University excels in research grants round

Victoria University of Wellington has confirmed its place in the front row of research, with more projects supported than any of the 20-plus other institutions in the 2018 round of New Zealand's largest contestable research fund.

Eleven Victoria University of Wellington-led projects—a sixth of the total funded—have received more than $34 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Endeavour Fund.

Priority next-generation computers that use superconductor technology to make a quantum leap in operating speed and data storage are a step closer as a result of one of the awards, for nearly $6 million, to a team led by Associate Professor Ben Ruck in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences.

The University’s other projects include:

  • A magnetic sensor to test non-invasively the integrity of infrastructure such as electricity networks, pipelines and buildings (for example, after an earthquake)
  • Technology that uses solar-generated steam to purify water for drinking
  • Handheld biosensors for winemakers to monitor grape and wine quality
  • Fungal ‘factories’ to produce bioactive compounds initially targeting a new insecticide for farmers and later potentially to tackle cancers and viruses

Professor Margaret Hyland, Vice-Provost (Research), says MBIE’s support for the 11 projects acknowledges the quality, innovation and impact of science and technology at New Zealand’s number one-ranked university for research excellence.

“To have received funding for more projects than any other New Zealand university or other institution confirms Victoria University of Wellington’s place in the front row of research,” says Professor Hyland.

“As a global-civic capital city university, we are committed to improving social, economic and environmental wellbeing. The funding we have received today will enable our researchers to further their ground-breaking contributions to such embedded University strengths as ‘Stimulating a design-led, high-value manufacturing region’, ‘Spearheading our digital futures’, ‘Improving health and wellbeing in our communities’, and ‘Enhancing the resilience and sustainability of our natural heritage and capital’.”

Associate Professor Ruck and his team have been global pioneers in exploring the “remarkable physics” and superconducting potential of the rare-earth nitrides (RENs) driving their project.

Other superconducting technology has been able to speed up niche applications, but only RENs can satisfy the high-speed and low-temperature needs of large-scale data storage and processing centres, says Associate Professor Ruck.

“The power requirements, and resulting need for cooling, in large-scale computing and data storage centres are becoming unmanageable, with energy consumption already approaching five percent of global use,” he says. “Improvements in present technology cannot keep pace with the increasing demands, so it is accepted that disruptive breakthroughs are essential.”

Seven of the University’s Endeavour-funded projects are in the Smart Ideas category, which aims to catalyse and test promising, innovative research.

The other four—including that of Associate Professor Ruck and his team—are in the more ambitious Research Programmes category.

Associate Professor Nick Long, Director of the University’s Robinson Research Institute, and Dr John Kennedy from GNS Science are co-leading a team that has received $4.8 million to develop a sensor to test infrastructure.

“Keeping refineries and pipelines operational is critical to the economy,” says Associate Professor Long. “Our sensors will identify corrosion to protect more than $10 billion of assets. They will allow electricity distribution companies to avoid unnecessary replacement costs. They will help protect civil infrastructure worth $350 billion.”

Professor Emily Parker from Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute is leading a team that has received more than $8.8 million to use their own unique synthetic biology platform to manufacture complex natural products and novel structural variants that target animal health, crop protection and pharmaceutical applications.

Professor Peter Tyler, also from the Ferrier Research Institute, is leading a team that has received more than $7.3 million to pursue an accelerated drug discovery process that would significantly enhance New Zealand’s flourishing biotechnology sector.

In the Smart Ideas category, Associate Professor Wayne Patrick, who joined the School of Biological Sciences from the University of Otago earlier this year, is leading two teams, each awarded $1 million.

One project is to develop mobile sensors that make it cheaper, faster and easier for winemakers to monitor biomolecules in grapes and in wine during fermentation. The other is to develop a new sequencing method to realise the biomarker and other potential of microRNAs—molecules that regulate a third of all genes in the human genome and whose dysregulation is associated with more than 100 diseases.

Dr Gerald Smith from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences is leading a team that has received $1 million to develop a solar-powered water purification system to help the almost one billion people globally without access to clean drinking water and to ensure supplies after earthquakes and other emergencies.

Dr Olga Zubkova from the Ferrier Research Institute is leading a team that has received $1 million to develop a safe three-dimensional sugar-based drug to inhibit the enzyme heparanase, a key factor in the metastasis of breast cancer.

Professor Anne La Flamme from the School of Biological Sciences and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, which is based at the University, is leading a team with Dr Bronwyn Kivell from the same school and has received $1 million to develop ways to repair cells in the central nervous system damaged through multiple sclerosis.

Associate Professor Mattie Timmer and Associate Professor Bridget Stocker from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences are leading a team that has received nearly $1 million to develop adjuvants to incorporate into existing and new vaccines to protect livestock and pets against a range of diseases.

Dr Dan Sinclair from the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences is leading a team that has received more than $985,000 to reconstruct baseline ocean data using long-lived deep sea corals to improve ecosystem management and assess climate change impact.

Most research teams involve external collaborators, including other New Zealand universities and such international and national partners as the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the United States, the Institute of Medical Biology, A*Star, Singapore, Australian National University, Osaka University in Japan, and DNA technology company ZyGEM.