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Posted: 15 August 2017
The second in a blog post series by National Technology Networks Manager Kimberlee Jordan, following her recent Biotech trip to the United States

You may be familiar with recent studies involving transfer of the gut microbiota (read poop) from lean and obese mice into germ-free mice which resulted in the now not-so-germ-free either remaining lean or becoming obese respectively.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at June’s BIO 2017 – the world’s largest biotechnology event held in June - was a panel discussion which contemplated this and much more.

Microbiome 2.0: Going Beyond Bugs as Drugs was one of many fascinating sessions on the understanding and treatment of disease, a major theme as the convention canvassed the theme of breakthroughs. Speakers came from J&J (Stephanie Robertson); Leading BioSciences (Tom Hallam) as well as academia (Professor Scott Peterson).  

The human microbiome – the collective genomes of the microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses etc. – commonly known as bugs) that hang out on or within the human body – has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. It has been linked to a number of diseases, including cancer, bowel disease and obesity.

It turns out that our bugs have a powerful influence on our overall health and on a range of health conditions, and using bugs as drugs has been one of the main focuses of the microbiome space. However, these colonies are complex, and can change over time (in some cases quite rapidly – one of the comments made in this session is that every time you eat you change your gut microbiota). So, there are a huge number of variables to control and understand before we can reliably manipulate our microbiome to generate better health outcomes.

One example of a new approach is modulating the gut microbiome to improve patients’ responsiveness to a new class of cancer therapies called checkpoint inhibitors. While these new therapies can be extremely effective for some patients, many fail to respond, and there can be significant toxicity issues (i.e. the drugs make patients even sicker). Significant work is now going into trying to identify a microbiome ‘signature’ that will predict how a particular patient might respond. Interestingly, the gut microbiome can also play the villain, converting drugs into molecules that are even more toxic. Getting a better understanding of these interactions will result in better outcomes for patients.

The panel also discussed a new way of thinking about bugs. Traditionally scientists have thought of microorganisms in terms of taxonomies or species, but Scott Peterson suggested it made more sense to understand bugs in terms of their genetic makeup. A typical gene count for a typical microorganism is around 3000-5000. Humans, by comparison have around 19,000-20,000.  Our human genomes can vary by about 10 percent, compared with around 70 percent for bacteria. If we treat bugs as bags of genes we can better understand the ways in which these microbes (genes) affect or modulate our immune system and overall health.

And of course, no panel discussion on the human microbiome would be compete without time spent on the so-called gut-brain axis. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, the gut-brain axis refers to the biochemical and neural signals that travel between the gut and the brain.

Bacteria

I was horrified to discover the details of how this can work. For example, a sugar-loving bacteria can produce enzymes that can travel to the brain and cut out the signals of satiety, meaning you crave more sugar. I was wondering how on earth this might happen (our gut is a fairly hostile environment for proteins), and it turns out that all you need is a “leaky gut”. Basically, these enzymes can leak out from anywhere even slightly damaged in the intestine and be carried in your plasma to your brain – where they can have an influence not always understood.

Making you eat more junk food might be the least of your worries, as new evidence suggests a link to Alzheimer’s as well. Yikes! Correcting the ecology of the microbiome so that bad things don’t happen could have a massive impact on human health and disease.

Given the increasingly vast amount of relevant data we can access and the level of complexity associated with the various microbiome - human interactions, how do we wade through all of this to reliably achieve good health outcomes?

Unsurprisingly the answer to this is Big Data. Integrating DNA sequence data with other sources of data such as RNA and protein sequences, as well as characterising the metabolites present within a microbial community, will give a clearer picture of that community and its influence on health.

I will write more about Big Data and Biotech next time, but for now I will come full circle and leave you with this factoid to consider. According to Prof Scott Peterson, 40 percent of the dry weight of faeces is bacteria – which means that it is full of information. So, the next time someone tells you you’re full of it, you should take it as a compliment!

Contact Kimberlee Jordan on Twitter @kimberlee_j

Callaghan Innovation is a New Zealand government innovation agency that works with Kiwi companies to accelerate commercialisation of their new technology ideas. Our National Technology Networks team supports businesses via our four technology platforms – Advanced Manufacturing, Advanced Materials, Biotechnology and Data & IoT, with the aim of helping companies rapidly connect to new and advanced technologies. 

Posted: 09 August 2017
Currently making headlines is the debate around a former Google employee’s memo on women in technology.

There are an ever-increasing number of opinion pieces, and data, about the lack of diversity in tech internationally and locally.  Currently making headlines is the debate around a former Google employee’s memo on women in technology.

The opinion pieces are often related to digital industries, particularly in Silicon Valley, but the issue is widespread across different technologies and businesses, and in entrepreneurship.  The discussion about diversity has also been going on for a long time in wider STEMM education circles, including the recent publication in New Zealand of “Why Science is Sexist” by Nicola Gaston.

