An innovative Kiwi start-up company has been named as a finalist for a prestigious tech challenge to be held in California's Silicon Valley next month.

Engender Technologies, which is commercialising cutting-edge photonics tech developed by Associate Professor Cather Simpson of the University of Auckland, will compete in the third annual World Cup Tech Challenge before major players in the world's tech scene.

Start-ups accepted into the challenge are considered in a "pre-global" stage, meaning they have launched their products in their respective local markets and now ready for a global launch.

It comes soon after Engender Technologies was also named among the finalists of the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.


Since Associate Professor Simpson founded the university's Photon Factory six years ago, the facility has attracted more than $2 million in commercial contracts.

Engender Technologies -- one of two companies spun out of it -- now employs six staff and has gained around $5 million in cash and commitments to invest.

Its focus is on commercialising microfluidic and photonic technology to improve sorting of sperm by sex for the dairy industry.

The technology 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.

Associate Professor Simpson is chief science officer at the company, while also holding her university post, and principal investigator roles at two centres of research excellence -- the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and the Otago-based Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonics and Quantum Technologies.

MacDiarmid Institute director Professor Thomas Nann said it was good to see the research of the centre again being used for commercial applications in the dairy industry.

"This technology gives dairy farmers a low cost way to control the composition of their herd, and provides much better outcomes than the existing technology."

Dodd-Walls Centre director Professor David Hutchinson said his own organisation, along with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and Callaghan Innovation, visited Silicon Valley to explore high-tech agriculture earlier this year.

"The idea of entering the World Cup Tech Challenge was sparked through a conversation we had with representatives of the Silicon Valley Forum while visiting tech incubator Plug and Play," he said.

Associate Professor Simpson said that smart dairy farmers wanted to control the composition of their herd and at the top of their list is the sex of their offspring.

"There's only one solution currently available for dairy sex selection and it's expensive and doesn't work very well, so farmers are frustrated.

"Engender is using novel microfluidics and laser photonics to sort sperm with X or Y chromosomes using the same physics that Nasa uses to propel solar cells in space, but applied to single cells."

The business opportunities were "huge".

"The AI market for agriculture is US$2.4 billion. Dairy is New Zealand's biggest export earner and when Engender succeeds, it is projected to raise New Zealand's GDP by 0.2 per cent."