August 31, 2009

A123 Systems and the KillaCycle

I read an article on Stuff.co.nz recently about an electric motorcycle (KillaCycle), that can accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 1 sec, and has a top speed of 274 km/h. Pretty phenomenal performance!

The technology that makes this possible is provided by a company in the USA called A123 Systems, who I've been aware of for some time now. They were spun out of MIT in Boston in 2001 to commercialise their research on nanophosphates for lithium ion batteries.

The fundamental properties of a material differ substantially when we shrink its constituent particles down to the nano scale (1 billionth of a metre), and in the case of A123 Systems and their materials, they see an improvement in both the charge and discharge rates, and the power density (power to weight ratio) when they do this. This is important, because it means that batteries can be used for applications that demand large amounts of power rapidly (like the KillaCycle for its acceleration), but also need very light materials. Previously this type of power could have only been provided using large, heavy batteries, which has until this point ruled out the practical use of batteries in transport. The ultimate goal is to have a battery that can discharge rapidly for acceleration and charge again very quickly, so that covering large distances in an electric vehicle is no longer a problem.


To bring this back to a NZ perspective, this is just the kind of clean technology we should be researching and developing. In a low carbon world, when the rising curve of oil prices crosses the falling curve of battery prices, there will be a mass market for electric vehicles that companies like A123 Systems will be in an excellent position to capitalise on.

PS. The KillaCycle is apparently coming to NZ, for all you...errr petrol (battery) heads.

August 28, 2009

Hot Competition

There have been some really cool competitions around at the moment involving science problem solving and entrepreneurship.

Two that spring to mind are IRL's "What's your problem New Zealand?" Competition, where companies from industry pitched a research problem to IRL in order to win $1 Million of research funding at IRL, and the Auckland University Business School "Entrepreneurs Challenge" which is funded by ex Auckland Business School graduate, Charles Bidwill, to the tune of around $3 Million.


The winner of the IRL "What's your problem New Zealand?" Competition was Resene paints, who came up with a proposal to develop paints from sustainable sources. Most of the ingredients in current paint products are derived from petroleum feedstocks, and so this research will help to break the long term dependance on such raw materials. Entries for the "Entrepreneurs Challenge" closed only last week, but are sure to produce some incredible ideas.

Competitions like these are a great way to not only solve problems, provide funding for start-up companies and teach new skills, but also to highlight the amazing talent we have in NZ in problem solving and developing high growth businesses. One can only wonder what things could be like if there was more money available so all the ideas could get funded! Then we may be well on the way to creating a knowledge-based economy!

Whats your problem?

August 26, 2009

AngelLink

Angel investing is a term that is used to describe very early stage investment in start-up companies. Typically, the "Angel" or "Business Angel" will provide their own capital, as opposed to a Venture Capitalist, who calls on capital from a managed fund others have contributed to. It is an incredibly risky but vital part in the venture financing structure, as it often helps bridge the so-called "Valley of Death" between lab research and a commercial opportunity by providing funding for prototype development, market research, etc. As there is a trend both worldwide and in NZ for Venture Capitalist's to move more towards funding companies with established revenue streams, this type of financing is becoming increasingly important. I have witnessed myself the difficulties in crossing this "Valley of Death", and it is often where many a good idea falls down.

Hence, I was pleased to read in the NZ Herald the other day about a new initiative called AngelLink. AngelLink aims to bring together active angel investors and the constant stream of high quality IP generated from NZ universities and Crown Research Institutes, to provide early stage funding for new technology companies. AngelLink has partnered with the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund (which was set up through the NZ Government to establish a Venture Capital industry in NZ), who will match AngelLink's contributions dollar-for-dollar, giving a total value of $8 million.



Overseas, many Angels organise themselves in networks. The attractiveness of an arrangement like this is that investors can pool their experience, networks and research to co-invest, creating a more nationwide approach to their investing. This creates greater deal flow, and a quicker time to market, which is critical for a country as small as NZ.

