11 August, 2017
MacDiarmid Principal Investigator Dr Carla Meledandri runs a busy chemistry lab at the University of Otago, specialising in nanoscale materials. Back in 2011 she and her collaborator, Dr Don Schwass from the Faculty of Dentistry, had an inkling her research could lend itself to potential commercial applications using nanosilver for dentistry. They could certainly see the need - over 40% of New Zealand children have at least one filling by age five. But developing ideas for the market didn’t fit within her already full workload of research and teaching, and entrepreneurship was a skillset she had yet to acquire.
Dr Meledandri says her first break came from a university Technology Transfer Office (TTO) award. “We had all these ideas and no resources. So winning an Otago Innovation Proof of Concept Award of $50,000 paid for a Research Assistant and really helped us get started developing a series of products.”
Drs Meledandri and Schwass embarked on a world tour visiting dental companies and discussing their technologies. “Our ’market survey’ of dental companies around the world, particularly in the US, helped us understand their needs. We also learned a lot about the regulatory processes in other countries, and this information was essential in focusing our research in the right direction.”
The next step was getting her work in front of investors and to this end MacDiarmid Board Chair and angel investor Dr Ray Thomson supported her to pitch to angel investors at Pitch on a Peak in Queenstown. (Pitch on a Peak is detailed in the 2015 Annual Report.) “Ray Thomson, along with NZTE, helped me refine my ‘pitch’ to key people in the investment community at Pitch on a Peak in Queenstown. I had to develop a three minute speech that outlined the problem and showed our solution. This gave me insight into the kinds of things investors needed to know.”
Having met and talked with angel investors, and learning that investors required further information, Dr Meledandri then teamed up with University of Otago Professor of Periodontics and Dental Implantology Warrick Duncan to create animal model studies.
While the animal studies were taking place, her team also began designing a product that could be classified as a medical (rather than therapeutic) device. Dr Meledandri says this was the point at which investors became interested.
“This was key - once we developed an actual filling material, that would be classed as a medical device, investors really took notice. The medical device angle led to serious interest from Powerhouse.”
Dr Meledandri says she decided she needed more business skills and resources before she could further develop her ideas.
“The MacDiarmid supported me on a Get Funded course in 2016, and TEC funded me for an Entrepreneurship Workshop. Both of these courses helped me begin to think like a businessperson. The next step for us will be to put a recent PhD graduate into a company and the MacDiarmid Internship Programme will help us do this.”
Dr Meledandri says being nominated by the MacDiarmid Institute for the KiwiNet Awards in 2016 helped her further refine her pitch and put her in front of investors and business media. She was joint winner of the Norman F. B. Barry Foundation Emerging Innovator Award. Dr Meledandri also won a 2016 MBIE Smart Ideas grant for this work.
MacDiarmid Principal Investigator Professor David Williams is no stranger to the marketplace, having developed and launched his first company Capteur Sensors and Analysers Ltd, in the UK in 1992.
“Capture Sensors and Analysers made heated metal oxide sensors and was based on my research at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Harwell, and at University College London.”
His second company, Aeroqual, uses materials science to create new sensors for industry. “Aeroqual is now a real success story employing 30 people and turning over $8 million a year,” he said.
(Aeroqual took the top award in the Most Innovative Hi-Tech Hardware Solution category at the 2016 NZ Hi-Tech Awards for its compact air quality monitoring station.)
Professor Williams’ third company, Air Quality Ltd, was established in 2013 and uses materials science to create sensing networks that provide reliable data, for example, for vehicle fleet exhaust emissions or wastewater treatment or carbon monoxide emissions.
“We’re currently employing five people, mostly postdoctoral researchers. We’ve been able to do this in part because of the MacDiarmid’s support for tech-transfer and funding for PhD students who then go on to become employees in the company. Along with Aeroqual, Beca and UoA, we’ve just won a new MBIE grant for high-density networks of urban air quality measurement instruments.
A fourth spin-out company, Orbis - Milk on a Disc, will provide farmers with information such as the protein content and fat content of milk, and can also help them assess the health of the cow regarding pregnancy, mastitis, nutritional status etc.
