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Engender: Innovation for dairy farms

Initiative type:
Start-up (Exited)
Sector:
Agriculture & Food
Website:

Opportunity

To maintain milk production, as well as to breed the next generation of heifers, dairy cows must calve every year. Traditionally, half the progeny is male. These bobby calves, worth little on the market, are typically slaughtered within days of birth. Famers and animal genetics companies are keen to improve animal welfare and recognise that this practice is unsustainable. The best way of preventing it is to keep male calves from being conceived.

Sperm have an X (female) or Y (male) chromosome, which determines the sex of the calf. Existing methods for separating X from Y sperm are imperfect, expensive and can damage sperm, lowering fertility rates. Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of ƵProfessor Cather Simpson thought she could do better.

Lasers separate sperm using patented technique

Simpson, a laser expert and founder of the University’s , developed a method to separate sperm using photonics and microfluidics.

“We use one laser to orient sperm cells, a second to do fluorescent measurements to distinguish cells carrying X and Y chromosomes—the males are slightly less bright because the Y chromosome is slightly smaller than the X chromosome—and a third laser to separate them,” Simpson told Physics Today.

“We use one laser to orient sperm cells, a second to do fluorescent measurements to distinguish cells carrying X and Y chromosomes... and a third laser to separate them.”
Professor Cather Simpson

Engender’s method is gentler than other methods, resulting in a higher rate of sperm viability. Because the technology uses microfluidics on a chip rather than a dedicated laboratory, it's also more cost-effective.

Simpson founded Engender in 2011 with the support of UniServices and seed investment firm Pacific Channel. With Simpson as Chief Scientific Officer, the company soon developed a strong IP portfolio and attracted more investment and positive attention.

In 2016, the start-up won an AgFunder Innovation award and the Ag-Tech Sector of the World Cup Tech Challenge in Silicon Valley.

Will Charles
“It’s a great example of a company spinning out from the University, developing a product and being acquired by a larger company that stays local to keep the talent that can develop the technology.”
Will Charles,
Executive Director of Commercialisation, UniServices

Then, while Engender was undertaking a Series B funding round, it received an acquisition offer from CRV International, a multinational farmer cooperative focused on livestock genetics. The deal closed in 2018 and the original investors, including UniServices, exited, making handsome profits.

“It’s a great example of a company spinning out from the University, developing a product and being acquired by a larger company that stays local to keep the talent that can develop the technology,” says UniServices Executive Director of Commercialisation Will Charles. “It demonstrates to academics and students what’s possible.”

Performance

Engender opened a state-of-the-art research and development lab in Ƶin 2020. Having also co-founded UniServices-backed  and maintaining an academic role at the University, Simpson is no longer involved on a day-to-day basis.

“That’s as it should be,” says Charles. “The company has moved to an engineering and scale-up phase, and Cather is a physicist, not a production engineer or product manager. The technology has been transferred as fast as possible to the private sector, so as far as UniServices is concerned, we’ve done our job.”

Engender is still going strong and Simpson has been recognised for her science commercialisation successes. She won the Royal Society of New Zealand’s prestigious Pickering Medal in 2019 and was named Commercialisation Icon, the top award in the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards, in 2022.

“The company has moved to an engineering and scale-up phase... The technology has been transferred as fast as possible to the private sector, so as far as UniServices is concerned, we’ve done our job.”
Will Charles, UniServices Executive Director of Commercialisation
image across 2 cols
Professor Cather Simpson
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