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Lab rats: NZ's rising science stars

Despite the perception of science as a dull and dusty undertaking, Priv Bradoo and other young Kiwis are collaborating, commercialising and capturing our imagination. Lauren Bartlett meets the new rock stars of New Zealand science. Plus those that lead the way

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Photograph by Martin Klimek / Getty Images

Despite the perception of science as a dull and dusty undertaking, Priv Bradoo and other young kiwis are collaborating, commercialising and capturing our imagination. Lauren Bartlett meets the new rock stars of New Zealand science

Ernest Rutherford was probably sexy in his day. Even with the handlebar moustache. The closest he comes now is when he’s slipped into a wallet as a dirty, sexy hundy.

For such a stimulating field, science—the realm of breakthrough discoveries and new frontiers—suffers from its public image as boring and unrewarding. Our science legends, the likes of Neville Jordan and Bill Buckley, are more famous for their rally driving and superyachts while their ground-breaking work goes unmentioned. Colin Murdoch, inventor of the disposable syringe and childproof packaging, died in May with barely a sigh from local media, while the death of Nicky Watson’s dog made the front page.

A generation ago, we had a relatively firm grip on our science celebrity: we were still bathing in Rutherford’s glory and were high on the OECD listing of investment in science. During the paper-shuffling 1980s and 90s that grip loosened as other ambitious nations began to increase their investment. By 1990 we ranked 15th, with 0.98 percent of our GDP spent on research and development. By 2005, although we spent 1.17 percent of our GDP on R&D, we’d slipped further to 19th on the list. Meanwhile, research and development amounted to 2.3 percent of GDP for the OECD as a whole, and economies such as Sweden, Korea, Japan and the US were spending well above that. Korea and the US set some serious goals around generating over ten percent of their GDP from the biotechnology industry, whereas the New Zealand government has remained mum about what it expects to gain—primary industries and tourism are fine, so what’s the problem?

But there’s a new generation of young New Zealand scientists who are proving that science is entrepreneurial, international,  lucrative—and enjoyable. They’re moving away from the so-called sunset industries and, as Steve Maharey said in Idealog #16 (‘Out of the light’, page 30), rediscovering the sunrise aspect of science.

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Emerging Talent: Privahini Bradoo’, Idealog #4, July/August 2006

Enter Dr Privahini Bradoo. She’s more beautiful than Ms Watson and much more interesting. Bradoo first caught our eye in 2006 when, after completing her PhD in neuroscience, she established Spark, an initiative to assist students in startup ventures, and Chiasma, an organisation that builds links between the academic biotech community and the biotech industry. Then she won a US$100,000 Fulbright scholarship and snapped up an MBA at Harvard Business School. Her aim was to gain some serious business smarts and establish global connections to benefit the New Zealand biotech industry. Now based in San Francisco, she’s vice president of business development for Kiwi biotech firm LanzaTech, which made headlines this year after winning a $12 million grant to make biofuel from factory flue gas. Why would Bradoo, someone with a PhD and a Harvard MBA who speaks five languages, choose a Kiwi company to launch her career when she could work anywhere in the world for her choice of wealthy conglomerate?

“The one thing that stands out when you’re working with Kiwis is that you get good, true, honest science, coupled with an optimistic road to commercialisation,” says Bradoo. She finds science in other places “hyped up” with people generally pessimistic about where it’s going.

“New Zealand scientists must be very astute,” she says. “We don’t have the luxury of money floating around and we don’t have the venture capital industry as obviously as the USA or Europe. We’ve had to ensure that our science is truly excellent for it to be considered alongside some of our American counterparts. When we put our foot forward—for example, when I’m pitching LanzaTech to investors—the assumption is that if it’s gotten this far, it’s got to be good.”

To find out how good, Idealog headed to the Auckland suburb of Parnell to meet LanzaTech co-founder Dr Sean Simpson. In a small, austere lab behind Whitecliffe College, Simpson is toiling. His research has the potential to replace up to 90 percent of petrol without infrastructure changes or engine damage to cars. He’s not shy about touting its commercial promise. “If you were conducting a technology to make fuel, you’d know the world’s your oyster. If that works out, one scenario is that you become the next Exxon. Obviously if it doesn’t work out, you become nothing.” Simpson laughs, but he’s serious. If LanzaTech’s findings pan out, there will be a big payout.

But it’s not always easy. The venture capital industry in New Zealand appears shaky at best for high-risk ventures, so there is more pressure for scientists branching out to be able to prove the commercial capacities of their work before gaining initial funding. Simpson saw the importance of learning how to market science through the process of launching LanzaTech.

“In trying to raise money to fund your idea, in trying to convince people that what you’ve got is real, not only do you get to test out whether it works, you also learn how to raise money. I had no idea on this. I had a PowerPoint and I was all, ‘I’m a scientist, for Christ’s sake.’”

