Innovators behind breakthrough new drugs, a high-tech system for hip implants and human-like avatars have taken out New Zealand's top awards for bringing research to market.

Winning the top prize at this year's KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards was Victoria University's Professor Richard Furneaux.

Starting out as a synthetic chemist, Furneaux now leads a team of 40 scientists at Victoria's Ferrier Research Institute.

The team developed the first drug invented in New Zealand to gain an approval since the 1980s and a breakthrough synthetic vaccine to treat cancer, allergies and autoimmune diseases.


Furneaux was also involved in the synthesis of forodesine hydrochloride, the active ingredient in anti-lymphoma drug Mundesine, licensed by BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, which has just been approved in Japan - making it only the second New Zealand invented drug compound to become a registered drug product.

Judges who awarded him the BNZ Supreme Award, along with the Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award, described him as a "world class research entrepreneur who has made an outstanding contribution over a long period of time on a large number of projects".

"Professor Furneaux has persisted with building carbohydrate chemistry innovations that are first in the world and has built an amazing team of entrepreneurial scientists to ensure this success continues into the future."

Meanwhile, the Norman FB Barry Foundation Emerging Innovator Award went to the University of Canterbury's Dr Geoff Rodgers.

Mechanical seismic dampers he developed to dissipate kinetic energy of seismic waves penetrating a building structure were now in use in a low-damage Hospital complex in Christchurch.

University of Canterbury's Dr Geoff Rodgers. Photo / Supplied
University of Canterbury's Dr Geoff Rodgers. Photo / Supplied

Rodgers was also developing a new method for early detection of wear and tear of hip joint implants that monitored the sound vibrations transmitted from a patient's hip replacement implants.

The acoustic emission monitoring system was a non-invasive sensing technique that recorded low-level vibrations emitted from the implant during patient motion that make it through tissue to the skin's surface.

By listening to the ultrasonic vibrations of the implant, it was possible to relate them to the condition of the implant, to help orthopaedic surgeons predict impending failures and manage revision surgery.


Early detection of wear and tear could offer opportunities for proactive intervention, reducing the severity of surgery and providing improved patient outcomes.

PwC Commercial Deal Award was won by the University of Auckland and its commercial arm, UniServices, for a venture based off technology driven by two-time Academy Award winner Dr Mark Sagar, whose work has featured in the films Avatar, King Kong and Spider-Man 2.

After joining the Auckland Bioengineering Institute's Laboratory for Animate Technologies, Sagar and his engineering and research team developed two technologies: Facemaker, designed to rapidly and reliably create avatar faces based on real human anatomy and physiology, and the avatar Baby X.

Baby X technology provides an emotional and social reasoning platform to existing and developing intelligence in the artificial intelligence industry.

Baby X technology provides an emotional and social reasoning platform to existing and developing intelligence in the AI industry. Photo / Supplied
Baby X technology provides an emotional and social reasoning platform to existing and developing intelligence in the AI industry. Photo / Supplied

Last year, Hong Kong based Horizons Ventures was introduced to the technology on a tour of the university and was so impressed the team made the decision to invest almost immediately.

Further funding saw the launch of Soul Machines, which built on the technology behind Baby X.

Auckland UniServices reassigned ownership of all intellectual property and associated research contracts to Soul Machines in return for a shareholding in the new company.

The investment would allow Soul Machines to deliver on its vision of humanising technology to create intelligent and emotionally responsive, human-like avatars that augment and enrich the user experience for customers and markets adopting AI-based platforms.

The Minter Ellison Rudd Watts Research and Business Partnership Award went to Precision Driven Health, a $38 million, multi-agency research partnership which improves health outcomes through data science.

Dr Mark Sagar. Photo / Supplied
Dr Mark Sagar. Photo / Supplied

"The quality and sophistication of presentations rises every year and applicants are really demonstrating how commercially savvy they are," lead awards judge and BioPacific Partners executive director Dr Andrew Kelly said.

"It's great to see the commercial focus getting sharper.

"Yet again, we're seeing the benefit of previous research commercialisation success stories, and some failures, and people are learning from those."