Research hits the mark

The commercial impact university research can have is powerfully illustrated by the fruits of an idea that traces its roots back to a conversation at Victoria between two of New Zealand’s most respected scientists.

Magritek, a fast-growing Wellington-based high-value manufacturing company, was founded in 2004 by a team led by the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, which was determined to deliver returns to New Zealand from its science.

The establishment of the company has its seeds in a conversation from 2001 between Sir Paul, who had taken up a position at Victoria to progress the pioneering work in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy he had been doing at Massey University, and Victoria alumnus Alan MacDiarmid, who had won a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his discoveries around plastics that conduct electricity.

Sir Paul led a successful bid to establish a centre of research excellence based at Victoria which would focus on high-quality research in materials science and nanotechnology. Alan agreed to give his name to what became known as the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Magritek, a joint spin-out company of Victoria and Massey Universities, was the vehicle for commercialising the world-class science Sir Paul’s team was doing and delivering benefit to the New Zealand economy.

“Magritek has been a brilliant success,” says Ian McIntosh, associate director research development at Victoria. “Prior to it being established, New Zealand had no high-value manufacturing business in NMR. Now we do.”

Magritek sells globally, has doubled revenue in each of the last two years, has operations in the United States, Germany and New Zealand and has distributors around the world. It is enjoying strong sales for its product ‘Spinsolve’, a benchtop scanner that uses NMR technology to identify and quantify the chemicals in a liquid sample.

Dr Robin Dykstra, a co-founder of Magritek and the company’s chief technology officer, says Magritek and Victoria have had a good partnership from day one.

“As we get bigger the university involvement gets smaller. It’s like a child growing up, becoming independent and leaving home. But we still have that heritage and recognise that there’s no way we could have started without the universities, which took a punt to get Magritek going.

“In the early days Victoria University resources were really important to us—not just the money but also access to equipment and services.”

In addition, says Magritek CEO Andrew Coy, a former student of Sir Paul’s, Magritek has continued to use intellectual property (IP) created at Victoria and “has employed a steady stream of graduates from Massey and Victoria”.

Robin Dykstra says government funding for science research has also been crucial to Magritek’s success.

“That’s what helped create the skill set in the first place and it has continued to help with intellectual property development and building supporting infrastructure. Although we are less dependent on it now, it still supports high-risk scientific research that we wouldn’t do at Magritek.

“We give full credit,” says Ian McIntosh, “to public funding for supporting the development of the outstanding skill base that Magritek is founded on. This is why it is so important to maintain a well-functioning science funding system.

“We must support the areas where New Zealand is world-class. We know for sure you will never establish a successful start-up based on average science.”

Watch Andrew Coy reflect on the team that founded Magritek winning the 2010 Prime Minister’s Science Prize.