June 29, 2009

The world's first zero-carbon city

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) was formed in January 2009, tasked with fostering the uptake of renewable energy around the globe. They will work with academia, the energy industry, economists, environmentalists and a range of other institutions to help create and implement renewable energy policies. So far, over 100 countries have signed on.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) are putting forward a case to host the secretariat of IRENA in a newly built zero-carbon city called Masdar City.

They city will be powered entirely by solar and wind power, as well as waste-to-energy technologies. Water will be retreated and recycled and all waste will be recovered, recycled and reused. People will move around in Personal Rapid Transport systems, which are essentially pods moving around in predetermined loops. I think a few years ago they were thinking of putting one in Courtenay Place, Wellington! The city will also house over 1,500 renewable energy related companies, providing a cluster of renewable technology innovation.

Only in the UAE...

June 26, 2009

Some food for thought...

Following on from my post a couple of days ago on the need to develop stronger relationships with multinationals, I was thinking about why this isn't happening more. Not from a scientific point of view, or from an economic point of view, but from a societal point of view. Here are a few of my thoughts, I'd love to hear yours.

We have achieved so much with very little, and my mind boggles with what we could achieve with even more. Attracting the interest of multinationals might not be the complete answer to our future prosperity, but our ideas CAN foot it with the best. We don't always have to win, and to pinch a line from Prof. Paul Callaghan, "imagine if we were the 2nd biggest manufacturer of mobile phones or plasma screens in the world...that would be pretty cool wouldn't it?" I think we are definitely capable, we just have to wake up and realise that we are.

I think it's clear that we are a motivated and innovative country, after all, think of all our amazing achievements, those that make me proud to be a kiwi. Here are a few off the top of my head, I'm sure you can add many more:

  • Sir Ernest Rutherford (one of the most important figures in the history of physics)
  • Burt Munro (and his world-beating Indian motorcycle)
  • Neville Jordan's company MAS Technology (first private NZ company to list on the NASDAQ)
  • Colin Murdoch (inventor of the disposable syringe that has saved millions of lives)
  • Alan MacDiarmid (Nobel prize winner in chemistry)
  • Maurice Wilkins (Nobel prize winner, helped unlock the mystery of DNA)
  • Richard Taylor (WETA Workshops)

We Kiwis pride ourselves on the fact that we can solve any problem - our No. 8 wire mentality. The question I ask you, is this: is our No. 8 wire mentality the thing that's actually hampering us in this respect?

Are we so content with being able to do it ourselves "on the smell of an oily rag" and not needing the rest of the world, that as a result we lack the confidence to take those ideas to the world because we somehow think they are inferior due to their origins? Are we scared of taking risks? Are we scared of coming 2nd? Or do we just have trouble letting our ideas go offshore when its time to expand because we like the idea of kiwi people working in kiwi companies?

What do you guys think?

June 24, 2009

Zephyr Technology

Following on from Monday's post, here's another excellent article on a NZ company doing really well.

Zephyr Technology make special sensors (shown below) to wirelessly collect physiology data like pulse rate and temperature, on people working in extreme conditions such as the military, in rescue operations or on oil rigs. They are named in the 2008 TIN100, as one of the top 100 technology companies in NZ, and their products have even been used by NASA - which is a HUGE endorsement!

It was announced the other day that they have hooked up with Motorola, a NZ$47 Billion a year company, who have bought a stake in their business. I think that is awesome, and I think we need more NZ companies to partner with big multinationals, rather than be scared out of markets because of their size. That way we can really showcase our ability to solve problems and create a reputation as a cluster of innovation. Stories like this one, and the recently formed NZi3 Centre at Canterbury University (partnered with HP and IBM) are paving the way in this respect.

June 22, 2009

Enormous potential in tiny particles

There is a great article on the NZ Herald website this morning about a Dunedin company called Izon.

Their game is in making machines that measure, analyze and control small particles, right down to a single particle, which is pretty incredible. As the article says, scientists have been trying to find the next big nanoparticle application for a while now, and Izon's idea seems like a good one because it will allow them access into all of the broad research that's taking place in this area, which includes medical diagnostics, environmental diagnostics, nanoparticle measurement and biomolecule analysis to name a few. There are many more.

Izon plan to shrink their device down to the size of a cellphone in the near future, and I think that there are really exciting prospects in the area of rapid diagnostics, where a small device could be taken into remote, poverty stricken area's to quickly and cheaply diagnose illnesses. The right treatment could then be prescribed which saves time on lengthy lab analyses.

Awesome idea, good luck to them!

June 19, 2009

Printing organs?

I just read an interesting article on 3D printing, or rapid prototyping, which has been around for a while now. It works by layering down and bonding successive cross sections, building up a 3D object. You can see a YouTube video of the process here. It's pretty cool.

The article focused on one of the extraordinary potential applications of this type of technology - tissue engineering for regenerative medicine. Researchers can print down a gel or biodegradable "scaffold" that human cells can grow on to build up artificial body parts or organs that can then be implanted into the body. The benefit in doing it this way instead of using conventional techniques, is in both speed and in the control over the microscopic features of the tissue. One day, researchers may even be able to print down human cells to build up organs with close-to-natural detail, ready for implant!