A couple of months ago I attended TechConnect in my role scoping new and upcoming materials technologies that might be applicable to New Zealand businesses.  The conference included an excellent panel discussion on women in tech leadership that raised some of this data and analysis.  

A particularly eye-opening read for me was the recent HBR report about venture capitalists’ discussions and language in relation to entrepreneurs: for example, men were described as “young and promising” while women were “young and inexperienced”. 

I was interested to try and see what data was available about the high-tech business scene in NZ.  What I found?  Publicly available, collated data and analysis is not an easy Google search away, particularly in regard to ethnicity!  The best source (kindly provided by the AANZ) was the Compass Start-up Genome report, which in 2017 gives figures of 21% female founders in NZ compared with a global median of 15%.

My own (very unscientific, based on name and photograph) survey of start-ups listed on NZVIF yields 14% female CEOs/MDs – closely matching NZVIF’s own gender analysis work (13% female CEOs/founders).  This match gave me a bit more confidence in my methods, so I extended my survey to some other groupings of high tech companies.

Within Callaghan Innovation’s tech incubators, the figure sits at 8% female CEOs.  The total numbers of start-ups being incubated is still quite low due to the relative youth of the scheme so this figure can perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.
The story in established high tech companies is significantly worse than the NZVIF scenario – surveying the TIN200 list gives us a measly 5% female CEOs/MDs!

There also appears to be an industry-specific effect.  Companies classified by Callaghan Innovation as being in the health sector stand out in all these data sources: 14% female representation at CEO/MD level in the TIN200, 24% in the NZVIF, and 25% in the tech incubators.  What does this mean?  Without doing a proper sociological study, I can’t say for sure, but it may reflect the high number of female graduates in the life and medical sciences comparative to other STEMM subjects.

So what do we, or can we, do given the ever-increasing amount of data from respected organisations like McKinsey&Company and Intel about the value of gender and ethnic diversity within a workplace?

A Callaghan Innovation funded accelerator, Lightning Lab, recently co-designed and ran an XX accelerator programme with women entrepreneurs in order to address gender diversity issues.  By collaborating on the design of the programme with the entrepreneurs before it ran, they gleaned several lessons about how best to run an accelerator programme that encourages inclusivity.  

As Laura Reitel, Programme Director notes: “Developing strong leadership capability among female founders and the immense value role models provide were two important lessons learned through the collaborative approach we took to Lightning Lab XX. On gaining this insight; we made sure each CEO had the opportunity to work with a personal leadership coach during the length of the accelerator. We have since incorporated personal leadership coaching into all of our programmes. We also make sure to focus on attracting a truly diverse group of mentors to all of our programmes, because with diversity comes new perspectives."   

It is too soon to gauge the impact of this change, but we will be watching this space with interest.

Callaghan Innovation has also recently introduced diversity elements into the required reporting for our accelerators and founder incubators, to enable us to gather a good, consistent, base line of data about the start-up programmes that we support.  This will extend beyond gender and include Maori and Pasifika representation as well.  We are also looking at how to implement such reporting into the technology incubator scheme in the future.

So, are you thinking about diversity enough within your organisation?  Because the data about success says that you should be!

Dr Kirsten Edgar is Callaghan Innovation’s National Technology Network Manager for Advanced Materials.
Twitter handle: @KirstenEdgar

Posted: 07 August 2017
The first in a blog post series by National Technology Networks Manager Kimberlee Jordan, following her recent Biotech trip to the United States.

In June, I attended BIO 2017 – the world’s largest biotechnology event. This year it drew a record-breaking 16,123 biotech industry leaders to sunny San Diego for an action-packed four days of partnering meetings, keynote talks, insights from business leaders and the occasional bout of networking over drinks (read the networking functions were endemic!).

With over 800 speakers on 150-plus topics, there was a rich supply of perspectives on the opportunities and challenges which face the biotechnology industry.

I attended sessions on Modern Ag Innovation, the Microbiome, Synthetic Biology to produce chemicals for industry, Precision Medicine and of course the ever-present Big Data.

In the next few weeks I will be reflecting on some of the things I learned at BIO 2017, and how these might impact or suggest opportunities for industry in New Zealand.

BIO2017

Biotechnology presents us with some of the most powerful tools we have for confronting the problems we face today. With a rapidly expanding population and changing climate, issues of hunger, disease, scarce resources and pollution are bigger than ever before. In this blog, I’m going to consider how biotech can help us feed our ever-growing population.

