Environment & Engineering

Entrepreneurship in practice

Published Aug 10, 2022

Having completed the KiwiNet Emerging Innovators (EI) Programme, Dr Jamal Olatunji is preparing to apply what he has learned about entrepreneurship to a new venture out of Robinson Research Institute with support from Wellington UniVentures.

Jamal is a Research Engineer at Robinson Research Institute working on a next generation plasma thruster that has the potential to take spacecraft farther into space. Wellington UniVentures is supporting Jamal to launch this innovation to market. To help him grow the networks and business know-how to do so, Wellington UniVentures supported Jamal through KiwiNet’s Emerging Innovators Programme – an immersive six-month programme designed to equip early career researchers with entrepreneurial skills.

“I always had a drive to bring my research out of the laboratory to solve real-world problems, but didn’t have experience or expertise in the commercialisation side of things,” says Jamal. “The Emerging Innovators Programme was the perfect way to get a taste of the world of commercialisation before jumping in with both feet.”

Throughout the programme, Jamal was able to immediately put the skills he gained to work with support from Wellington UniVentures.

“Wellington UniVentures was there for every step of the programme and gave me an opportunity to apply what I learned. The team is really keyed into the industry and helped connect me with people like Ned Allen [former Chief Scientist at Lockheed Martin] who was extremely helpful in figuring out the market for this technology. When speaking to potential partners and investors, UniVentures would organise and participate in those discussions, and helped me hone my pitch for a new non-scientific audience.”

One of important lessons Jamal learned early on was to shift his mindset to better relate to potential customers and investors. 

“I realised I can’t be offended when people ask, essentially, what’s the point of your technology?” says Jamal. “That’s the fundamental difference between a science approach and a commercialisation approach: it’s not about the technical details of the technology, but whether it can achieve what your customer actually needs."

Jamal was also able to connect with others in the space industry. As part of the EI programme, he travelled to the United States to present at two international aerospace conferences. “Thanks to the EI program I was able to meet important people from the electric propulsion community and introduce them to our new technology,” says Jamal. “It gave me a lot more confidence that we’re working on something that has real potential!”

While he appreciated the chance to expand his network globally, Jamal was surprised to find that he won’t need to leave the country to achieve his ambitions.

“The commercialisation ecosystem in New Zealand is really supportive of technology that is seemingly futuristic and far-off but is actually right around the corner. You don’t necessarily have to go offshore to find like-minded people who are willing to support you.”

One of those kindred spirits was Jamal’s programme mentor, Dr Michael Lakeman. Michael is a scientist-turned-entrepreneur who was able to provide advice rooted in personal experience.

“Michael is in the unique position of being a scientist who started a company and successfully carried it through several rounds of investment. Having the chance to be guided by other scientists, like Michael, was one of the most valuable things about the EI programme.”

Jamal was also supported by Nicole van der Laark and Julia Rothman, both Wellington UniVentures alumni, and KiwiNet’s Seumas McCroskery, all of whom Jamal says were integral to his growth as an entrepreneur.

Jamal is excited to keep building on what he has learned in the programme, with a view to spinning out a new company out of Robinson Research Institute. Wellington UniVentures will support Jamal to identify the best commercialisation pathways for this new venture, and help him secure the necessary funding, partnerships and patents he needs to launch the business. 

Wellington UniVentures Senior Commercialisation Manager, Adam Podmore, is looking forward to working with Jamal on this next phase of his entrepreneurial journey.

“Jamal has an extraordinary scientific mind and the ambition to take this research into industry where it can have real impact. Even for practically minded researchers like Jamal, getting innovations from an academic setting to market can be daunting. We’re here to help navigate that journey and equip innovators with the necessary skills, network and confidence to take their ideas to the world,” says Adam.