Commercialisation of university-based startups is maturing in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. In a recent survey of the outcomes of public research in Australia and New Zealand, the region is amongst the leaders, with collaboration and transparency central to doing business here.
The ecosystem works as a team
Research and commercialisation leaders in Tāmaki Makaurau include Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland, which runs a research application and commercialisation company, UniServices, and a Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In addition to these, Auckland benefits from the Kiwi Innovation Network (KiwiNet), which describes itself as a matchmaker for investors and prospective investee projects and startups funded by public research.
KiwiNet combines the power of 19 universities, Crown Research Institutes and other research organisations that receive public funding, representing total expenditure of over $800 million and over 80 per cent of Aotearoa New Zealand’s publicly funded research. KiwiNet CEO James Hutchinson says it has helped to support the formation of 76 startups since inception, of which 27 have emerged since 2019 alone.
James says KiwiNet focuses on putting interested parties together.
“One of the key things we do is act as a front door for those that are keen to access or invest in technology out of New Zealand universities and research institutes. We help to connect them and showcase some of the opportunities that are coming through for investment. Our private-sector engagement team, based in Auckland, plays a critical role in providing this connection point."
He says the collaborative research commercialisation model in Auckland and New Zealand is seen as an exemplar by other countries, because of New Zealanders’ effectiveness at working together across the country.
“We’re much better off as a nation to be pulling our knowledge and resources together when it comes to commercialising technology, because it’s really hard, it takes a long time, and we’re trying to reach markets that are quite far from us. We are not competing with ourselves, we’re competing with the big wide world out there.”
University of Auckland – UniServices
According to the survey of commercialisation outcomes, between 2019 and 2021, the University of Auckland enjoyed Australasia’s highest commercialisation revenue at around AU$62 million. It was second out of 49 institutions for the most active startups and spinouts, as well as having the second-highest number of intellectual property licences, options and assignments.
“We’re one of the largest producers of impact per research dollar of all research organisations in Australasia,” says UniServices Executive Director of Commercialisation Will Charles.
Companies that have been spun out of UniServices in the last decade include Soul Machines, developers of AI-driven smart avatars; Formus Labs, which has developed a 3D planner for joint replacement surgery; and Alimetry, which has developed a non-invasive device to diagnose gut problems (it recently received FDA approval in the United States).
Will says the university’s investment committees are open to any investor.
“Our investment committees include founders who might have started and sold companies in the same sector; we have industry consultants, chief technical officers and corporate scouts. The meetings are regular, and any interested party can join in online. All our decision-making is public right now. We’re very transparent, and I think that transparency is probably the thing that we do best of all.”
University of Auckland Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
The University of Auckland Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) runs programmes and workshops for thousands of students and staff of all faculties. CIE staff have won multiple international awards in recognition for their skill in enabling Auckland’s talent pipeline, supporting the development of participants’ entrepreneurial mindset and innovative capability.
CIE director Darsel Keane says over the last 20 years participants have delivered some great outcomes. “CIE alumni have ignited 276 ventures, created 3250 jobs and raised more than $1.36 billion in capital. Spinouts regularly feature in lists such as Deloitte’s Fast 50 and the NZ Hi-Tech Awards; and last year CIE spinout Kami, a developer of educational apps, was named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s top 100 most influential companies.”
CIE’s flagship entrepreneurship development programme is Velocity. Past Velocity participants include earthquake engineering firm Tectonus, founded by Professor Pierre Quenneville, which recently raised $8 million in investment and is active in New Zealand and Canada. Another alumnus of the Velocity programme is Greg O’Grady, founder of medtech ventures Alimetry and the Insides Company, who just finished a $16 million raise.
Auckland University of Technology – AUT Ventures
AUT Ventures Limited is the gateway for the commercial world to Auckland University of Technology (AUT) experts and expertise. As the commercialisation arm of the university, it is responsible for the management and transfer of university intellectual property and knowhow. It connects research, global partners, startups and investors.
Deputy Vice Chancellor Research Mark Orams says that, as a former polytechnic, AUT has an applied mindset in its DNA.
“Almost all of our activities that move into the commercialisation space tend to be very applied, making use of our close links with industry, and with the health and not-for-profit sectors, or other communities of practice,” he explains.
Mark says KiwiNet is AUT’s main go-to for investment, but in some situations the university might find a better fit with an individual angel investor, through its connections with the AUT Ventures board and others. One product that has come out of AUT’s labs and is currently at phase two of KiwiNet investment involves a plant-derived nanotechnology surfactant called Spherelose.
“All sorts of products, from foods to fabrics to paints, contain surfactants, which typically derive from fossil fuels and don’t break down well at the end of their life. Spherelose, which uses cellulose as a surfactant, could be used in a very wide range of products and thus has huge international potential,” says Mark.
“Auckland is the place to be”
James Hutchinson at KiwiNet says there’s another AUT spinout which for him epitomises the opportunities for investors in Auckland and New Zealand, as well as the way the ecosystem works here.
“From AUT Ventures there’s RespirAq, a company which has developed a ground-breaking medical device that acts as a humidifier and prevents damage to patients’ lungs and airways when they are on a ventilator or other respiratory support. It went through our spinout programme. The quality of the team and the commercial mentor in the programme helped convince investors to provide the level of funding needed. They went to deep-tech specialists Outset Ventures. Now they’re on a regulatory pathway into the US market and they’re expecting the first standalone products to be manufactured later in 2023.”
Ngaio Merrick, Managing Partner at deep-tech fund Nuance Connected Capital, agrees.
“One of the biggest pleasures in launching Nuance in 2021 was the rediscovery of the incredibly collaborative deep-tech ecosystem here. Deep technology takes longer, is harder and costs more to bring to market, so it makes perfect sense that angel groups, venture capital, mentors and founders work together to improve the odds for everybody and to see individual companies succeed,” says Ngaio.
She says Auckland is the place to be when it comes to founding or funding companies.
“Most of the country’s investors are based in or have a presence in Auckland, which is home to significant local and multinational industry and the heart of New Zealand trade and enterprise, as well as being an international transport hub. The region has more businesses than anywhere in the country and therefore more professional business mentors. There are countless networking events; accessible state-of-the-art resources, such as maker and other shared labs; global market programmes; and professional services such as accountants and lawyers.”
Find out more
Contact Paul Wilkinson to learn more about investment opportunities in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, New Zealand.
DISCLAIMER: This article provides general information on potential investment opportunities in Auckland and is not intended to be used as a substitute for financial advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the relevant author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Tātaki Auckland Unlimited. Tātaki Auckland Unlimited disclaims all liability in connection with any action that may be taken in reliance of this article, and for any error, deficiency, flaw or omission contained in it.