A leading Auckland scientist whose revolutionary laser technology has been spun into a multi-million dollar enterprise has chalked up another major accolade.

Weeks after scooping a prestigious global tech challenge in Silicon Valley, associate professor Cather Simpson took out the top honour at last night's KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.

The University of Auckland physicist also picked up the Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award, and was described by judges as being "incredibly entrepreneurial with science to address a series of high profile industry problems in a commercial fashion".

Her cutting-edge photonics work has led to the creation of start-ups Orbis Diagnostics and Engender Technologies, which markets lasers capable of sorting sperm in dairy cows, effectively choosing the sex of calves.


In 2010, she founded the university-based Photon Factory, which has attracted more than $2 million in commercial contracts.

Engender has meanwhile gained around $5 million in cash and commitments to invest, and is poised to expand into a global agricultural AI market worth $3.3 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," she said.

By contrast, the Government wants to see total business research and development lifted to at least one per cent of GDP by 2025.

Smart dairy farmers wanted to control the composition of their herd and at the top of their list was 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," she said.

"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 directors of the MacDiarmid Institute and the Dodd-Walls Centre, for which Simpson is a principal investigator, congratulated her on the win.

"We are now seeing dynamic and innovative research being translated into high commercial value," said MacDiarmid's director, Professor Thomas Nann.

"Professor Simpson's work in this area is an exemplar for the whole of the hi-tech science and commercialisation area."

The success came soon after Engender won the agricultural tech sector of the third annual World Cup Tech Challenge in California last month.

Other winners at last night's awards included Dr Daniel Holland and Dr Carla Meledandri, who jointly received the Norman F. B. Barry Foundation Emerging Innovator Award; Scion and Sonae, which received the MinterEllisonRuddWatts Research & Business Partnership Award, and AgResearch, winning the PwC Commercial Deal Award.