Although $8 million is just a start, I applaud these efforts - I just wish more could be done to help fill this "Valley of Death", as the amounts of money we're talking about for most of these investments are often relatively small. Although high net worth individuals make valuable contributions, personally I don't think we should have to rely on them to provide this type of funding. Perhaps the Government could take more of a leading role in this area and help bridge the gap even further.

August 24, 2009

Technology Transfer at Univeristy of Virginia

In a post last week, I talked about the Minister's views on RS&T policy, and mentioned that it is not just about "making it easier for business to be in touch with universities", it is ultimately how the two interact that will be important. I have recently been informed about the University of Virgina Patent Foundation (UVAPF). Their role is to see research conducted at the university commercialised - something they are very successful at doing.


They have specialists in science, business, and patent law to help protect the inventions of their researchers. They then get these inventions out into the world by licensing the technologies to industry and start-up companies. Their philosophy here is simple: maximizing deal flow. They do this largely by having realistic expectations from industry and short transaction times. As a result their technologies are out there - they have over 350 active licenses, assess approximately 200 inventions per year, and have generated about US$85 Million in license revenue for the U.Va.

While NZ universities are a lot smaller, and don't generate nearly as many inventions as the U.Va might, I think the modus operandi of the UVAPF is something we can learn from here in NZ. I have myself witnessed some brilliant technologies falling by the wayside, in part due to unrealistic expectations of industry by universities, essentially a lack of adherence to the principles so central to the way the UVAPF operates.

The goal of most researchers I think is for their research to ultimately be used for public good. Being open, fair and fast are conducive to making this happen. After all, surely it is better to have something out in the world being used, than something sitting on a scrapheap with nobody seeing any gain.

August 21, 2009

ViNES

When I first started The Scientist NZ, one of my first posts was about a group of us who were keen to advance both our careers in science in NZ, and in a wider sense the knowledge-based economy in NZ.

Well, things are progressing nicely, and we now have a name, ViNES.
We decided on the very first day that we are a group of young and emerging scientists that are interested in making opportunities for ourselves and contributing to a knowledge-based economy in NZ. This may take the form of entrepreneurship, employment in industry, doing a post-doc, or even switching outside of science altogether.

To get where we wanted to go we decided that we need to:
  • raise our profile
  • build our networks
  • upskill
  • build a track record
Five of us met today and really made some progress toward making the ViNES concept work for us. It is now more clear than ever that what we want in the near term is exposure. This alone will help guide us towards our ambitions. Unfortunately, the ViNES blog was taken (but not used) by someone else. We are ViNES-NZ in the blog world, which is probably a good thing since NZ is who we are representing. Feel free to comment if you have other suggetions.

So there you have it. If you have anyone knows of any interesting events coming up we should be at, or any business that would like to brainstorm with us, please get in touch.

August 19, 2009

Big Science

There was an excellent article in the Listener last month about the role of science and technology companies growing the NZ economy. It features a number of comments from my employers at Endeavour Capital, and their portfolio companies, Veritide (who manufacture devices to detect anthrax spores) and Photonic Innovations Limited (who are developing gas detection equipment using lasers).

One of the comments by Dr. Andrew Wilson of PIL, was that his PBRF score had suffered because of time spent conducting commercially sensitive research for PIL, instead of publishing journal articles. For those that don't know, the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) is a way of allocating funding by ranking research performance (publishing) in the tertiary education sector. As pointed out in the Listener article, how can this be conducive to academics putting more time into research of commercial potential when they are more concerned with publishing their research in peer-reviewed journals in order to maintain their PBRF ranking?

While publishing and peer review are essential parts of academia and the scientific method (that will never, and should never change), perhaps more recognition in the PBRF system needs to be given to those that choose to patent their work instead of publish. As pointed out so eloquently by the Generation Y Scientist, universities are complicated beasts, and companies shy away from universities for a number of reasons. Perhaps the PBRF contributes to some of these reasons. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one.

