Smart ideas receive $24m in research funding

Success for research teams across the University in country's largest contestable funding round.

Wireless powered transport, compounds to tackle plant pathogens including kauri dieback and new imaging technology to investigate ancient Māori artefacts are some of the successful University of Auckland research projects awarded funding in the country’s largest contestable research fund.

Twelve research teams from the University were awarded a total of $24m from the 2021 Endeavour Fund round, announced yesterday, including $13.5m for a major wireless transport infrastructure research programme from the Faculty of Engineering. Smart Ideas funding aims to allow research to rapidly test promising and innovative research with a high potential to benefit New Zealand. In total, $244m was awarded to 69 new research projects nationwide.

The research projects are:

Wirelessly Powered Transport Infrastructure for a Low-carbon Future
The biggest single barrier to uptake of electric vehicles is wirelessly charging their batteries – safely, simply, and fast. But there is no technology yet invented that can deliver sufficient charge to heavy vehicles without limiting payload or range. Despite the advice of the Climate Change Commission that we need to switch much of the freight fleet to electricity by 2035, it is unclear how this can happen. This research will develop the necessary technology to wirelessly power the full range of vehicles on the move, and to deliver very high power quickly to heavy vehicles at off-road locations – without imposing impossible loads on the electricity grid.

Piecing together our past: developing technology and skills to reconstruct broken cultural artefacts
This project will integrate the specialised knowledge of archaeologists and a new imaging technology to tell us the shape and composition of stone artefacts, rapidly and accurately, matching the pattern against a large database of previously identified objects. The technology will mean we can quickly identify the stores of artefacts in museums and collections and draw on this knowledge to enrich the place of tāngata whenua in New Zealand history.

Sequentially knock out Phytophthora life stages: An effective solution to protect plants
This research will produce new compounds to tackle plant diseases caused by virulent plant pathogens, including kauri dieback and several of our horticultural crops such as avocado. The compounds developed from this research will be environmentally friendly and help reduce environmental pollution from the use of chemical pesticides. This research integrates traditional Māori knowledge with new biochemical science to protect taonga species.

Making electroceuticals effective through targeted neuromodulation
Rather than drugs, it is possible to stimulate peripheral nerves to activate protection for a broad range of conditions from heart disease to gastrointestinal disease. The team will develop a less invasive device to deliver electroceutical treatment.

Seismic strengthening of floor diaphragms with carbon fibre
In major earthquakes stress on floor diaphragms leads to the failure of buildings. Carbon Fibre Reinforced Polymers can be used to strengthen new builds. The researchers will look at ways to use the technology on existing buildings.

Sulfate prodrugs for antibody- drug conjugates as anticancer agents
Antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) are a new and effective type of cancer treatment. Our antibodies can recognise markers on cancer cells. An ADC is an anticancer drug chemically bonded to an antibody to better target cancer tumours. However ADCs also cause significant side effects. The team will make and test ‘prodrugs’ ADCs that better target cancer tumours with fewer side effects.

Novel device for delivering therapies to the inner ear
Hearing loss is common and those experiencing it rely on hearing aids and cochlear implants. However researchers will investigate drug and molecular therapies and delivery systems to prevent the cellular damage that leads to hearing loss. Globally hearing loss is estimated to be a $650US billion cost for health systems.

Harnessing biological materials to make biodegradable electronic devices
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are increasingly common in supply chains, particularly food, to give consumers confidence in the origins of the products. However the tags, that need to be removed in processing, have become a waste burden. The researchers will seek to develop biodegradable tags for livestock management, wildlife tracking and food supply chains.

Improving In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) success rates through machine learning
Currently embryos selected for IVF commonly rely on the basis of features in a single image of the embryo taken at one point in time. While Artificial Intelligence has been used for embryo selection, the team, with access to information on a wide range of aspects of embryo development, will develop a Machine Learning tool to improve the success rates and reduce the waiting times for IVF.

A Thumping Good Floor: Granular Metamaterials for Quieter Homes
Building codes and practices in New Zealand do not meet international standard for acoustic comfort and privacy. With denser housing, it will become harder to provide quieter homes for better health and well-being. The researchers will investigate the transmission of noise and methods to improve sound insulation. Their goal: ‘A quieter atmosphere with a high level of protection against intruding sounds, specifically thudding, thumping and footfalls.’

Mitigation of coastal wave impacts through innovative engineering and community engagement
Existing levels of coastal protection may not withstand the types of wave impacts that will be experienced with our changing climate. Through engagement with at-risk Māori coastal communities the team will develop new knowledge of the intersections between scientific and indigenous knowledge, including perceptions of, and responses to, coastal hazards and culturally appropriate approaches to risk mitigation. The goal is to develop and validate new predictive models of wave-structure interaction for tailored solutions to the requirements of specific coastal sites.

New chemistry to control kinase cell signaling in disease
Researchers have developed a new type of chemistry to develop a new class of drugs for people with gastrointestinal and blood cancers driven by a specific protein. The new drugs will allow better targeting of cancer cell proteins and leave normal proteins unaffected. The approach promises to develop a wide range of kinase inhibitors.