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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

ScienceSeptember 27, 2023

Meet the people taking science to the marketplace

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

For New Zealand scientists trying to solve big-picture problems, turning them into commercial businesses is often an afterthought. Vanessa Young from the MacDiarmid Institute talks to some of the scientists navigating this journey about how key people have helped them along their way.

For many of us, trying to understand the hi-tech world of startups is challenging at the best of times. But when the business involves deep tech science innovations, intellectual property and capital raises, it can be difficult for any of us, and crucially for scientists taking on their first commercial venture, to know what’s going on.

Most of the new sustainable tech innovations (such as carbon capture, new types of solar cells or new batteries) come from science and engineering departments and are known as the deep tech sector. And yet startup companies in the deep tech sector face a raft of challenges compared to most other startups; they’re dealing with significant technical complexity, their R&D costs are higher, their path to market is longer, and they’re competing for highly qualified talent. 

Each year, the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards celebrates commercial science success in New Zealand, recognising the innovative new technologies created from within New Zealand’s universities, Crown Research Institutes and other research organisations, and celebrates the “heroes in research commercialisation”.

Kevin Sheehy (Photo: Supplied)

This year, the MacDiarmid Institute’s commercialisation manager Kevin Sheehy is a 2023 KiwiNet Awards finalist in the Commercialisation Professional category*, along with Brendan Vercoe from 2before Performance Nutrition/ Plant & Food Research, and Sean Mackay from Massey University.

But what do commercialisation professionals actually do? We thought we’d ask others in the research commercialisation ecosystem including some fellow KiwiNet Awards finalists about how someone in a role like Kevin’s can make an impact in the deep tech sector, as new ideas and new companies head from the lab bench to the marketplace.

TasmanIon is a start-up company developing new aluminium-ion battery technologies suited for grid storage and portable applications. Developed by researchers from Victoria University of Wellington, TasmanIon’s batteries aim to offer a high-performing cell that is safer, sustainable, cost-effective and scalable for a suite of applications. 

Shalini Divya (Photo: Supplied)

Co-founder and CEO Dr Shalini Divya, a 2021 KiwiNet Award winner, said that Kevin had been a tremendous help in enhancing her entrepreneurial skills alongside commercialisation professionals from Wellington UniVentures and KiwiNet. 

“Kevin’s demeanour allows young entrepreneurs to approach him with all sorts of doubts they face in the challenging new world. He helped me build my network to advance the commercialisation process. His approach toward creating a university-based CEO/CTO community has been a game changer in helping me understand the challenges I have to face as a new CEO.”

Dr Jérôme Leveneur is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of new spinout Bspkl, New Zealand’s first deep technology hydrogen start-up. He is a finalist in this year’s KiwiNet Awards in the Breakthrough Innovator category. Bspkl, the first start-up to be formed with Intellectual Property (IP) from GNS Science, is a finalist in the Breakthrough Project category.

Bspkl targets the electrolyser and fuel cell market, supporting the world’s transition to a more sustainable future. The company was spun out in April 2023 with a $2.8 million seed investment round led by WNT Ventures.

Jérôme says Bspkl represents the culmination of many years of innovation and championing of commercialisation and that Kevin has been a strong supporter of Bspkl every step of the way, alongside commercialisation professionals from GNS and expertise from KiwiNet and investors.

“Kevin was key to giving us exposure and networking opportunities at international cleantech events. His regular events for Deep Tech CEOs, CTOs, and Research Entrepreneurs are helping build a community in Wellington. We’ve learned so much and found our current lab through one of these events, too.” 

Jono and Aaron from Zincovery (Photo: Supplied)

Startup company Zincovery spun out of the University of Canterbury a few years ago, and the company’s co-founder and CEO Jonathan Ring won the KiwiNet Breakthrough Innovator Award in 2022. Zincovery recycles zinc from furnace waste, producing zinc with 70% less carbon emissions than the existing recycling process. The global market opportunity for the technology is estimated at over $10 billion per annum and growing.

Zincovery co-founder Professor Aaron Marshall says Kevin provided insightful guidance and advice to help with research early on.

“For Zincovery, Kevin was a great sounding board when we needed to make critical decisions regarding raising capital, choosing partners and beachhead markets. This gave us confidence when navigating the complex process of bringing our research out of the lab.”

Jonathan Ring adds, “We’ve also benefited greatly from the support of KiwiNet and University of Canterbury commercialisation professionals.”

Opo Bio co-founders Dr Laura Domigan, University of Auckland and Dr Olivia Ogilvie, the company’s CEO, are finalists in this year’s KiwiNet Awards in the Research Entrepreneur and Breakthrough Innovator categories, respectively.

Opo Bio, New Zealand’s first cultivated meat company, supplies cells from Aotearoa for the cultivated meat industry worldwide. Opo Bio is developing a cell line development technology platform that enables large-scale cell culture production. 

Dr Olivia Ogilvie says, “Kevin’s been a massive supporter of Laura, me, and now Opo Bio. Through his role at the MacDiarmid Institute, he’s organised many events that have fostered innovation and connections within the ecosystem and have enabled Opo and its founders to grow their commercial skills.”

Captivate Technology is a startup that has developed a new sponge-like material that captures carbon dioxide. The company’s new sponge-like adsorbent “MUF-16” is a solid-state metal-organic framework (MOF) that can be made inexpensively in large quantities. Its network of pores traps the carbon dioxide via weak interactions, so it can be easily removed once it reaches saturation capacity.

Professor Shane Telfer, who founded Captivate Technology in 2021, says the company wouldn’t be where it is without Kevin’s input.

“Kevin had an extraordinarily positive impact on our journey, guiding us with wisdom, know-how and enthusiasm as we emerged from the lab towards commercialisation. Without his valuable insights and support, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Winners will be announced at the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards this Thursday night in Auckland.

*Update: Kevin won the Simpson Grierson Commercialisation Professional Award at the 2023 KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.

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