The Year That Was

Published Dec 5, 2022

As we bring the curtains down on 2022, I once again take the opportunity to pause and reflect on everything that has happened over the last year. Summing up a whole year in a few short paragraphs is never easy, but this year the task feels especially daunting. In a word, 2022 has been marked by change.

There is certainly a lot to celebrate this year, starting with the spin-out of Advemto. Launched with a focus on the academic research market early this year, Advemto opens the door to greater scientific insights with a suite of ultrafast spectroscopy tools. Already, the technology is powering ground-breaking research that would otherwise not be possible. It’s a project that’s especially close to my heart, being one of the first that I supported when I first joined Wellington UniVentures as a Senior Commercialisation Manager 10 years ago. It goes to show that the path to spinout may be long and winding but protecting brilliant ideas early and staying the course can lead to fantastic outcomes.

Thanks to Covid-19, we’re all a bit more familiar with the importance of effective vaccines against a variety of diseases. This year we licensed a compound developed at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington that boosts vaccine effectiveness to a US biotech firm. It’s always exciting to see research developed here having global impact.

Those who know us know that our team is constantly exploring ways to work more innovatively. I’m particularly pleased that this year we were able to share some of our own business innovations with the commercialisation ecosystem. A great example of this is the DiscoverMeTM Programme, developed fully in-house and licensed this year to an Australian company. The programme facilitates better engagement between commercialisation professionals and the researchers they support, and it’s just one of a suite of offerings we are developing to support our ecosystem to work more effectively.

I’m also really pleased to share that we successfully transitioned the KiVa Programme license to the Elephant Trust. As many of you will know, KiVa is a beloved bullying prevention programme that we brought to New Zealand in 2014, after negotiating a license deal with the University of Turku in Finland, where the programme was developed. Over these eight years, we’ve seen a drastic reduction in bullying within the more than 60 schools across the country who have adopted the programme. This year, former Wellington UniVentures KiVa Programme Manager, Kieu Pham, established the Elephant Trust to take over the license and ensure our tamariki continue to benefit from KiVa’s proven approach. This is a fantastic outcome which means there is no disruption to KiVa service while the Trust continues to grow the programme.

After a venture spins out of the University, it’s never far from our sights. Whether taking an active role through governance roles, mentorship, networks or simply cheering on from the sidelines, we continue to support our alumni ventures. This year has been remarkable in terms of domestic and global recognition our alumni spinouts have received. Marama Labs, for example, has received attention and accolades for its work using physics to improve winemaking. Just this year, it’s earned a place on the Bank of New Zealand Pipeline Companies for 2022 and San Francisco’s famed TechCrunch Disrupt and been commended as a finalist in the NZ Hi Tech Award. Their work has been featured in notable outlets like Wine Business, Stocktake and Food Technology Magazine. Meanwhile, Inhibit Coatings was awarded the Trans-Tasman Innovation and Growth Award and named one of Hello Tomorrow’s Deep Tech Pioneers for its work in developing antimicrobial coatings. XFrame secured a contract to fit out ANZ bank’s retail stores across Australia to deliver sustainable, modular and customisable fitouts and making headlines in The Lead and Architecture Australia.

We’ve been able to support a good diversity of research coming out of the University. Our Jeremy Bloomfield Memorial Scholarship this year was awarded to Injy Johnstone from the Faculty of Law. Injy is a PhD student who used the funding to launch the Net Zero New Zealand project. We were also pleased to support five early career researchers through KiwiNet’s Emerging Innovator programme; from developing processes to enable Green Steel production to supporting programmes for twice exceptional students, it’s been great to see a wide variety of projects represented.

It's no secret that the commercialisation ecosystem across New Zealand is now experiencing the effects of a slowdown in research activity as a result of Covid-19. We've seen this slowdown flow through to a lower level of overall innovation creation from public research organisations. Restrictions on talent flow, access to laboratories due to lockdowns, and even things as simple as access to consumables in a timely manner have all had an additive effect on innovation pipelines.

However, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and as such we have been exploring proactive ways to rise to the challenge. One project I’m particularly excited about for 2023 is the launch of our Venture Studio Programme pilot. Currently in development, the programme will support research teams from public sector organisations across the country to launch investor-ready ventures. The cohort-based model supports people coming together, making deep tech venture creation easier and more effective. The end goal is a steady stream of new ventures flowing into the New Zealand economy from publicly funded research organisations whilst research outputs and innovation levels regain their pre-pandemic levels.

In the same vein, this year we’ve officially adopted our new Commissioned Research and Advisory mandate from the University. Under this mandate, we will lead the development and support of all relationships between external parties who want to commission research from our University. We’ve been working towards resourcing this new function and have welcomed new Business Development Managers to fulfil this mandate in the new year. Looking ahead, we’ll be exploring strategic partnerships with industry to support innovative projects in a more adaptive and flexible way.

Finally, some personal news from me. Starting in December, I am taking parental leave to welcome a third child into my whānau. Pierre Malou, who is currently Head of Operations, will step in as Acting CEO in my absence. While it’s never easy to step back from the action, it’s certainly made easier with a strong team in place.

This year we marked 30 years since Wellington UniVentures was founded. Reflecting on this milestone helps put into perspective some of the obstacles the sector has faced this year. As we have done in decades past, I have no doubt we will continue to successfully navigate these challenges and come out with a stronger New Zealand innovation ecosystem on the other side.

Dr Anne Barnett