New Zealand’s 2023 research “commercialisation icon” found his niche after helping deal with the United Kingdom’s foot and mouth disease outbreak more than 20 years ago.
A veterinarian by profession, Duncan Mackintosh won the supreme prize at the annual KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards on September 28 for his role as New Zealand senior investment manager with Brandon Capital Partners.
The Melbourne-headquartered life sciences venture capital company started in 2007 and has now grown to A$800 million ($858.3m) in funds under management.
KiwiNet’s Commercialisation Icon Award is made to the person judged to have made an outstanding impact in advancing the commercialisation of publicly funded research in NZ.
KiwiNet is a consortium bringing together the commercialisation arms of universities, Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) and several independent research institutes. Along with the supreme award, there were winners in six categories.
“I think that the key aspect of KiwiNet and the awards, in particular, is really just shining a spotlight on commercialisation of research and the impact that it can have,” Mackintosh said.
Mackintosh is based in Hamilton and was CEO of WaikatoLink, the University of Waikato’s commercialisation arm, before moving to Brandon Capital in 2016. The company describes itself as Australasia’s leading life science venture capital firm, which aims to transform medical research breakthroughs into therapies.
“I guess our gig is, how do we help those opportunities reach patients?”
Around 75% of Brandon’s investments were in seed capital to create companies out of research, he said. It generally stayed with companies for the long haul before exiting its position, he said.
A typical example was Spinifex, a company developing a drug for neuropathic pain, which Brandon Capital and other investors sold a few years ago to Novartis. Novartis paid US$200m ($337.1m) upfront for Spinifex back in 2015.
Unfortunately for Novartis, things didn’t turn out as hoped.
“This is the challenge with drug development. Subsequently, they found an issue with the development programme, and they ended up stopping development,” Mackintosh said.
In 2001, Mackintosh took a leadership role in the UK’s foot and mouth disease outbreak, which indirectly put him on the path to a career in research commercialisation.
“On the one hand, it was this incredible experience. There would have been 150 veterinarians from all around the world working to try and solve this problem.”
But it was also soul-destroying, and he would hate to see it happen in NZ, he said.
“The impact on people and animals, on the economy was just phenomenal.”
During a phone call to his parents back home, Mackintosh’s father suggested a career in biotech: “He said, ‘I don’t quite understand it, but it sounds to me like an area that when you come home from the UK, you might want to look into’.”
He did. Mackintosh got in touch with NZ companies and said he’d love to be involved in the interface between science and business.
“Every one of them took my meeting. These are CEOs of companies like Dexcel, which is now DairyNZ, gave me their time.”
“There’s not many countries where you could reach out to 20 people and get a meeting, and I think that hasn’t changed in NZ. I think that’s an opportunity for us as a nation, that connectivity and in generosity of giving.”
Since returning from the UK, Mackintosh had seen NZ become much better at commercialising research, but it still had a long way to go.
“I think we have fabulous world-class research. The big challenge is how do we turn that research into opportunities?”
A good example of that was the CUREator programme, which was Australia’s national biotech incubator, he said. It was set up in 2021 by Brandon BioCatalyst, which is itself managed by Brandon Capital.
There certainly needed to be more spending on the initial research, and NZ was far behind other countries, such as Israel, which spent 4.8% of GDP on research and development, Mackintosh said.
But the transition phase leading to commercialisation needs more government help, and Mackintosh isn’t afraid to use a phrase that is anathema to some.
“I do think we could pick more winners … and really start to double down on those areas, and make sure that we’re actually providing enough resource that they really do have a chance of succeeding or failing.”