August 17, 2009

Quantum Dot Inkjet Printing

Here's a radio interview my PhD supervisor Jim Johnston, PhD candidate Andi Zeller, and myself gave to Radio NZ about Quantum Dot Inkjet Printing and it's application in anticounterfeiting - one of the main topics of my PhD thesis.

video

There is also a post on the work here, and an article on page 5 of the Autum 2009 issue of Victoria University's 'Victorious' magazine, found here.

August 14, 2009

New RST Strategy?

On Wednesday I attended the presentation by MP Wayne Mapp (Research Science and Technology Minister) on his vision for RST Policy in New Zealand.

Although I am always amazed at how long politicians can speak for and not say anything, I was actually quite surprised at the initiatives proposed in his speech. A few useful things may come out of this:
  • Simplifying the whole system. This should hopefully mean less grant applications, and hence less time wasted. Talk to any academic and they will tell you that the amount of time they spend filling out grant applications, is hugely counterproductive. My supervisor once told me he could spend up to 1/5 of his time doing this! That is time wasted that could be spent on discovering the next big invention!
  • More long term funding - good things take time, and so this gives the researcher more stability and confidence in their role.
  • An examination of the funding balance of growth-oriented research (see here) and putting a bigger emphasis on the FRST to understand the value of their investments a bit better - this may mean that we find out exactly what things are worth putting money into, and as a result remain flexible to change investment policy further down the line if something isn't working.
Although one of the key things to the success of science contributing to the NZ economy (as highlighted in the speech) is "making it easier for business to be in touch with universities", it is ultimately how the two interact that will be important. But that is a post for another day.

We'll have to wait and see how this pans out - these changes will be made by the years end, and will be released in the Budget 2010.

* If you're interested you can listen to his speech via podcast over at the NZ Science Media Centre

August 12, 2009

The Clean Industrial Revolution

I have just finished reading the brilliant new book by Ben McNeil, called "The Clean Industrial Revolution." Ben is a climate scientist and economist at the University of New South Wales in Australia. As the subtitle suggests, his book is about how to grow prosperity in a greenhouse age.

Which was quite timely, considering cabinet announced on Monday their plans for a revised Emissions Trading Scheme. I was always a wee bit hesitant to wade into the whole carbon tax/emissions trading scheme debate because I had not made my mind up fully on the topic. After reading Ben's book and talking to my learned economist friend, goonix, I believe that it is essential for NZ to begin either a tax or trading scheme.

I think a lot of the debate centred around the question of how much is it going to cost our economy now, vs. how much will it cost to fall in line and adapt later? We are only 0.1% of the worlds emissions after all, so why spend all this money, lets just wait and see what the world does and adapt later.

Well, one of the key points I took out of Ben's book is that creating a 'carbon price' will be a massive incentive for innovative change. When (not if) the world moves to a low carbon future, any country that is researching, commercialising and exporting these new clean technologies will be in a great economic position. Surely it would be harder to do this if we chose to wait and adapt, giving the rest of the world a head start. (Note: Masdar City, in the UAE, which I have blogged about here).

Sure, some industries in NZ will be harder hit than others initially, (ie. the polluters, farmers and their farting animals) however, do we want to end up dependent on a costly carbon rich lifestyle? It would be like suffering the same fate as those countries that resisted imposing high taxes on oil. Japan and the EU set high taxes, and their vehicle industries were given incentive to develop more efficient engines, which they did (up to 30% more efficient in fact). The US, on the other hand chose to keep the price of petrol near the market value, and as a result are heavily dependent on oil. There was no incentive for GM to innovate, and as a result GM have given their market share up to Toyota, and pretty much gone bust. The same will happen with anyone still intensively using carbon.

The book is focused largely on an Australian context, however the whole way through reading it, I felt that I could have easily substituted "New Zealand" every time I read "Australia". Apart from the huge solar resource Australia have of course, we have a lot in common. Perhaps we are even in a better position than Australia, as we have a lot of hydro, more wind generated power, are less dependent on coal fired power stations, and already have less emissions per capita. Creating a highly innovative CleanTech economy will create new, high tech jobs that won't be able to be outsourced to China. It's about being at the forefront of change, and I believe we have the goods here in NZ to make it a reality.

