Published Jun 22, 2020
Entrepreneurship in higher education is recognised as a major driver of innovation, enabling academics and students to connect research with business, and help solve the myriad of pressing problems faced by the world today.
Wellington UniVentures plays an important role in facilitating, nurturing and supporting the development of Victoria University of Wellington’s future entrepreneurs, and has had great success transitioning researchers into the world of business—where they can have positive impact—as a result.
One former PhD student to make the successful move from scientist to entrepreneur is Dr Brendan Darby, who co-founded spinout MaramaLabs with his colleague Dr Matthias Meyer and former PhD supervisor Professor Eric Le Ru in 2019. Their first product—CloudSpec—is a next generation spectroscopy instrument that enables cloudy or opaque liquids to be analysed more quickly and accurately than traditional methods.
Brendan, who moved to New Zealand in 2012 to complete a PhD in Physics with the University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, says that while he still spends a bit of time in the labs—“you have to be close to what’s happening, and retain a sense of where you came from”—becoming a company founder and CEO has definitely changed his focus.
“These days, it’s all about executing a viable business and focusing on our customers rather than the technology itself,” he says. “We’re in a good position to do that primarily because Wellington UniVentures gave us the time to get our tech right—we had 12 months under their wing as a technology business unit which eased our transition from research discovery to fully-fledged business.”
He says the change in thinking has been a steep, but enjoyable, learning curve, involving him in many new areas such as marketing and branding—which Wellington UniVentures have supported him with through advice, contacts and training.
“The company has been there from the start—particularly Dr Anne Barnett (who is now Wellington UniVentures’ CEO) in our early days,” says Brendan. “Anne used to sell science instruments in the United Kingdom, so her insights and advice have been incredibly sharp and invaluable throughout,” says Brendan. “Distribution agreements, pricing modelling, customer lifecycles etc.—you name it, she knew it.” He says Wellington UniVentures also introduced him to their partners such as KiwiNet and Booster—something which was pivotal in getting their business off the ground with funding and investment.
“It’s been a really empowering experience to take on advice and then have the autonomy to make decisions from that,” says Brendan, who also feels a new sense of responsibility as an employer. “Everything we do now has an impact on everyone involved in the company but, as founders, we wear that responsibility proudly.”
The Irish born entrepreneur says that business was always a natural progression for him, with a father who is an accountant and a brother who runs his own construction business. He’s also worked since he was old enough to do so, in a wide range of businesses, to support himself through Dublin City University where he gained his undergraduate degree in Applied Physics.
“I think there’s a common misconception that scientists aren’t well-suited to business,” says Brendan. “But my belief is that many academics and graduates dopossess that innate ability—they just need the resources, support and opportunities to ‘polish’ that side of themselves. That’s really what Wellington UniVentures has done for me—and I’m extremely grateful.”
So how would he define success today? “Doing what you love to do, while creating positive impact in the world—you could say I’m living my dream!”