Menixis isn’t a normal university spinout. Instead of the university leading the charge into the commercial world after one of its researchers discovered the latest big thing, in Menixis’ case the University of Otago was last to the party.
In fact, Colin Dawson, chief executive of the University of Otago’s commercialisation arm Otago Innovation, was only invited to join the fun three years after the diagnostic startup’s co-founders — Stephen Sowerby, director of Otago’s applied science programme, and Greg Mirams, founder of animal parasite diagnostics company Techion — started work on the idea.
But this roundabout way of developing and commercialising university technology has probably created one of the most exciting ventures the university’s ever been involved in, says Dawson, because Menixis’ birth was driven by real industry need, not just academic curiosity. “Ideally, that’s the way it should always happen. Unfortunately it rarely does.”
Menixis' conception was unusual because Sowerby wasn’t working at the university when he was introduced to Mirams by a mutual friend who knew about Sowerby’s background in nanotechnology research and Mirams' desire to change his business. Also, Sowerby wasn’t a pure academic. He'd just sold out of the first company he co-founded, Australo (now Izon Science), which develops and sells tools for nanoscale particle analysis.
Sowerby took a more traditional route in his first foray into business, trying to find a solution to a problem that didn't yet exist. He was determined to do it the other way around in his next venture.
"I’d realised the approach I’d been using in science was arse about face, in that I had been trying to innovate a solution for a problem I wasn’t yet aware of.
But if you’re an academic you don’t really get taught that, so I learned the hard way.” Mirams had been toying with a problem he’d had for a while. Techion’s main, market leading product — the Fecpak — is a diagnostics kit for farmers to test the type and level of parasitic infection in their animals and therefore when and what to drench with.
But the kit relies on a farmer’s ability to use a microscope; scan a slide effectively, and accurately find, identify and count the parasitic eggs in their animals’ faecal samples. Then they have to keep accurate records of their findings to build up knowledge about the parasitic infections and the effectiveness of treatments.
Unsurprisingly, many farmers seek alternatives, either the costly (and less animal and environment-friendly) method of preventative drenching, or the more time consuming, but easier route of sending poo samples to Mirams to analyse.
Currently parasites cost the New Zealand farming industry more than $700 million a year, with the drenching industry netting over $120 million a year.
With rising concerns about chemicals in our food and increasing disease resistance, farmers must get smarter about managing parasites, says Mirams — and the only way to do that is to improve parasite detection and management.
To do this, Mirams needed a tool to allow farmers to easily take samples in the field and send them to Techion.
There they could be analysed and logged to build up a picture of a farm’s disease cycles, and a treatment recommendation sent back quickly.
The goal was to find a way to collect all the parasitic eggs in the faecal sample in one field of view, which could be photographed and sent electronically to Techion for analysis. But how do you get all the faecal eggs into one view?
Within weeks of their introduction, Sowerby was immersed in Mirams’ business.
Mirams even trained him as a diagnostics technician so he could truly understand life at the coalface.
Funding the initial work themselves, Sowerby later received research funding from the university after talking to Peter Fennessy, then chair of the applied science programme and now independent chair of Menixis. Soon after, Sowerby accepted the part time post of director of the programme, allowing him to move his investigations into the university.
A couple of years and seven failed attempts later, Sowerby cracked it. In November last year Menixis was born, with all three parties taking equal shares.
Mirams and Sowerby say the university's involvement was always a vital part of their business plan. “It gives us huge kudos, both in the science world and in the commercial world because we can truly hang our hat on the science behind this,” says Mirams.
To begin with Menixis will licence its technology to Techion, which will sell it here and internationally.
“We didn’t want to build a technology business; we wanted to be really smart about our route to market and our sales model,” says Mirams. “The Menixis technology is an enabling technology; it enables me to change the way I sell the Fecpak. Techion’s been in this business for 20 years, we’ve got the market. Menixis doesn’t need to build up big teams of salespeople.”
The technology also needed its own business because there are other uses for it, such as pollen analysis in the honey, petrochemical and even forensic evidence industries, and in human parasitology diagnostics, says Mirams.
“It’s really exciting because [Menixis' technology] takes the onus of technical complexity away from the person doing the test ... it’s a real game changer,” says Sowerby.
Menixis is the final stages of raising $300,000 from New Zealand’s angel investor network to complete the tooling and moulding Techion needs to turn its technology into a commercial product — and hire a managing director who can start getting to grips with alternative markets. Mirams expects reasonable revenues to start rolling into Menixis from Techion in the next 12 months.
Dawson hopes Menixis’ success will encourage other Kiwi businesses to tap the knowledge of the researchers around them. “It’s really refreshing to be connected to the end user. That’s the great thing about working with Greg and Techion — you can get feedback. Scientists learn so much by working at the coalface; by having external relationships. If they just stay inside the university they don’t really know what the industry issues are.”