Harnessing the power of students

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Farming data specialist Levno is sold on interns after hiring two of Massey University’s best

At a glance

  • Palmerston North agritech business Levno is commercialising a new product thanks to the ingenuity of a Massey University intern.

  • Callaghan Innovation’s Experience Grants gave Levno the confidence to approach Massey and hire two of its top mechatronics students over the summer break.

  • Intern Mitchell Coleman is developing the new water meter technology as part of his studies, and his future with the firm looks secure.

  • Callaghan Innovation has overhauled its student grants programme making it more accessible to a wider range of businesses.

Mitchell Coleman’s passions are dairy farming, electronics and mechanical engineering, not necessarily in that order.

So the Massey University mechatronics student was stoked to land a summer job at Palmerston North agritech company Levno, where he ended up researching a sensor to detect leaks in farm water troughs.

Coming from a dairy farm near Feilding he is acutely aware of the issue water leaks pose. He offered to have a look at Levno’s existing water meter technology which was at an early stage.

“I identified where I thought I could help out in the future. If I could find what characterises a water leak as opposed to a hot day, I could develop a methodology for a sensor.

“It’s not just about determining when there’s a leak, but what’s the most efficient and cheapest way to do it,” he says.

Mitchell is now back at Massey semi-commercialising the water meter as his fourth-year individual project.

Levno is equally rapt to have found Mitchell and fellow student Ben Stewart. It hired the pair as interns over the 2017/18 summer break with the assistance of Callaghan Innovation’s R&D Experience Grants.

The agricultural data monitoring company had been focused on its first two successful products – a fuel sensor that monitors on-farm tank levels and can automatically order refills from suppliers, and a milk vat sensor that allows farmers to remotely monitor the temperature, volume and other factors in their milk vats. Levno owner Larry Ellison estimates using the sensor saves dairy farmers up to $8000 a year in lost milk.

The company had also begun developing an idea for a device that could remotely monitor flows in farm water troughs, and patented an early version in 2017, Larry says. “But because we were involved with commercialising the milk sensor most of last year we just put it to one side.”

It hadn’t considered using students before. The Callaghan Innovation funding gave it the credibility to approach Massey University’s mechatronics department and enlist the help of its top students, he says.

“Now I know the value of them, we would do it regardless of whether we had funding, because it’s a way to attract extremely good staff.

“We just want to attract and keep these highly talented young people in Palmerston North.”

The students say the experience they gained at Levno was invaluable, and the Experience Grant funding allowed them to focus on learning. “I needed to learn a lot of stuff before I could be useful,” Mitchell says

Callaghan Innovation Grants Improvements Adviser Deanna Lysaght says the agency has recently overhauled its Experience Grants programme, making it more customer-focused and speeding up the application process.

The grant offers businesses $7,200 plus GST to fund a student for 400 hours of full-time work. The scheme is open to firms employing people studying science, technology, engineering, design or business at a New Zealand tertiary education institute.

Businesses must have an active R&D programme employing a minimum of one full-time equivalent.

Callaghan Innovation has also recently enhanced its R&D Career Grants which enable businesses to employ a PhD or masters graduate for the first six months, and will shortly update its R&D Fellowship Grants which support three-year PhD or one-year masters research projects.

“The number one message to businesses is, we’ve made some changes so come and have a chat to us because you might now be eligible,” Deanna says.

Callaghan Innovation supports Levno through Research and Development Project and Experience Grants, advice services, and Research and Technical Services assistance.

This article was first published in EMA Business Plus magazine.

Updated: 29 November 2018