Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Bright ideas that mean business

Some of the country's cleverest minds have been singled out in the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards. Ahead of next month's ceremony, Jamie Morton looks at five of the 12 finalists, announced today.
Dr Carla Meledandri's technology has been licensed to a multinational dental company. Photo / Supplied
Dr Carla Meledandri's technology has been licensed to a multinational dental company. Photo / Supplied

Nanotech for dental care

Dr Carla Meledandri, University of Otago, the MacDiarmid Institute

The exploding field of nanotechnology has thrown up such giddy ideas as self-cleaning clothing, nanoparticle armour and artificial DNA.

Now, a scientist at the MacDiarmid Institute has come up with something just as mind-boggling: nanotech that can deliver specially designed, antibacterial silver particles directly to the site of an oral infection or disease.

Dr Carla Meledandri's technology has been licensed to a multinational dental company, while a second technology has attracted investment to form a start-up company. The technology could be used on a range of diseases.

"I am keen to see my research used for a practical application that will benefit people," said Dr Meledandri, who is nominated for a KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Award.

"I like starting with a problem and using nanoscience and materials technology to work up a solution."

The innovation also has big commercial potential.

"As our technology is a platform technology, which is continually expanding to address new challenges in dentistry and in biomedicine in general, commercial opportunities range from licensing deals to company formation, and everything in between.

"In terms of market potential, it has been estimated to be greater than US$2 billion ($2.9 billion) in the US alone."

Dr Robert Hill of Lincoln University. Photo / Supplied
Dr Robert Hill of Lincoln University. Photo / Supplied

The fungi factor

Dr Robert Hill, Lincoln University

Here's one way to measure the impact of Dr Robert Hill's work: it has the potential to save forest owners around $50 million every year.

The principal research officer at Lincoln's Bio-Protection Research Centre has developed an environmentally friendly way to boost plant growth and control disease in the forestry industry.

His method, which uses a fungi known as Trichoderma, has already done great things for the Malaysian timber company, Grand Perfect. Their Acacia nurseries no longer use fungicides, crop mortality has fallen from 50 per cent to 10 per cent or less and seedlings are ready sooner.

"The naturally occurring beneficial root fungus Trichoderma enhances plant growth and health in a wide variety of plants and can benefit most cropping systems," said Dr Hill, who is nominated for a Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award.

In a project funded by the NZ Forest Owners Association, the method led to a 20 per cent rise in pine tree growth rate and a 33 per cent fall in crop mortality.

Zespri has invested in his research to mitigate the risk PSA disease poses, and several Trichoderma that increase growth and reduce disease losses have been identified.

Crown-owned Plant & Food Research has successfully developed a new market for high-value, functional vegetables. Photo / Supplied
Crown-owned Plant & Food Research has successfully developed a new market for high-value, functional vegetables. Photo / Supplied

Super veges

Plant & Food Research

They're veges, but not as we know them.

In collaboration with Australian researchers and commercial partners, Crown-owned Plant & Food Research has successfully developed a new market for high-value, functional vegetables.

These products have been branded VitalVegetables and so far include two coleslaws, two salad mixes and a vegetable medley.

While vegetables are all generally good for health, packing in various vitamins and minerals to support health, not all contain the same mixture of nutrients at the same levels.

Each VitalVegetables product contains the promised nutritional benefit as the scientists behind them have been able to grow and maintain the veges at high levels all year round, said TC Chadderton, operations manager of food innovation at Plant & Food Research.

"Consumers are now more aware than ever of the benefit of proper nutrition, but [are increasingly time-poor]," he said. "The VitalVegetables ... range has been chosen for its high levels of healthy nutrients designed to offer specific health benefits - heart, sight, immunity and bone health - while being pre-packaged for maximum convenience."

Three years after the innovation hit New Zealand supermarkets, two coleslaw products were launched in Australia late last year.

Plant & Food Research is a finalist for the PwC Commercial Deal Award.

Cather Simpson's research could revolutionise the dairy industry. Photo / Supplied
Cather Simpson's research could revolutionise the dairy industry. Photo / Supplied

Sorting sperm with a laser

Associate Professor Cather Simpson, University of Auckland

Imagine a laser that could decide the sex of a calf before it's born.

A photonics innovation developed out of the University of Auckland has the potential to slash the number of unwanted bobby calves through its sperm-sorting capabilities.

In 2010, Associate Professor Cather Simpson, a physicist and chemist at the university, founded the Photon Factory, which specialises in lasers and photonics.

The facility has since attracted more than $2 million in commercial contracts and led to the formation of new start-up ventures. Engender Technologies employs six staff and has gained around $5 million in cash and commitments to invest, while Orbis Diagnostics has attracted seed investment.

Engender, at which Professor Simpson is chief science officer, is commercialising microfluidic and photonic technology to improve sorting of sperm by sex for the dairy industry.

Engender's approach avoids the use of electric fields and reduces the sheer stress on the sperm membrane during processing, so is expected to improve the efficiency of sorting and performance of sex-sorted sperm.

Engender has also won the support of two of the world's largest artificial insemination companies.

"Our initial focus is artificial insemination in the dairy industry," said Professor Simpson, a nominee for the Baldwins researcher entrepreneur award.

"Farmers who can choose the sex of their calves reliably and cost-effectively will be able to accelerate genetic gain, enhance productivity, and dramatically reduce the number of unwanted bobby calves they have to deal with."

The technology is expected to raise New Zealand's gross domestic product through positive impact on dairy outcomes alone.

Scion's Jeremy Warnes (right, with scientist Damien Even) says reinforced plastics have very large commercial potential. Photo / Supplied
Scion's Jeremy Warnes (right, with scientist Damien Even) says reinforced plastics have very large commercial potential. Photo / Supplied

The goodness of wood

Scion and Sonae

It's plastic, with the sturdiness of wood.

A partnership between Crown research institute Scion and Portugal-based multinational company Sonae has kicked off a commercial value chain for wood fibre-reinforced plastics.

The Rotorua-based institute's patented process forms wood fibre into dice-like material that can be easily added to a range of plastics.

Sonae Industria, MDF, was granted an exclusive licence for the technology and has now developed the brand Woodforce.

End products that meet demands for lighter weight, thermal stability and sustainability are now being trialled and approved by major automotive manufacturers.

"Ultimately, the product will end up in plastic parts such as in cars, appliances, furniture and a wide range of consumer goods," said Scion's business development manager, Jeremy Warnes.

Although figures were hard to define, its commercial potential for "very large".

"It also depends on uptake and commercial reality of a competitive environment - however, we believe that the potential could ultimately be in the hundreds of millions in business generated on a global scale."

The partnership is one of three that have been nominated for the Minter Ellison Rudd Watts Research & Business Partnership Award.

- NZ Herald

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