Lighting up New Zealand’s economy with lasers

Laser technology might be the next big driver of economic growth in New Zealand according to an Auckland University scientist.

Associate Professor Cather Simpson was the big winner at the KiwiNet awards on Thursday Night snapping up the BNZ Supreme Award for her photonic laser technology. The laser technology could potentially raise New Zealand’s GDP by .2% she says.

Associate Professor Cather Simpson receiving the KiwiNet Supreme Award.

Associate Professor Cather Simpson receiving the KiwiNet Supreme Award.

A who’s who of New Zealand’s scientific community gathered at the Viaduct Events Centre for the KiwiNet Awards, which recognise commercialisation of research in New Zealand.

One of the commercial applications of Cather’s research is separating the sperm of dairy cows to allow sex selection, reducing the number of bobby calves born.

“We listen to what industry says they need and see if we can find a way to solve their challenges,” says Cather.

“We met with a dairy industry investor who challenged us with five problems currently facing the dairy industry and said, ‘Can you help with any?’ We chose sperm sorting to allow farmers to control the most important genetic factor in their herd, whether they have male or female offspring.”

Adds Auckland University Dean of Science, Professor John Hosking:

“What [Cather’s] able to do is walk that ‘pracademic’ line between research and industry and understand both and contribute to both.”

Cather’s commercial lab the Photon Factory was founded in 2010 and has received $2 million of commercial contracts. She has also formed two new startup firms; Orbis Diagnostics Ltd and Engender Technologies Ltd, which has attracted approximately $5 million of investment capital.

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Another KiwiNet winner poised to benefit New Zealand’s primary industries came from Dr Nick Roberts and Dr Greg Bryan of ZeaKal and AgResearch.

Biotechnology startup firm ZeaKal won the PwC Commercial Deal Award for its work developing technology to increase plants’ photosynthetic capacity. The technology allows plants to harvest more sunlight and improve yields by 20 percent.

The technology also increases the metabolisable energy of crops consumed by cattle and reduces the methane and nitrogen output, in turn, lowering the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during farming.

ZeaKal’s research could potentially add billions of dollars to New Zealand’s GDP says Dr Nick Roberts, Chief Science Officer, ZeaKal.

“While we’ve developed this technology for the New Zealand pastoral system but we’ve realised the potential is to increase the photosynthetic capacity for all human food crops. We’re going to have to increase food production by 50 per cent by 2050 as we reach nine billion people [on earth],” says Nick.
The Kiwi Innovation Network (KiwiNet) is a consortium of 16 universities, Crown Research Institutes and a Crown Entity established to boost commercial outcomes from publicly funded research. Principal support is also provided by the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE).

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