A Kiwi start-up has scored a major win in Silicon Valley, scooping its category in a prestigious global tech challenge.

Engender Technologies, which has commercialised a revolutionary innovation that uses a laser to sort sperm, effectively choosing the sex of calves, was today announced winner of the agricultural tech sector of the third annual World Cup Tech Challenge.

Start-ups accepted into the challenge - which last year drew entries from 200 countries and 58 companies - 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.

Engender Technologies builds off the cutting-edge photonics work of Associate Professor Cather Simpson, of the University of Auckland's Photon Factory.


The company, one of two spun out from the research, now employs six staff and has gained around $5 million in cash and commitments to invest, with a focus 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.

Speaking to the Herald from the event at Silicon Valley in California, Associate Professor Simpson said she had "no idea" how her company would fare in the contest when she submitted her entry.

"To make the finals was just incredible, but to win in my category ... I'm just over the moon."

The win had attracted a "huge response" from international players, including one Asia-based company now interested in working with Engender.

The company has also been awarded three months of working space at Silicon Valley's Global Innovation Centre.

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.

The market for the innovation was substantial.

Globally, the AI market for agriculture was worth US$2.4 billion.

Dairy remained New Zealand's biggest export earner and when Engender succeeded, it was projected to raise New Zealand's GDP by 0.2 per cent.

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

Associate Professor Simpson said the company's next target was the pork industry, which had the same breeding frustrations as dairy, along with the potential to tackle sex-related diseases and other applications.

The company has also been named among the finalists of this year's KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.