Then there’s learning how to talk to investors. “There’s a whole TV show dedicated to people getting scared crapless by investors. It was the Dragon’s Den-type thing that became my life for three years; I was doing it on a weekly basis.” Still, it worked: LanzaTech first secured funds from a local science firm in the same building, then later from Stephen Tindall and an investor consortium led by US firm Khosla Ventures, before gaining the $12 million government grant.

Bradoo’s programmes such as Spark are designed to help scientific entrepreneurs. The NZX SciTech index, as measured in the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology’s Vital Statistics 2006 report, shows science-based entrepreneurs moving up the gross index movement, representing a growth of $633 million of indexed capitalisation between 2004 and 2006. People once saw academia as the only way forward, says Bradoo, but the SciTech index shows this is changing. “There is also an opening-up of avenues in entering industry, entering a space where you can marry science and business.”

This is backed up in the tertiary sector, with the 2006 launch of the Masters of Bioscience Enterprise at the University of Auckland. “We saw the market need for business-savvy scientists,” says Professor Joerg Kistler, director at the School of Biological Sciences. AUT University also offers a conjoint science and business bachelor and recently launched the Bachelor of Computer and Information Sciences.

Simpson believes there’s also increasing public awareness of global issues. When he approached venture capitalists and the government in 2005 he was told the global oil crisis was just a blip but then, he says, the source of almost all energy on the planet became wickedly expensive. “So people are saying yes, yes, we need a solution, not only to save the planet but also to save money! Suddenly, sustainability becomes not only good for the planet, it’s economically desirable. For scientists it’s like the new civil rights movement, with intellectuals involved to do something incredibly positive in society.”

Dr Kaa-Sandra Chee is part of that movement. Having recently completed her PhD in biomedicine at the University of Auckland, she’s one of 11 young scientists chosen as members of the Oxygen Group. The group is a MoRST initiative set up for young scientists to get leadership training and provide a bridge to the government. “We’ve given them an insight into our world,” says Chee. “The VCs, the bigwigs of the university, they meet with the Ministry all the time. [The Ministry] knows what’s on from the top down, but they need to look from the bottom up to see what’s really happening, to see how researchers are satisfied.”

Chee is familiar with promoting science. As an ophthalmologist she participates in the Meet the Scientists programme run by the Liggins Institute, designed to get high school kids interested in science. Born in Taumarunui and raised in Tauranga, she’s passionate about educating children about science —and right to be concerned. A recent National Education Monitoring Study of 3,000 eight-to-12-year-olds showed that 71 percent of the younger Year 4 students wanted to do more science at school, and a quarter thought they’d make good scientists. But by Year 8 only five percent thought they’d make good scientists and 37 percent actually disliked the subject. “It’s so easy for a young person to just make the wrong choices and, whoops, suddenly you’re a solo mother with your fifth child on the way. I’m not saying science is going to change all that, but I think that we need to push for more education at a younger level.”

We’re already seeing the effect of communicating science to the community. Popular television shows like Let’s Get Inventin’, CSI, MythBusters and Brainiac take science mainstream; in August, 450,000 people watched a live webcast of a squid dissection at Te Papa. “More lay people want to find out more about science, and more decisions in government are going to be science-based. There’s a general trend of an increase of interest in science in the community,” says Chee.

Making science more accessible means more local media coverage. Earlier this year, the new Science Media Centre was launched to the jiggy sounds of hip-hop group the Misfits of Science. Despite the obvious lack of Misfits fans in the audience, the centre exists to help journalists work more closely with the scientific community. “More and more decisions are made based on science,” says Chee. “People have to understand to make informed choices. A prime example would be the whole GE catastrophe. Nobody in the public understood what genetic engineering was and they all said, ‘Wow, it sounds really bad, I think we should say no.’ There was no research; you couldn’t get an informed choice from the public, because nobody knew about it. Now we’re trending towards a more science-literate society, which is great.”

A large part of communicating science is getting scientists from different disciplines to work together. The second Running Hot conference is set for October 28–31. Chee, a member of the organising committee, says the event is designed to get scientists from different disciplines together. “You don’t normally get to mix with business or CRIs,” says Chee. “You get ostrich syndrome—you’ve got your head in your research and you don’t actually realise that you’re part of a bigger picture. But it’s about how you fit into the bigger scale, and how we can learn from each other.” The insular culture has partly been created because competition for limited research dollars has created an ethos of science ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ when the kitty is opened, she says. But there’s never going to be enough money in the pot, so initiatives like the Oxygen Group are able to fight for science as a whole. “It’s a bit of a renaissance happening in science. With collaboration you create more winners, and we think it’s a better way forward.”