The World Bank has predicted a need to produce 50% more food by 2050, as we face changes in climate that may reduce productivity by 25%. The potential (and indeed existing ability) of biotechnology to modify plants to grow under increasingly challenging environmental constraints, improve yields, and provide more effective protection against pests and diseases is significant. 

Recent evidence even suggests that plant genetics rather than environmental factors are the rate limiting factor for plant productivity. However, there is still significant consumer resistance to the idea of eating genetically modified species, and general concern about the effect that modified species might have on the long-term survival and health of existing species. 

One of the more interesting points made at the Modern Ag Innovation session I attended was that communication on modified species should focus less on the science and more on the benefits to consumers and growers – something that is often overlooked in the race to reassure the public of these new species’ safety.

Less controversial is the “micro” solution to the problem of crop productivity. In a panel session on Micro Solutions for Mega Problems, executives from New Leaf Symbiotics, Marrone Bio Innovations and Taxon Biosciences discussed the use of biologicals in crop improvement. These can take the form of pesticides developed from microbes (Marrone, and NZ’s BioStart); endophytes (New Leaf and NZ’s Biotelliga); or consortia of soil microbes (Taxon, and NZ’s BioConsortia).

Reflecting on technology trends for the future of crop biologicals, Matthew Ashby from Taxon observed that while there are many discovery technologies currently being developed, downstream products such as formulation, stabilisation and delivery mechanisms are lacking. This creates a significant bottleneck for getting these technologies into the field. Amit Vasavada from Marrone built on this, noting that identifying and developing a desirable organism is only one part of the solution – being able to grow the organism on a large scale and still be economically viable is another challenge altogether. 

New Zealand has great strengths in crop science and associated fermentation technologies, as well as companies who are developing the upstream solutions. I find myself wondering if anyone in our research organisations or industry has considered the potential opportunities offered by the apparent downstream bottlenecks. 

Next time I will take a look at developments in our understanding of human microbiomes.

Contact Kimberlee Jordan on Twitter @kimberlee_j

Callaghan Innovation is a New Zealand government innovation agency that works with Kiwi companies to accelerate commercialisation of their new technology ideas. Our National Technology Networks team supports businesses via our four technology platforms – Advanced Manufacturing, Advanced Materials, Biotechnology and Data & IoT, with the aim of helping companies rapidly connect to new and advanced technologies. 

 

 

Posted: 26 July 2017
Disappointed not to have made it through to the C-Prize finals? Our Start-up Manager, Elena Higgison gives you the low-down on other ways Callaghan Innovation can help.

Now that we’ve selected our ten finalists for C-Prize 2017, our focus has shifted from identifying exciting, new wearable innovations, to supporting them through from project to product. But with so many fantastic entrants, and a limited number of finalist slots, we’ve unfortunately had to leave some great ideas behind. But that doesn’t need to be the end of your story, as Callaghan Innovation Startup Manager, Elena Higgison, explains….

It is often said that it takes a village to raise a successful startup, and in my experience, that is absolutely true. But New Zealand is a particularly vibrant village, thanks to the combination of our smallness and our collaborative spirit. I doubt there is anywhere better prepared to ride the next wave of technology entrepreneurship.

New Zealand recently participated in the Startup Genome Ranking Report for the first time – this is a global overview of those cities deemed to have strong startup ecosystems. That analysis showed that NZ’s startup ecosystem is still in the activation phase – an early stage of ecosystem maturity – but that we’re going in the right direction. Understanding how we fit into a global context was not only useful for those of us working in the sector; it also validated our plans to step up activities further.

But we’re keen to avoid the most common pitfall of the activation phase – fragmentation of activity. It’s fantastic to have lots of people engaged in the startup sector, but we need to be really cognisant of keeping it clear and easy-to-navigate, and avoid repeatedly reinventing the wheel. As NZ’s national innovation agency, our role really is that of the connector. As I see it, we should be the first port-of-call for any NZ startup – a place they can come to for help in navigating the who, what and where of startup 101.

This year’s C-Prize contest was a milestone in NZ’s wearable technology journey, and the variety of entrants demonstrated just how rich the pipeline of ideas is here. We are keen to bring as many of them to market as we possibly can. But if you didn’t make it to the final ten, you might be wondering what’s next. 

Well, I’ll start by saying that it doesn’t matter what stage you are at. If your idea is good, we can connect you to individuals and organisations that will help grow your business. If you’re still working on your idea or design, we can provide you with the tools you’ll need to navigate the (occasionally-stressful) initial market validation phase. If you already have a prototype, and have perhaps started on beta tests or sales, then we can connect you with an incubator to get you in front of investors. If an accelerator programme is more suitable, we can also advise you on the best one to apply for.

