How university research is improving gut health: a commercialisation success story

Published: 
2 May 2017

Determined to show a risk-averse industry the potential of new microgel technology, Progel CEO and Director of Commercial Engagement at Uniquest, Cameron Turner, explains how his team developed a probiotic drink unlike any other.

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Cameron Turner (centre) with Dr Lai Tran and Dr Su Hung Ching, co developers of PERKii

 

PERKii is the world’s first non-fermented, low calorie, enhanced water-drink, which keeps one billion live probiotics per bottle alive for three months. PERKii has the potential to help consumers control weight, improve gut health and boost immunity. The probiotics are delivered using tiny natural beads (microgels) which ensure the bacteria survive long enough to make it to the digestive system and do their work.

Progel’s microgel technology is based on a patented process developed by Professor Bhesh Bhandari from The University of Queensland. He was able to create the natural microgel capsules out of alginate, which comes from seaweed.

Microgels capture probiotic bacteria, omega-3 oils, pharmaceutical compounds and other substances in much smaller capsules than other technology – and, importantly, in capsules that could be manufactured at scale in continuous production.

Professor Bhandari first made the invention in 2005 and developed a commercialisation plan in 2006, under the guidance of Cameron Turner in his role at Uniquest.

‘We knew what the technology could do and that it had the potential to create significant disruption across multiple sectors, from the food industry to animal health and pharmaceuticals,’ Cameron explains.

‘We needed to figure out where we could add the most value and develop an execution plan which validated that.’

Progel’s initial business plan was to license its technology to a large beverage manufacturer. However, after spending years talking to established companies and developing ideas for a number of potential products, Cameron found that companies didn’t want to take on the risk of a new product. They wanted someone else to prove it worked first.  

‘Established companies are interested in solving existing problems with existing products.’ Cameron says.

‘Getting them to take on new technology that solves a problem they don’t have is near impossible. We created a world-first probiotic drink and while they could see the technology was breakthrough they weren’t interested.’

Cameron believes there is a common reason why research discoveries don’t get commercialised:

‘The world is only interested in ideas and technology when they equate to products and sales. The ability to execute and create value is a very important lesson’.

When Progel decided it would have to take a finished product directly to market, they created PERKii Pty Ltd. They also received trade mark protection for their brand.

‘The evidence suggests that big companies will always be disrupted by innovative start-ups like PERKii’, Cameron says.

‘Taking technology to market in a dedicated start-up with a single focus of commercialising a particular technology can be much more effective than licensing.’

Cameron says that this has been the most challenging part of the commercialisation journey so far: ‘We spent five years trying to licence the technology and in the end we’re taking the finished product to market ourselves, it’s much riskier’, but he believes it’s worth it.

‘If you have something transformational, you have to take it to market yourself.’

In Australia, PERKii has been launched nationally in Woolworths petrol stations and at a number of cafes and restaurants around the country.

With patents already granted in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and the United States, the company is now in the process of filing with the European Union and looking to take PERKii into China and the USA.

Cameron has some words of wisdom to those working in research commercialisation:

‘It’s important to help the researcher get things as advanced as they can possibly be, otherwise it’s very hard to get a company to licence the technology and understand its applications.’

He also says that once the research is complete or a discovery is made, it’s just the beginning.

‘It’s naive to think that research is an end in itself. It’s really the end of the beginning, and when the real challenge begins’. 

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