You’d be amazed how many people say, ‘Are you really a scientist? You don’t look like a scientist.’ And I think, ‘Oh, can we not just get past that? Have we not moved on?

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Dr Rebecca McLeod, 2008 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the year. Photograph by Sharron Bennett

No one is keener to get scientists to collaborate than Dr Rebecca McLeod. In fact, her recent ecological research, which won her the 2008 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year Award, suggests it could be vital to our ecosystem. With the help of the slimy, smelly hagfish, McLeod established that the forest ecosystem and the ocean ecosystem are connected. “It’s making people think about the wider picture,” says McLeod. “The way that the science disciplines have been structured, people haven’t really thought too much about these connections in the past. We don’t really meet up all that much, or get to share ideas … but communication is definitely starting to take off and that’s great, that’s the way we should be going.”

Like Bradoo, McLeod believes New Zealand scientists have some advantages over those working in countries where science is better funded. “It’s a great place to work in terms of the amazing diversity of the habitats that we have, and that there are still many unanswered questions. I’ve heard people doing research in the States find it difficult to find an area to study, because there are so many researchers, but here there’s a massive gap in knowledge. That makes it really exciting.”

McLeod’s MacDiarmid win put her in the spotlight, and made her aware she doesn’t fit the perception of a scientist. “You’d be amazed how many people say, ‘Are you really a scientist? You don’t look like a scientist.’ And I think, ‘Oh, can we not just get past that? Have we not moved on?’”

Thankfully, many of us have. “I think the perception of scientists as the lab rats has significantly changed,” says Bradoo. “I’m sitting here in San Francisco and most of my friends are scientists or engineers, and they work at eBay and Oracle and Yahoo. They’re part of rock bands or they own BMWs and Porsches. The sheer brilliance and the genius of people in this area, it’s paid off in such a way where they’re not just stuck in the basement of the lab. They’re living life.”

Those that lead the way

We ask New Zealand’s top scientists for their advice to up-and-comers on moving science forward in 2008
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Professor Peter Hunter

Arguably the Sir Edmund Hillary of science, Professor Hunter has brought acclaim to New Zealand bioengineering. He’s mentor to the Oxygen Group, director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute and led the International Physiome Project, which has been recognised by physiologists and bioengineers around the world. In 2006 he was elected a fellow of London’s prestigious Royal Society, the only living New Zealander among the 44 members from the Commonwealth. So where does he see New Zealand science sitting?

“Our greatest resource is our young people. One of the keys to success in science, I think, is the process of engaging and keeping a very close relationship between the undergraduate teaching, graduate research, and research in commercial outcomes. In other words, universities need to work closely with CRIs. Universities have the huge advantage of this pool of young, enthusiastic, bright people. And we’ve got to keep on figuring out how to bring those people close to exciting research and get them engaged in economic outcomes.”

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Bill Buckley

Bill Buckley is among New Zealand’s leading physics entrepreneurs and owner of Buckley Systems, one of the world’s most successful precision engineering and nuclear physics companies. The ion implanter magnets it manufactures are found in fabrication plants worldwide for producing the silicon chips used in modern computers, communication equipment, automobiles and everyday appliances. He believes, however, that commercialising science is a very different game these days—and not necessarily easier.

“When I started in business I just happened to strike a lucky time with the likes of Roger Douglas, the economy, and that was the biggest thing that helped us. But now it’s all red tape and you can’t do a damned thing without telling everybody. So I don’t know that it’s a good environment.”

Buckley acknowledges young New Zealand scientists have a strong desire to learn, but worries about the lure of bigger rewards overseas. “I haven’t given up on them, I still think they’re getting better all the time. But people are voting with their feet. A few of them are hanging around … but at the end of the day they bugger off, don’t they?”

Neville Jordan

Neville Jordan is the president of the Royal Society of New Zealand and a mentor to the Oxygen Group. He founded Marine Air Systems Technology, the only New Zealand company to ever list on the main board of the NASDAQ stock exchange. He then founded Endeavour Capital, which invests in New Zealand science and technology companies. So is New Zealand now more understanding of the business of science?

“I think more and more as a community in New Zealand we’re recognising the economic value of science and technology. Younger people are getting more exposed to the need to consider an economic impact, as much as blue sky or interest-driven research. So the advantage they’re getting here is that they are getting exposure to a real world, where they contribute to growth of an economy.”

But Jordan acknowledges there is still more to be done. “Our policy-making is not happening fast enough. There are changes in the industry and in the research, the science and technology itself. The developments there are so fast that our policy-making can’t keep up.” As an Oxygen Group mentor, he has this advice: “My message then to young scientists would be, there will be all kinds of headwinds but just don’t give up. It’s constancy of purpose, it’s stamina, it’s courage that really matters. They should know that there are many older people who are very, very supportive of them, and feel supported by others who have gone before.”