Inaugural Women in STEM Commercialisation Award winner announced

December 19, 2022
Research focusing on improving successful IVF outcomes is set to receive a $50,000 investment from Pacific Channel’s Kea Fund as part of the Women in STEM Commercialisation Award. Two additional researchers were awarded $2,500 each to acknowledge their work.

When we spoke to the recipient of the 2022 Pacific Channel Women in STEM Commercialisation Award, Dr Anna Ponnampalam and asked her to describe what she does, she told us “I often tell people that I’m a period and pregnancy girl

Dr Ponnampalam, a Senior Pūtahi Manawa Fellow at Auckland University’s Department of Physiology and Obstetrics and Gynaecology, will receive a prize worth $100,000 to help commercialise her work which includes a $50,000 investment from Pacific Channel, $45,000 worth of legal, finance and communications advice from the firm and its partners, as well as $5,000 cash.

“I’m passionate about researching how to improve the health of a person who has a uterus,” said Dr Ponnampalam.

“Applying to the Women in STEM Commercialisation Award programme was wishful thinking on my part; I had no idea that my research into improving successful IVF outcomes might one day be taken out of the lab and turned into a business to help couples trying to have a baby.

“Words can’t describe how I felt when I received the news telling me I was this year’s recipient. For me, this means there’s a possibility that my research findings could help thousands of couples globally improve their chance of having a baby through IVF.

Dr Anna Ponnampalam, 2022 Pacific Channel Women in STEM Commercialisation Award recipient

“Infertility is a very common problem, and while IVF represents the best chance for these couples to have a baby, a staggering 70% of embryos fail to implant into the inner lining of the uterus, called the endometrium. Up to 50% of this failure could be caused by the endometrium not being adequately receptive.

“I’m investigating why and what can be done to improve the chances the endometrium is ready to receive a baby,” said Dr Ponnampalam.

She adds “Being a researcher is incredibly rewarding. But what I’ve realised is that commercialisation can help the research findings reach people in the wider society and commercialisation requires an entirely different skill set and knowledge base than what scientists like me tend to have.”

Insights from Pacific Channel

Pacific Channel Senior Associate, Emerald Scofield. uses the word ‘inspiring’ to describe all the applicants.

“The judging panel, including Dr Ashwath Sundaresun, Prof Cather Simpson and myself, were very impressed with every application. Pleasingly, we had submissions from right around the country, from researchers and academics at completely different stages of their careers.  As judges, we all struggled to narrow down the applicants because all the researchers demonstrated a passion for being impactful with what they do.

“Dr Ponnampalam was engaging and really open to feedback. From a venture capital perspective, these attributes are vital to achieving a successful commercialisation journey.

“Not only did she have an idea, but a vision of what a product using her ideas could be. She was also candid about what she knew and what she didn’t. She wants to solve a problem and wants the right people around her to help make the solution simple and accessible.  

“Interestingly, we saw through the applications different approaches to solving existing problems and societal problems that are completely under-researched.

“IVF, for example, which is the area of Dr Ponnampalam’s research, doesn’t get anywhere near enough funding – both from a research and venture capital viewpoint,” said Emerald.

According to Dr Ponnampalam, compared to what we know about men, female health tends to be under-researched.

“Female health has always been under-researched; we simply don’t know enough about their bodies. Take endometriosis, for example; it can take up to 10 years or longer to be diagnosed. There is relatively low awareness, and often, people think those who complain about pelvic pain are overreacting.

“Evidence indicates that males are more likely to be believed and treated as opposed to females when presented with similar pain symptoms, for example. There’s so much work to do to overcome this unconscious bias,” said Dr Ponnampalam.

Encouraging more females to commercialise their research:

Emerald adds “Our goal with this award is to encourage more women to enter the commercialisation space. By providing them access to the right people, the right support and the right skills and networks, we’re helping shape the next generation of founders and bringing more diversity to the development of research.  

“Our two runner-up recipients were equally deserving. Dr Lee Tejada from Victoria University of Wellington is researching enzymes to use in carrying out a test for the winemaking process in the field to eliminate the need for winemakers to send samples off to a lab will make winemaking more efficient.  University of Otago’s Dr Rachel Purcell is researching microbiomes and how they can improve outcomes for people diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

“We know turning science into a business is not easy. As specialists in deep-tech, we offer the expertise to help shape and build a business around a technology. It can be a thrilling journey, and if successful, it can be hugely impactful on the future of our people and planet."

Dr Sundaresan summarises the award programme by saying, “As a deep-tech venture capital fund, it’s our responsibility to help promote commercialisation. The venture capital and deep-tech commercialisation space has reached an exciting stage where there’s a definite recognition of the benefits of female-founded/led companies and the diversity of thought.

“Deep-tech start-ups solve global problems but if you’ve got an all-male team trying to solve the problem, you’re missing 49.6% of women and how the product or end result will impact them.

“We’d like to thank our partners, VCFO, Joyce and Howse Consulting, and MinterEllisonRuddWatts, for their support with this award programme. Together we can all make a difference to the world we live in,” said Dr Sundaresan.