liquium, was also accepted on to the inaugural Breakthrough Energy Fellows Program funded by Bill Gates, helping to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. It’s fantastic to see that research coming out of Wellington is being recognised at such a high level on the world stage.

Two other companies we have supported to spin out this year are TasmanIon and Allegro Energy. Progressing technologies into economical batteries and supercapacitors, both companies are responding to the increased demand for clean, green energy solutions for a renewable energy economy. COP26 made us all think about environmental sustainability and key actions we are taking to address climate change, and these new companies are at the fore of making significant advancements in this sector.

Warming global temperatures are creating fertile breeding conditions for rodents both in New Zealand and off shore. In 2021 we secured a licensing and joint development partnership with a major international pest management company to bring a pest control device created at our University to market—an exciting innovation which will help New Zealand on its goal to becoming predator-free by 2050.

An important part of our work this year has been to formalise the spin out engagement models we provide for our innovators, further empowering University researchers to try their hand at creating new ventures and being more directly involved in the impact creation journey through commercialisation. This includes the creation of a unique risk-benefit sharing model (SCaRABTM) to support researchers to take a direct entrepreneurial role in early stage commercialisation projects.  Our suite of engagement models help to drive a high success rate from our diverse portfolio of projects and entrepreneurial thinking, from research innovations in materials science, health and biotech, digital and ICT, space and education.

As we support more and more innovators on their journey to create impact from their ideas, we have had to grow our team, bringing with it more expertise and resource and the opportunity to expand our focus areas. This year we have begun to support the development of more social enterprises, particularly from research innovations in the humanities space, and to support us we welcomed Lisa McLennan to the team. Lisa is responsible for connecting with our University’s innovators in psychology, social sciences, and education. Building these relationships, Lisa nominated the first Educational Psychology student, Holly Gooch onto the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme to help turn her vision into a reality. Holly is developing a screening tool to be used in schools to identify students who would benefit from having a full assessment by professionals to determine if they are twice-exceptional. In fact, we have supported seven early career researchers on to the programme this year, and all with incredibly varied research backgrounds and ideas.

Whilst mobilising our University’s research is our core business, we also support the wider New Zealand innovation ecosystem.  We have sufficient capacity to provide both services and project investment to other New Zealand public and independent research organisations under a range of partnering models and actively work with six other organisations in this capacity enabling their research innovations and impact to shine. One example is our work with the New Zealand Health Innovation Hub (NZHIH) where we provide commercialisation knowledge and expertise to support them to advance life-changing innovations for healthcare systems. 

In 2021 we bid farewell to Professor Emeritus Dugald Scott as he retired from his role on our board after serving 10 years and seeing us through times of both significant change and growth. Ngaio Merrick, Co-Founder at Nuance Connected Capital and KiwiNet board chair, became Wellington UniVentures’ new board member in November bringing significant experience and knowledge in early stage investment of deep tech which is well aligned with our future aspirations.

Lastly, I am pleased to confirm that from 2022 we will be extending our mandate for our University supporting them to grow their impact through commissioned research activities with both the private industry and the public sector. It will be an exciting time connecting with new organisations and building long-lasting relationships to support the development of both our organisation and the research we help to shape.

The science, technology, programmes and frameworks developed by those at our University are having a genuine impact on society. Next year marks 30 years since Wellington UniVentures was founded and we are excited to see what 2022 and the next 30 years may bring as we drive positive change for Wellington, Aotearoa and the world.

Dr Anne Barnett