An iron-clad opportunity

Viclink startup and nanotechnology specialist Boutiq Science recently formalised its partnership with the University of South Australia (UniSA) by creating a new company, Ferronova.


The business will focus on commercialising their joint technology—an ultrasensitive magnetic probe, developed by UniSA’s Professor Benjamin Thierry and Dr Aidan Cousins, which works in conjunction with Boutiq’s iron core nanoparticle tracers to enable surgeons to detect the spread of cancer throughout the body.


The package provides a powerful solution to a very real healthcare problem, with an estimated market in excess of USD$450 million.


“The magnetic nanoparticles are injected into patients, and then traced by the handheld magnetic probe, enabling surgeons to accurately pinpoint the physical location of a tumour,” says Viclink’s General Manager of Commercialisation, Anne Barnett. “Surgery is more precise and targeted as a result, which means that less healthy tissue is removed and trauma to the patient is significantly reduced.“


The nanoparticle technology was pioneered by Boutiq’s Professor Richard Tilley and Dr Anna Henning, researchers whose novel synthesis for the unique iron-iron oxide core-shell nanoparticles gives them high-value properties, such as a stronger magnetic signal than traditional tracers, which leads to more accurate diagnosis, staging and treatment of cancer patients.


“We knew there was promise for our low-toxicity nanoparticles to be used in biomedical applications,” says Richard, who used to work for Victoria University, “but we also knew we only had half the solution.” He says that after meeting Benjamin at a seminar, and discovering that the Australian scientist was working on the development of a probe, the two decided to combine their technologies to create an entire medical solution package. Benjamin and Aidan worked in conjunction with clinicians in Adelaide to closely link the new technology to end users and ensure the resulting product would meet real-world needs.


“For me, it’s not enough to simply develop the most fantastic materials in a lab,” says Richard. “If you don’t get your research out into the world, it’s like an opera singer singing to an empty room – a bit pointless and no benefit to anyone! Commercialisation is a great way to get cool science out into the world where it can really help others.”


Richard says that Viclink has been invaluable at helping them through the commercialisation process – both for Boutiq and Ferronova.


“They supported our vision for Boutiq from the start—we simply could not have started without them,” says Richard. “And they continued to support us which was vital, because at any point in the chain, if the money stops, the research dies. Throughout the process, Viclink helped us to get grants from MBIE, funding from KiwiNet, and now investment for Ferronova from Powerhouse Ventures Limited.”


So what’s next for Ferronova? “We are looking forward to rapidly progressing the technology through the development and regulatory process and getting the system into the hands of clinicians for trial with patients in 2017.”


Although Richard is now based in Australia, working for the University of New South Wales—“I wanted to be closer to the end-users of Boutiq’s products”—he is still Chief Scientific Director at Boutiq and a science advisor to Ferronova. 


He says his proudest achievement to date is the fact that: “We’re bucking the trend by creating high level jobs in Wellington for University graduates—Boutiq has just employed two post-docs and, as we continue to grow the company, we hope to employ more!”