This is could be a great niche market for someone in NZ to get into and become a world leader. Anyone want to go halves in a 3D printer?

June 16, 2009

A rant about Swine Flu

Yesterday I read an opinion piece here about Swine Flu (called influenza A H1N1) by Linley Boniface. I have to say I totally agree with her. Sure, at the moment it seems no more harmful than an ordinary seasonal flu, and yes, I am aware that 250,000-500,000 people die from that a year already.

What most people do not understand is that the WHO has raised the pandemic alert level to 6 due to the rapidity of its spread, rather than its severeness. The reason for this is that scientific information gathered about previous pandemics has shown the influenza A virus to be unpredictable. It can take on new genetic material and mutate to even more virulent forms, unlike seasonal influenza which is stable in this respect. If this happens and it spreads even faster, the main concern is that influenza A H1N1 is new and most people do not have any immunity to it, unlike they do with seasonal influenza. This happened in the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed an estimated 50-100 Million people. Although it is fair to say there are a number of differences between then and now in regards to medical knowledge and its communication, there is also a big difference in world population (1.6 Billion vs 6.8 Billion) and so there is still a very real threat to the many millions in underdeveloped areas if its spread becomes more rapid.

Like global warming, surely it is better to act on the information we do have, to be proactive and to take preventative measures rather than doing nothing and the unthinkable happen. The same people who cry "Conspiracy!", or who criticise the WHO and The Ministry of Health for taking what they deem to be unnecessary action, would likely be the same people that would label them incompetent should they do nothing.

Call it a media beat up and be bored with the story if you must, but please do understand the reasons behind the measures these organisations are taking. It might turn out to be nothing, and even if it does, in developed countries we might not see its full effect. But there are a lot of other people in worse situations than you and I (sadly, even some in our own country) and these measures are in their best interests.

June 12, 2009

NZ's Knowledge Economy

Over the weekend I was thinking about why so many more young scientists are thinking of sticking around in NZ. That is a distinct shift from perhaps even 5 years ago when the only thing it seemed you could do after finishing a PhD was do a postdoc (maybe I was just unaware then!). I think this is a positive effect flowing on from the work of people like Prof. Paul Callaghan, whose documentary seeks to raise public awareness of the importance of science in NZ’s economy. Paul raises some interesting points, and I think everyone should make time to watch at least some of it.

Of particular interest to me were the statistics on revenue and profit per employee of some of the world's most successful companies. McDonald's, for example, has a revenue of $70K per employee and a profit of $6K per employee. Compare that to Samsung, who with 100,000 employees produce nearly the entire GDP of NZ! They have a revenue of $1.03M per employee and a profit of $135K per employee! It's easy to see in what type of business the profits lie, and put quite simply, we need more of these types of companies in NZ.

There are several NZ companies like Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and Rakon, who have revenues per employee in the several hundreds of thousands, and so the early signs are encouraging. But if we had 200 more of these types of companies, NZ would be a very different place to live. Hopefully in the next few weeks I'll get the chance to talk about some of the up and coming companies that one day might make up part of those "200" companies.

June 11, 2009

The Anti Brain Drain

Yesterday I met with several other young scientists for a discussion about our futures in New Zealand, still involved in science, but outside the lab.

We decided we would take the initiative ourselves and begin regular meetings to throw around ideas, network and raise our profile to employers, leverage our collective knowledge, and hopefully learn a few things and have a bit of fun along the way. We’re also hoping to get a few interesting people in to talk to us, and maybe to even do a bit of free consulting to build up a track record amongst ourselves. So if you know any interesting folk who might be keen to pass on some knowledge, or whose company could benefit from a bit of a scientific brainstorm with some nimble young minds, do leave a comment! We don’t know how this will evolve, or even what our identity is just yet, but watch this space!

We had a range of academic backgrounds and career aspirations, but what blew me away the most was how committed these people are to building a knowledge economy in New Zealand through research, startup companies, investment, and a number of other activities, sort of like an anti brain drain - which I think is pretty exciting...


Last year I graduated with a PhD in chemistry after 8 years at Victoria University. Since then, I’ve been working to form a start up company out of some of our University research, and working as an analyst at one of New Zealand’s leading Venture Capital firms, Endeavour Capital.

What gets me excited are the amazing ideas I come across everyday - whether they are those I only hear about, or whether they come from the people I’m lucky enough to interact with. People don’t often think of scientists as being creative people, but indeed we are, and with the economy in decline and the future of our planet hanging in the balance, creativity in science is needed now more than ever.

I hope this small blog does justice to these ideas, opens your eyes to some of the amazing things Kiwi’s are doing, as well as highlighting things from around the world that I think are just plain awesome. I’ll try to shed some light on any relevant issues where I can, but this is also grounds for you to offer your opinions or advice, as I will never profess to know it all. Then we can all learn something…enjoy.

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