You can preview the book here.

August 10, 2009

NZ: Feeding the World?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will probably be aware that I am an advocate for science underpinning the NZ economy and ultimately leading to the future prosperity of our nation. There is often the confusion that scientists like myself think that for this to happen, we need to abandon agriculture. Not true. Scientists are not stupid, and many of us realise the importance of farming in the economy of our small export nation.

I believe there is room for both. We should capitalise on the wealth of knowledge in this area, as well as add a few 'bolt-on' solutions. For example, Finland, a forestry nation, now has Nokia, and Denmark, a small dairying nation like ours, is now home to a $10B export business in wind turbines. Both countries have many more smaller high tech companies, and there is no reason why we can't do the same here. We just have to be a little bit smarter about it.

I read an article on stuff.co.nz the other day by Prof. Paul Monaghan of Massey University, about how NZ is not putting to good use its excellent ability to produce food, in order to capitalise on the growing market for the next generation of value added agrifood products. The rest of the world is already catching on to new products that involve new science and technology (nanotechnology for example), to revolutionise the food and drink industry in terms of better food processing safety, improved product shelf life and more healthy products. In fact, the use of nanotechnology has already been introduced into the food and drink industry with successful applications in a number of areas including stay fresh packaging, butters and slim-line milkshakes.

In a world that is becoming more populous, short on energy and water, this could be an ideal area for NZ to apply some of its excellent food production knowledge, couple it with our brilliant image on the world stage, and NZ could feed the world with high value, high margin products.

And so back to the getting smarter bit. I believe in order to do both, we need a tweak in our science and technology research policy to a more balanced approach. Currently the government invests the majority of our science and technology research budget in the primary industry (36%). Yet if you look at the TIN100 (the top 100 technology companies in NZ), there are only 11 primary sector technology companies, comprising only 12% of revenue. Interestingly, the top 5 companies (nothing to do with agriculture) produce about $3 Billion revenue - not too bad for 5 companies I thought. As you can see, the results are not reflective of the investment made by area.

The rest of the world maintains a balanced approach and so should we. That way we can continue to add value to our primary sector through science and technology, in areas like high value foods where there are big gains to be made, but also remain flexible enough to 'bolt-on' a Nokia or Vestas should the opportunity arise.

August 7, 2009

Resistance is useless...

Superconductivity is the phenomenon whereby a material can conduct an electric current with no resistance. For some of you that might seem rather dull, but the implications of this are actually fairly significant. Because they can conduct an electric current with no resistance, there is no heat loss as a result. This, coupled with the fact they can transmit high current loads, makes them ideal as power transmission cables, replacing those that are currently quite inefficient over long distances.

Superconductors can also be used to create powerful magnets for better MRI instruments, magnetically levitated trains (like the Maglev train in Shanghai, China that can reach speeds of up to 430 km/h), and particle accelerators (like the LHC in Switzerland) that allow physicists to conduct ground breaking fundamental research about the world we live in.

As a result, superconductors have been "the next big thing" for a fair few many years now, but their application has been hamstrung by the fact they require bulky, complicated, and expensive cooling systems to get the superconducting effect - they only work below about -135 C and so need to be cooled by liquid nitrogen (-197 C). The obvious goal is to get them to work at ambient temperatures of around 0-30 C, but for this to happen, scientists still need to understand the fundamentals of these materials.

For a long time, scientists only thought there was one family of superconducting materials, which made it difficult for them to understand their fundamentals. Recently a Japanese group has discovered (by accident) a new family. Although operating at only -217 C, well below the current benchmark of -135 C, it is nonetheless exciting because now with two families to compare and contrast hopefully scientists can finally solve this problem and we might see some of these incredible applications become more widespread.


