Light force

Development, f3, Research — By on October 12, 2016 2:31 pm

Cather Simpson speaks with Margo White about the excitement of her life in science and how it connects with the world of business.

“I have a passion for sperm” is the way Associate Professor Cather Simpson often prefaces her presentations on her novel bovine sperm-sorting technology.

“When I was first learning to talk to the business community, everyone told me, ‘show your passion!’ Well, we work with sperm – and when I start with ‘I can’t believe I’m up here saying this, but I have a passion for sperm,’ that certainly captures the interest of potential investors.”

She laughs. “Then it’s easier to convince them our technology is game-changing, and worth investing in.”

Cather is an associate professor for the School of Chemical Sciences and the Department of Physics, and directs the Photon Factory, a high-tech laser spectroscopy and micro-machining facility at the University of Auckland.

She’s also the founding scientist of Engender Technologies, a spin-off company commercialising a process she and her team have developed, which uses proprietary microfluidic and photonic technology to separate female (X) and male (Y) bearing sperm cells.

It’s been quite a year for Cather and co. In June, she won the BNZ Supreme Award at the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards, and the Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award.

In the same month, she won the AgTech sector of the annual World Cup Tech Challenge in Silicon Valley. This year she was also named a “Primary Industries Champion” by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and found it “quite a nice surprise to find myself in a video with Richie McCaw on the MPI YouTube channel!”

Engender was the only New Zealand company to make the finals at the World Cup Tech Challenge in a competition attracting 150 innovative tech startups from 30 countries.

Says Cather, when asked what might have made a New Zealand company stand out against the international competition: “I think there is something compelling about how earthy and practical it is. “People in Silicon Valley tend to think about artificial insemination in terms of couples trying to get pregnant rather than as a 1.5 billion dollar industry for dairy.

And that’s just including the OECD countries. If you start talking about India and China, the growth potential is really exciting. India has 45 million cattle, but it takes three Indian cattle to produce as much milk as one New Zealand cow, and that’s because of the genetic gain that has come from artificial insemination in the developed world. We’re also talking about the greater good – reducing environmental impact by allowing farmers to breed for more productive dairy herds with fewer cows.”

The origin of Engender goes back to a meeting Cather had with a dairy investor, who outlined five problems facing the industry. One was the cost and inefficiency of current sperm-sorting techniques. Cather gave her students 24 hours to come up with possible solutions. “They came up with six,” she says. “Four were old wives’ tales, a couple had legs, and one we worked with – that’s now the idea that underpins Engender.”

Engender technology uses light to sort the X-bearing cells from the Y-bearing ones, in a process less expensive than existing sperm-sorting technology.

Crucially, it is less damaging to the sperm. The current approach stresses the cells during the sorting process, which means the insemination failure rate is higher than it should be.

“Farmers might go through two or three cycles before getting a cow in calf which, in New Zealand, is a big economic hit. Our dairy is seasonal, so if your cow doesn’t come into calf early enough you’ve missed out on a lot of the milking cycle.” Shifting and sorting the sperm cells around with light, or more specifically, the force of light, is a far gentler approach. “The cells are put onto a microfluidic chip. We use light to orient the cells, as they’re disc shaped. A different laser is used to measure whether each cell carries an X- or Y- chromosome. Finally, we use a third beam to nudge the cells into the separate output channels.”

Cather could be described as an ambassador for photonics, that is, the creation and control of light. Last year she co-chaired the NZ Committee for the International Year of Light, which highlighted the potential of light-based technologies to provide solutions to global problems in energy, education, agriculture and health. Photonics, says Cather, are changing the twenty-first century as electronics changed the last century, and underpin many twenty-first century technologies such as smartphones, laptops, the internet and so on.

Understanding light, or how to generate and control particles of light, means thinking about what most of us don’t see and can’t begin to imagine. “I don’t know if it’s an intrinsic personality, hard-wired kind of thing, but I am obsessed with how behaviour in the microscopic world leads to the everyday things we see in our macroscopic world,” says Cather.

“To study these things, we use laser pulses that have the same timescale as the motions of atoms in molecules and materials. The haemoglobin in your blood absorbs light and turns it into heat in 50 millionths of a billionth of a second, and that lets you go in the sunlight and not ‘cook’. The light that hits the back of my eye is converted to mechanical motion in 700 millionths of a billionth of a second and that allows me to see. I think it’s the coolest and most fabulous thing in the world.”

Cather and her team seem poised to have a broad impact on the dairy industry. She is also co-founding scientist and director of Orbis Diagnostics, a recently established start-up based on technology she co-developed with Professor David Williams from Chemical Sciences. By measuring the vibrational spectrum of milk, the technology collects information on its protein and fat content and has the potential to assess the cow’s nutritional status and if she is pregnant or has mastitis. This aims to increase New Zealand dairy productivity and herd health at the farm-by-farm level. Orbis is drilling down to the ‘point of cow’ diagnostics,” says Cather.

Cather explains her research to Vice-Minister Jun Han who visited the University in August. Chinese Consul General Ms Erwen XU is to their left. Photo Godfrey Boehnke.

Cather explains her research to Vice-Minister Jun Han who visited the University in August. Chinese Consul General Ms Erwen XU is to their left. Photo Godfrey Boehnke.

Cather is comfortable straddling the commercial and academic sectors, combining fundamental and applied science. It’s a pragmatic approach. “The equipment I use to do my fundamental research, which I still do a lot of, is very expensive. I need to support that equipment and in New Zealand you can’t do that with just fundamental research.” But it took some getting used to.

“Before I moved to New Zealand, I had never done a single bit of applied science. I’d never considered it. I’d never spoken to an industry representative, let alone imagined having a spinoff company. Never. It took three years before I was able to see that as an opportunity, and something that I found enjoyable and rewarding.”

“I think the main reason we’re succeeding is that we’re doing a lot of fundamental research underneath the applied stuff. Engender has succeeded not because we’re sperm scientists or artificial insemination scientists, but because we have considerable expertise on the interaction of light with matter. We hadn’t done cell research in the Photon Factory before, but we looked at the problem and thought, they’re basically just particles, right? So we need to make sure New Zealand is not just focusing on applied research, but building expertise underneath that – in the fundamental areas – so that our innovation is sustainable.” Could she be tempted to work in industry full-time, given the pay is likely to be better, the hours shorter?

“No, although I get asked that question more and more because we’re doing well in that industry-facing space. I’m in the university because I value very highly the opportunity to help students achieve their goals. The biggest impact I can have as a scientist, as a person, is on the 1,000-plus students that I teach each year. At that rate, I’ll have taught one percent of the New Zealand population by the time I retire! Most of those students aren’t going to be scientists … but they’re going to be people who need to make smart decisions that are based on good science, critical thinking … Add that to what we’re doing in the Photon Factory, and I can’t imagine anything better.

“We’re training the next generation of high-tech, creative innovators and spinning off the companies to create the jobs for them in New Zealand. “The reward in that is every bit as exciting as the potential commercial success for Engender.”

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