Canterbury start-up businesses tap into skilled local graduates
09 February 2023
University of Canterbury student Paige Hansen is in her element operating machinery in a processing plant that extracts an edible protein called rubisco from green leafy crops.
She is one of a number University of Canterbury (UC) Chemical and Process Engineering (CAPE) students working to support, or founding, exciting new companies in and around Waitaha Canterbury.
Paige has been working at plant protein company Leaft Foods, which has its headquarters in Rolleston, over the last few months as one of three UC summer interns.
Paige says she enjoys the hands-on aspect of the job. “I’ve found I enjoy being able to be in the plant operating the machinery. It’s an environment where I thrive and learn the most.
“Chemical and process engineering is a super exciting area to be a part of currently with the global push to develop new sustainable technologies making chemical and process engineers more and more relevant.”
Leaft Foods is one of several local sustainability-focused companies collaborating with the University of Canterbury to grow their businesses.
In December, the business signed an agreement to use University laboratory space for some of its operations. Along with taking on summer interns, Leaft already has seven full-time staff who are University of Canterbury graduates in a team of 22, including five Chemical and Process Engineering graduates.
Greg Baxter-Parker, now a Process Technologist at Leaft, has a PhD in Biochemistry from UC. He likes being part of a team of people that have vastly different backgrounds and skillsets, and the diversity of his role. “I don’t enjoy predicable routine at work so being able to utilise my biochemistry training one day, negotiate contracts the next, and then call back to my farming days visiting our local crop suppliers on another day keeps the work extremely interesting.”
Leaft Foods Chief Executive Ross Milne, who is himself a UC CAPE graduate, says its close relationship with the University provides access to state-of-the-art laboratory equipment that isn’t available anywhere else in Canterbury and allows it to tap into a pool of high-calibre graduates.
“Being so close to UC accelerates our ability to innovate and grow and lets us tap into the expertise within the University. UC also delivers a talent pipeline which is illustrated by the number of UC alumni we have at Leaft, plus we’ve hosted UC student interns annually since we were founded.”
University of Canterbury Chemical and Process Engineering Operations Engineer Garrick Thorn says the University’s collaboration with Leaft and other innovative local companies fosters vital connections and provides real-world experience for students.
“Along with our close ties with Leaft we are also liaising closely with other exciting, new companies such as Precision Chroma, Zincovery, Permeance Ltd and Aspiring Materials, a carbon capture technology company that was set up by University of Canterbury lecturer Allan Scott,” he says.
Some of these companies are ‘spin-outs’, businesses that have developed from research projects by University of Canterbury students or academics. Zincovery, which develops technology for the clean recycling of zinc from steel waste, has strong UC connections; Chief Executive and Co-Founder Jonathan Ring is a UC Master of Engineering graduate who began developing the technology during his master’s project. In 2022, Ring won the Breakthrough Innovator Award for Zincovery at the KiwiNet Awards and Zincovery’s Co-Founder is Aaron Marshall, Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at UC.
Thorn says all of these start-ups have a sustainability focus and there are benefits for everyone involved. “Our students are gaining valuable experience, and the relationships we have with these dynamic companies provides stepping-stones for our graduates into interesting and challenging jobs in their field.
“The businesses are also happy to be able to use our well-equipped laboratory spaces and have the opportunity to hire staff with leading-edge skills. This relationship-building is part of our commitment to engaging with Ōtautahi and our local community.”
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