This originally came out of an E.T.S. Walton Visiting Fellowship from the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). I was also a principal investigator supported by the SFI in the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute at Dublin City University. ‘Point of Cow‘ was born there: the original was created by other PIs in that Institute. Two years later I began working with Cather (MacDiarmid Principal Investigator and The University of Auckland Professor Cather Simpson) and we secured University of Auckland funding for some students to help move things along, and it wasn’t long afterwards that investors suggested we start a company. There had been MacDiarmid support for the diagnostics and fluid fabrication right through.”
“So our next step was to present to angel investors at Pitch on a Peak in Queenstown, and this is something (MacDiarmid Chair) Ray Thomson pointed us to. Once we had Powerhouse on board, we secured a Callaghan Innovation incubator loan, further private investment and more University of Auckland funding. We have enough now to get going and are also connecting with Fonterra. Our next target is to produce a prototype some time in 2018!”
Professor Williams’ potential fifth company ‘Spot Check’ is a collaboration with MacDiarmid Principal Investigator Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic. Spot Check uses materials science to provide low-cost, on-the-spot detection of DNA signatures of infectious and chronic diseases, and won the prestigious Velocity 100k Challenge in 2016.
“Little clicks all kind of happened,” Professor Williams says. “I suggested to (Research Associate) Nihan - try this - and she emailed back - “Sir it works!”. We now have a patent filed and the next question is - how do we make an idea like this investment-ready? UniServices is supporting us with a couple of postdocs, and we have to now show investors that this is an investible proposition.”
Professor Williams says being part of the MacDiarmid Institute gave them a chance to try new things out, without the need to write long and formal proposals, and the chance to talk within the Institute with people who are interesting and good.
“With the MacDiarmid we have the chance to be part of a community where it feels ok and good to take basic science out of the lab and make something work.”
A chance conversation with an investor from the dairy industry led to Professor Cather Simpson developing an award-winning start-up company which aims to revolutionise sperm sorting for the dairy sector.
Back in 2010, at a business function, an investor outlined to her the problems facing the dairy industry. As Professor Simpson recounts, she headed straight back to her lab and challenged students to come up with solutions within 24 hours. One of the students’ ideas involved using lasers to generate a force, a concept that became key to the technology behind the start-up company. Professor Simpson then worked with Auckland UniServices and Pacific Channel Ltd to form Engender in 2011.
“We’d never made a microfluidic chip before, never done any of these things, but by 2012 we had a patent and were starting to secure investor funds to prove we could make a chip and actually do this stuff. We then managed to show we could move sperm with light. By 2016 we were working with two of the world’s largest artificial insemination companies, and we secured a major fundraise of $4.5 million to bring the company through the last stage before ’real’ commercialisation.”
Professor Simpson’s advice to other scientists wanting to take the commercialisation route is to be flexible.
“My take home message is embrace flexibility. You’ve also got to be adaptive, persistent and to say ‘yes’. Think–—what skills do I have? Remember it’s a tremendous amount of work, so think what can I make this commercially feasible and still make it intellectually stimulating?”
Professor Simpson, who is also involved in another company (Orbis Diagnostics with Professor Williams) says that MacDiarmid Board Chair Dr Ray Thomson and Commercialisation Developer Richard Pinfold has helped her navigate the commercial side of things.
“The MacDiarmid Insitute helped arrange key meetings after the Pitch on a Peak and from that we had a visit from the head of the Enterprise Angel team.”
Professor Simpson won the Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award at the 2016 KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards and went on to the BNZ Supreme Award—for overall excellence in all core areas of research commercialisation. She was also named a Ministry of Primary Industries Champion for Engender and for Orbis and their Primary Growth Partnership research on milk.
Professor Simpson says another success of the MacDiarmid Insitute is that it provides opportunities for scientists in her area to be heavily networked. Plus there is commercial funding support to help scientists develop a patenting strategy. Looking ahead, she welcomes the MacDiarmid Insitute’s scheme to foster entrepreneurial spirit in its scientists.
I want to help our young scientists in particular to spin-out their own companies - create their own jobs so they can leave the university. One of our most important products is our students - giving them a path into business.Professor Cather Simpson