Endeavour Capital, who I work for, is an investor in HTS-110, a spin out company from fundamental research conducted at Industrial Research Limited (IRL) in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Researchers at IRL were one of the first groups in the world to develop a process for the production of superconducting wire from 1st and 2nd generation superconducting materials. As a result, they formed a partnership with American Superconductors Inc., one of the biggest companies in the world active in this area. HTS-110 use this wire to produce superconducting magnets. This is yet another example of how kiwi ingenuity can be a world beater - in some areas that probably not too many kiwi's suspect either.

I think their story, coupled with the exciting new discovery by the Japanese group, illustrates the vital role of fundamental research in the progression of any ground breaking new technology towards commercialisation.

August 5, 2009

Fuel from Algae

The other day I saw this article in Scientific American. Exxon Mobil, one of the largest petrochemical companies in the world, have recently announced they are putting US$600 million into research on new biofuels from algae.

For those that don't know, biofuels are renewable fuels that are derived from natural sources such as plant biomass or, in this case, algae. They are made by fermenting sugar rich crops to produce bioethanol, or by chemically converting vegetable oils into biodiesel.

They fall into several categories. 1st generation biofuels, made from sugar, starch, or vegetable oil, have come under a lot of criticism because they are made from food crops, diverting food away from the human food chain which is quite controversial given the growth of the world’s population.

2nd generation biofuels, made from waste biomass, the stalks of wheat, corn, wood, and jatropha (the biofuel Air NZ used for its trial biofuel flight was made from jatropha) promise a more politically acceptable solution, because they are non-food crops and often grow successfully in infertile areas.

3rd generation biofuels are made from algae. Algae are an extremely efficient producer of biofuel, producing many times more energy per acre than other alternatives. The hard part about algae production however, is growing the algae in a controlled way and harvesting it efficiently.

A NZ company, Aquaflow Bionomic is active in this area. They produce biodiesel in the Nelson/Marlborough area. As the article points out, Exxon Mobil’s investment goes a long way to validating their choice of technology.


Exxon Mobil is conducting this research in conjunction with a company called Synthetic Genomics in the USA. My question is, why not in NZ? I froth at the mouth with the prospect of US$600 million being pumped into a technology like this. Especially one that NZ’ers are already successfully involved in! With the right amount of money, NZ could really turn itself into a hotbed of biofuel/CleanTech innovation. I’m not sure of the duration of the EM/SG research program, but when you consider that the NZ Government’s TOTAL research spending last year was about NZ$900 million, you can see that our commitment to advancing this type of science and technology is really quite laughable. Aquaflow are rumored to be involved with Boeing and a number of other big multinationals. Lets hope so, because the money obviously isn't going to come from the NZ Government.

August 3, 2009

Science Communication

One of the key things I think scientists don't do well enough, is communicate. I know I am not alone in having this view.

The scientific method of systematic observation, analysis, and peer review, is one of the most robust methods of investigation going around (and has been so for centuries). This approach has an inherent honesty, and I think perhaps one area in which science communication breaks down is the portrayal of this honesty. In the public's eyes (I hope...) scientists are looked to for answers and advice but the inherent honesty in the scientific method often means we are not willing to make a concrete claim - something is only true until proven otherwise. And so this leads to mistrust, or confusion. Scientists seem to be content with laying the facts down for someone else to make a decision, and being done with it.

Communication is not something that everyone is good at, and poor communicators can be found in almost any profession. Communication by scientists has become ever so vital however, given the pressures facing mankind in climate change, energy, and food and water shortages, for example.

And so the only way to improve this is through practice. It would be nice if a communication paper was a mandatory part of any degree, but this is unlikely. Through the NZ Science Media Centre I have become aware of a really cool collaborative project starting at the University of New South Wales. It is called the New Science Journalism Project and it invites science and journalism students to submit articles which will be delivered through online media.



I think this is a great way for students to gain real world experience, and later on in their careers, when the time comes for them to communicate their science, perhaps in the hope of gaining research funding, or even influencing a policy change, they will be experts.
 

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