When Sean Bisset left New Zealand in 2019, he didn’t expect to return a few years later to a transformed biotech industry. He had headed offshore to Europe to find greener pastures following his PhD but, in the end, Palmerston North was able to offer Bisset what he’d been looking for all along.
“Aside from university roles and working for big companies like Fonterra, there didn’t seem to be a lot of opportunities in the space I was interested in, which was something more niche – like a startup.
“I thought it was interesting that when I was overseas, so many people were like ‘why did you leave New Zealand?’ It was somewhere a lot of scientists wanted to move to, as it is known as a very friendly, quite exotic place.”
So, when he returned home, he was more than happy to find the perfect position for him at Nanophage Technologies, where had worked part-time as an honours student while studying at Massey University.
“To already have a history with this technology was ideal, and I remembered how much I enjoyed working with Jasna Rakonjac [president and chief scientific officer] on the Nanophage application.
“And now I have come full circle, securing the role of COO. It is exciting to see how much the technology has progressed, moving from a research project to an actual business and product that we are getting ready for market. It was this opportunity which has made me realise this is where I want to focus my career, on bringing scientific research to life.”
But despite Bisset, Rakonjac and their team achieving something most people wouldn’t even be able to comprehend – creating functionalised biological nanorods that are a million times smaller than a dot – some of their hardest work is yet to come: getting ready for another round of capital raising.
“It really is such a mind shift moving from the academic side of things, where you’re in a lab, to then planning how the future of the company looks. Things like team structure, expertise, production, further research and development, new roles we will need – the list goes on. And of course we need the financial backing to be able to do all of that.”
Thankfully, Nanophage had financial seeding and startup support from Callaghan Innovation and Bridgewest, which included new-to-business workshops for founders to various research grants. Bisset says he is extremely grateful for the help to understand what it takes to commercialise an organisation that began life in a lab.
“There are so many different grants available out there, but speaking as a scientist, it wasn’t something I had really considered before – getting money to do research. And so it was about becoming aware of the resources available outside of the academic structure.
“Applying for those forces you to think about what you need to grow, and how to find and capture the markets you need to take the business to the next stage.”
Nanophage’s participation in the Callaghan Innovation Tech Incubator Programme has also provided access to other resources that have proved invaluable to growth and development.
“From databases of markets and business opportunities, to other reports and tools – allowing us the use of these for free is massively helpful. Without them, we’d either have to spend thousands of dollars to buy them, or resort to Googling and hoping for the best,” says Bisset.
However, despite many things going in Nanophage’s favour, there have been a number of roadblocks on the journey. Bisset is philosophical about them now, appreciating the opportunity to reflect on how far the company and the industry have come.
“There are probably two main things, from my own experience, that I’ve seen can hamper growth. The first is our geographical location. If you have to order anything a bit unusual, it can take a long time for them to get here. And this can certainly slow things if you are in the middle of production.
“The second thing is the current lack of developed facilities for those in the biotech industry. Thankfully, this landscape is starting to change now, but when we were early in the startup phase and planning to leave the university, there weren’t a lot of options around for us to set up and become more self-sufficient, independent from the university.
“A few research hubs have popped up over the last year or two, but I’d personally like to see more of them right around New Zealand.”
But Bisset sees many positives about New Zealand’s emerging biotechnology scene, especially in regards to how quickly the industry has grown over the past three to five years.
“New Zealand has a great name internationally, and I think we are doing well with attracting new talent here. We also have some incredible scientists starting companies, and investment from the government is certainly helping with this.
“There are some fantastic careers available out there and I want more students at university to know that they don’t have to go overseas. There are interesting jobs right here.”
Bisset’s main goal now is to secure funding to enable the team to get their product in the hands of other researchers who will be able to use Nanophage’s technology for a wide range of applications, from imaging to diagnostics.
He is hoping that they are only six months away for those in the life sciences research market, which will provide researchers with a more cost-effective and sensitive range of molecular tools, allowing other scientists to collect more detailed data.
Then they are poised to transform portable and self-diagnostic testing, which will offer more sensitive and powerful tools for clinical diagnostics.
“This particular development is truly unique to us. I’m really keen to talk to investors and potential customers about our technology and what it could mean for the future of biomedical diagnostics, not only in New Zealand but the rest of the world.”
Story by Erin Harrison