Opportunities for entrepreneurial talent

Published Aug 25, 2020

Wellington UniVentures has created a new, shared role for one of Victoria University Wellington's up-and-coming entrepreneurial academics.

Dr Kai Chen, an academic from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences (SCPS), has recently taken on a new split role where he works with the Robinson Research Institute for half the week and with Wellington UniVentures the other half. While the work at Robinson will focus on fostering research collaboration and providing expertise on optical techniques, Kai’s role at UniVentures will focus on developing and commercialising his portfolio of advanced spectroscopy techniques—designed to help scientists obtain more comprehensive information and higher throughput than conventional methods.

Spectroscopy is an exploratory tool—used in virtually all fields of science and technology—that uses light to investigate things that are too small to be seen through a microscope. Advanced spectroscopy that uses ultrashort light-pulses can even see the motion of molecules and electrons; however, these methods are time-consuming as they only allow for one experiment to be conducted at a time in a specialised lab.

“Kai’s work with Professor Justin Hodgkiss in the field of ultrafast spectroscopy has led them to develop a tool that enables scientists to integrate multiple spectroscopy experiments into just one,” says Dr Ashwath Sundaresan, one of two Wellington UniVentures Senior Commercialisation Managers who are helping Kai to protect and convert the team’s IP assets into marketable products. “This reduces the time it takes to set up and conduct testing—and analyse the resulting data—from literally months down to just days. It also opens up the ability for greater scientific insights.”

Ashwath says the team has created a source of really deep intellectual property (IP) that has great commercial potential.

“Kai is already commercially savvy and very well connected globally, so we think it’s vitally important that we find ways to support such a promising IP generator for the University,” says Ashwath.

Peter Lai, Wellington UniVentures’ Senior Commercialisation Manager—International, agrees. “Kai is already a natural entrepreneur—we’re just helping him to drive the commercialisation process, and to put a framework in place that will allow him to develop more commercial applications for the research.”

That framework has seen Wellington UniVentures assist Kai with everything from patents and marketing, through to drawing up legal documents for potential clients and suppliers. This includes negotiating a distribution agreement with Cohpros International Co.—a globally-recognised distributor of solutions for the semiconductor industry and scientific institutions in Taiwan and China—that allows the entrepreneurs to supply componentry from, and retain expertise in, New Zealand.

Peter says that while academics—their beachhead market—need high speed spectroscopy to carry out experiments faster, they don’t particularly want or need to be experts in spectroscopy—which is why the tool has been developed for use ‘straight out of the box’.

“Thanks to funding from KiwiNet, we were able to develop a prototype for Westlake University in China and, after working with their academics to understand their requirements, we’ve used that experience to standardise the tool and offer it as an off-the-shelf solution for other academic institutions such as ShanghaiTech University.”

Kai is delighted that the simple act of trying to solve a problem they faced themselves in the lab—i.e. slow, time-consuming spectroscopy—has led to the creation of a product that will not only help other academics experiencing the same frustrations, but may also create impact in other ways.

“Our future potential markets go beyond new material discovery,” says Kai. “The fast data acquisition capability of our tool means we could potentially employ ultrafast spectroscopy for industrial applications such as quality assurance—e.g. characterising optoelectronic materials—or for helping pharmaceutical companies to understand interactions faster, thereby decreasing the time it currently takes to develop new drugs.”

He says it didn’t take long for him to see the benefits of commercialisation. “It has opened up opportunities for different avenues of funding for us which will ensure the continuation of our research.”

Peter says the level of academic freedom that Victoria University of Wellington offers its staff allows Kai to flex his entrepreneurial muscle and drive innovation forward. “Our job at Wellington UniVentures is to help him to realise his entrepreneurial goals.”