Biotech breeds possibility

By Helen Frances

Michelle Sullivan, CEO of NZBio, says her industry's innovations affect lives on a daily basis. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Michelle Sullivan, CEO of NZBio, says her industry's innovations affect lives on a daily basis. Photo / Ted Baghurst

When beer bubbled and bread rose, our ancestors had no idea they were enjoying the fruits of yeast and biochemical reactions.

Today, biotechnologists can breed new strains of yeast to improve beer and bread; they use many other micro-organisms and biological processes to make new products across an extraordinary range of industries - textiles, cosmetics, health, medicine and pharmaceuticals, environmental protection, alternative-fuel creation, food and beverage production, forensics and agriculture.

Biotechnology is the technology for the 21st century, says Michelle Sullivan, chief executive of the NZBio industry association.

"It touches our lives on a daily basis - the fact you can wash your clothes in cold water thanks to some enzymes in washing powder that function in cold water and chew up grease and fat," says Sullivan.

"There are so many examples and it's something most people take for granted.

I think it is less visible but actually more important than IT."

Biotechnology is based on research and the application of scientific knowledge.

Thanks to microbes, the company LanzaTech has developed technology that can remove waste gases from the smokestacks of dirty industries. A vessel on the side of a smokestack contains a selection of microbes which convert the gases into ethanol, which can be used as a fuel.

The microbes are not affected by some of the toxic substances emitted from smokestacks, such as arsenic.

"That is where biology meets technology - it's in the engineering as well as the microbial management."

New Zealand researchers and companies are making their mark in many areas of the bio-economy. NZ Extracts found that sauvignon blanc grape seed extracts could help combat protein damage from UV rays on skin.

Potatopak uses waste potato starch to make disposable plates and trays. Biotechnologists at Victoria University have developed a vaccine to control the reproduction of possums. The vaccines act as a contraceptive by making possums' immune systems produce antibodies against their own reproductive proteins.

Also, AgResearch recently discovered a way to dye patterns directly into wool, rather than printing them on. Such innovations in biotechnology will give New Zealand woolmakers an edge.

"What I am passionate about is that [biotechnology] is a great way to add value not only to our primary economy in terms of trees, cows, beef, wool and dairy, but it's a way to help create a high-wage economy in New Zealand," Sullivan says.

Sullivan's career has taken her around the world. She has a PhD in protein biochemistry from Massey University and has worked in Auckland, London and New York - at times with major multinational corporations, international biotechnology companies and venture capital funds, to attract investment into New Zealand.

She has worked at the Health Research Council to devise initiatives to address a range of human health and environmental issues, and more recently has worked within the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise's investment team.

Sullivan has also worked as a scientist, identifying potential drug targets for the fungal infection Candida albicans (thrush), an environmental consultant, and has taught environmental engineering at Manukau Institute of Technology.

She says most people come to biotechnology with a tertiary qualification in disciplines such as biochemistry, pharmacology, plant biology, physiology and engineering.

Some have backgrounds in medicine, veterinary, agricultural or environmental science.

But it is not all white-coat lab work. Biotech breeds possibility work. Some is applied and out in the field, and includes working with industry, managing clinical trials and so on. "And to commercialise you also need business-development people who understand the market and finance," Sullivan says.

Intellectual property and patent protection are other areas where science and law make a useful career combination; export-market development is also a specialised area.

"A lot of it requires more specific skills because of the complex intellectual property situation and the long time to market. A new drug takes on average 10 years to come to market."

Ipshita Mandal, 21, is a senior scholar in biotechnology at the University of Auckland. She works as a research technician in the School of Chemistry and will gain her BTech (first class honours) in biotechnology in May, before flying off to take up her scholarship offer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Mandal plans to undertake studies that "investigate a technique for best formulating oral delivery of beneficial, live bacteria".

"[Bacteria] can be of medicinal value when taken in the right quantities," says Mandal. "My studies are looking at how the human gut reacts to taking capsules of probiotics and how the formulation needs to be modified. It's an exciting field."

She sees her studies as a stepping stone to forming a start-up company. "I will need to develop my skills in research into a commercial mindset to carry this out."

Mandal is interested in biotechnology as an emerging industry with multiple opportunities.

"It's also relevant for people in engineering, business management and other areas because it's such a young field. I wanted to have all those opportunities opening up once I'd graduated. People have been talking about the biotech boom for the last 50 years but we haven't seen it yet.

"It's exciting to think I could be one of those people who helps the field push forward and develop, especially in Asia-Pacific economies."

Graduates can develop commercial skills through the Masters in Bioscience Enterprise programme, at the Institute for Innovation in Biotechnology (IIB), University of Auckland.

Life sciences students study finance/accounting, marketing, legal skills and science commercialisation.

Students also spend six months on an internship in the industry. "When they graduate they are genuinely bi-lingual in science and business," says Institute for Innovation in Biotechnology (IIB) director Professor Joerg Kistler.

The IIB provides facilities for the industry and creates networking opportunities for practitioners.

- NZ Herald

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