And it’s important to say that we can support you regardless of your location. Our incubator network is expanding reach into regions that haven’t previously been on the grid. And we have Regional Business Partner advisors in 14 regions that are the front door to business support, which includes Callaghan Innovation services, NZTE and Business Mentors, and well as specific regional programmes. We know that it takes resilience, determination and all those other ‘x-factor’ qualities to get an idea over the line, so, supporting founders and their team is a key priority of ours.

Take Spalk, for example. They came out of Auckland University – a group of friends who turned a hobby into a great business idea. Their technology allows sports enthusiasts to live-commentate their favourite events, and for sports broadcasters to offer multiple audio channels for different audience demographics. Spalk got their first break when they participated in the Vodafone Xone accelerator program, which we’re a partner in. They were then supported to develop their prototype further via an R&D project grant with our Regional Business Partner Network. They travelled to the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year as part of our NZ start-up delegation, where they met with some of the biggest names in sports broadcast. On arriving back, Spalk connected to the Icehouse, who helped them secure another round of investment. They’re doing fantastically, and we are delighted to have supported them along the way.

That’s where my passion really lies – in joining the dots between the people with ideas, and the networks that can help turn them into reality. So, to anyone who hasn’t made it through to the C-Prize finals, my advice is to keep your head up, keep working, and keep in touch. We’re here to help.

For more details, visit: https://www.startup.callaghaninnovation.govt.nz/ or email startup@callaghaninnovation.govt.nz

Posted: 13 July 2017
Keep track of innovation agency news from around the world with this blog post series by Callaghan Innovation’s International Manager Cliff Fuller.

 

Australia

The Blockchain has been highlighted in reports by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Data 61 programme. The reports look at possible opportunities and barriers for blockchain technology, with the only successful scaleable use so far being cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.  

Australian medical device companies are taking part in a life sciences business accelerator in the Texas Medical Center in Houston, USA, as part of a “Bio-Bridge” initiative. Callaghan Innovation is working with CMDT to lead a delegation of New Zealand businesses to Houston in October 2017.  

 

 

Denmark

The Danish Dairy co-operative, Arla Foods, has invested in a multi-million dollar global innovation centre for natural dairy products as part of the Danish food cluster in Aarhus. The Danes came to New Zealand earlier this year and are keen on building stronger links with our food industry. 

In a move that highlights the importance of international collaboration, an “Innovation Denmark Centre” has opened in Tel Aviv, Israel (the ultimate start-up nation), to bring together Danish and Israeli innovation partners and facilitate new opportunities for collaboration and learning from each other. There are seven Danish innovation centres around the world. New Zealand offers similar services through NZTE and other providers, like the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco.  

 

 

Finland

The “circular economy” is a new model for generating growth based on recycling resources and renewable energy. Finland has a programme for changing from a linear to a circular economy, supported by the SITRA innovation fund, and recently hosted a forum that attracted 1,500 participants form 75 countries. Finland is now working with India to help them adopt their own circular economy approach. Energy and the environment are one of the seven sector priorities for Callaghan Innovation, and so we’ll be watching this programme with interest. Read more online at prnewswire.co.uk, indiatimes.com and eurekaalert.org

 

 

Ireland 

Fintech (financial technology) is an important growth sector in Ireland as that country explores digital solutions to challenges in the banking sector. Several Irish companies leading disruption of the payments market attended Money 2020 in Copenhagen. Fintech plays a major part in Callaghan Innovation’s SaaS programme, which will include a delegation to SaaStr 2018 in San Francisco. Read more online at independent.ie and money2020.com

 

 

Singapore

Singapore’s A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) is working in a consortium to develop and commercialise 3D metal printing technologies. The first homegrown Additive Manufacturing Centre has been opened in a partnership with the private sector. The Singaporean government has committed S$3 billion over five years to develop the Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering domain, in which additive manufacturing is a key enabling technology. 

Singapore has also identified four frontier technologies in the digital economy that it wants to increase capability in: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data science; Cybersecurity; Immersive media (VR/AR); and the Internet of Things (IoT).   

 

 

South Korea

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejon has developed a new Artificial Intelligence automatic face recognition system called K-Eye series. KAIST is reputed to be the most innovative university in Asia for advanced sciences, based on patent filings and citations in research papers. Read more online at koreajoongangdaily.joins.com and etnews.com,

 

 

Britain

Innovate UK is promoting Industry 4.0 to radically improve the productivity and competitiveness of manufacturing in the UK. Innovate UK (like many others) is calling this the fourth industrial revolution in the way we design, produce and use manufactured goods, and is helping SMEs take action on Industry 4.0 strategies. Callaghan Innovation recently led a delegation of twelve companies with NZMEA to Hannover Messe and a programme of Industry 4.0 visits, and a similar visit to Australia is being considered.  

 

Contact Cliff Fuller

Twitter: @cliftonjfuller 
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cliff-fuller-5a8b391/