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Good genes

By Rachel Nottingham

Monday 1st December 2003

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Damian Camp, inaugural chief executive of Ovita Ltd, has three diverse shareholders and thousands of farmer stakeholders to keep happy. It's a big ask for 31-year-old townie from West Auckland.

Biotech company Ovita was formed by Meat New Zealand, the New Zealand Wool Board and AgResearch in 2001 to focus on the commercialisation of sheep gene research. Finding the right chief executive to lead a brand new organisation with such highly politicised masters was no easy task. As Ovita chairman John Baird explains, the role required someone with both science and business nous - and the ability to communicate with farmers. The board thought Camp, who'd straddled the corporate and science worlds since leaving university, was the perfect fit.

Though fascinated by biochemistry at Otago University, the Black Sabbath-supporting lad from Titirangi realised early on that he didn't want to spend his life wearing a lab-coat. He diversified into commerce and came out with a double degree in marketing and science. David Buisson, Dean of Otago Business school and Camp's dissertation supervisor, found him to be one of the "most challenging and interesting research students" he'd come across. Not a typical lab-coat geek - but no corporate fat-cat either.

Two years of airports and hotels with the Wellington office of AT Kearney, the American management consultancy firm, after leaving university was enough to convince Camp that wasn't the life for him. He exited 15 kilograms heavier but armed with the equivalent of an MBA in corporate experience.

Ever since he's tread the tightrope between science and commerce. After helping to set up and run Equine Fertility Services, a Hamilton company developing and providing advanced fertility treatments for performance horses, Camp was wooed back into the corporate world by Genesis Research and Development, which recruited him as manager of health sciences. Earl Stevens, one of Camp's managers at Genesis and now managing director of Certified Organics Limited, was impressed. Camp was "bright, and had the commercial nous to know whether the science was going to make it [for commercialisation]".

But Camp was in the job only a year or so before being plucked to head Ovita in Dunedin in June 2002.

When he got to Dunedin, Camp had an important-sounding title but no staff, offices or other infrastructure. Fifteen months later Camp and his team of four have filled these holes, created and tuned business plans and clocked up the miles getting industry buy-in, while driving Ovita's 40-plus research projects.

Camp appears to have succeeded in what was perhaps his biggest challenge - winning over Ovita's farmer stakeholders. Baird has been impressed with the acceptance, support and respect that Camp has garnered from this quarter. The stakeholders are not alone: he got the nod from the biotech industry, too, with his appointment in August to the board of New Zealand Bio, the merged organisation of BIOTENZ and the New Zealand Biotechnology Association.

But tough decisions lie ahead. Ovita has twenty years of intellectual property "in the cupboard" - through its shareholders, it has access to the world's largest database of sheep pedigree and genetic history, owns several key patents on sheep genes, and has the largest DNA library in the world. It's Camp's job to decide which parts of this intellectual resource will be the most likely commercial winners.

At the same time, the stakeholders need to start seeing some tangible results from that $85 million investment. Breeders have just been issued with Ovita's first gene testing kits, which will enable them to test and identify stock with desirable genes, such as high fertility. The technology promises to speed up genetic improvement in the New Zealand sheep flock by generations. Among Ovita's other target research areas are programmes to identify marker genes that signal animals with resistance to costly ovine menaces such as facial eczema.

Camp also faces the challenge of developing new sources of revenue away from government R&D funding, including exporting intellectual property to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Ovita plans to be self-funding in five years, with the bulk of its income derived from licensing IP surrounding the sheep genome to international biotech companies and developing products for human pharmaceuticals.

BORN: 4 October 1972, Auckland

Kelston Boys High School and Avondale College
The University of Auckland
Otago University - double honours in marketing and science

1997-2000 - Management consultant with AT Kearney
2000-2001 - Marketing and business development manager with Equine Fertility Services and co-owner of e-tailer Best Ever Tasted
2001-2002 - Commercial manager, health sciences, Genesis Research & Development
July 2002 - Chief executive, Ovita
August 2003 - Board member, New Zealand Bio

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