In a good position to create impact

Published Aug 16, 2019

A newly created position at Viclink—known as ‘Innovator-in-Residence’—is helping a Victoria University of Wellington researcher to commercialise the many good ideas coming out of his research group, so that their discoveries can begin solving real-world problems sooner.

Dr Franck Natali—a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, and lead scientist in the University’s Advanced Materials Lab—is spending two days a week in the Viclink office as the company’s first Innovator-in-Residence.

“The role gives me considerable scope to develop the intellectual property (IP) that the group has developed over recent years,” says Franck, who is now literally working alongside Viclink to develop commercialisation strategies for the IP. 

“I sit right next to Viclink’s IP Manager—and in the middle of the IP Commercialisation team—so I have all the expertise, support and mentoring I need at my fingertips now.”

Franck says it’s the right time to be leveraging the family of patents—and the group’s strong industry connections—to start creating impact in the world. 

“Viclink helped us realise the commercial potential of our research early on, and a lot of time and money has been invested in developing and protecting it,” he says. “It was time to get serious about getting it to market where it can make a difference to society.” 

Franck says the new position acts as a framework for integrating the different worlds of academia and business, which will help him to progress patented areas of IP from the group. 

The first involves using a new material—rare-earth nitride films—to create a new type of computer memory storage that will enable electronic devices to operate faster while using less energy. 

“The need for greater data-processing and storage capability, while using less power, are key aspects in next-generation electronics,” Franck says. “We think there is huge potential for our idea in this global market.” 

The second piece of IP involves using new materials to produce ammonia gas in a less energy-intensive way than the current industry process, while the third innovation is a niche software tool—developed by Franck’s PhD student—that can calculate the electron diffraction patterns of crystals.  

Franck says that while some may view his new position as ‘risky’—given that he’ll have less time to author publications and carry out research—he thinks times are changing. 

“One of Victoria University of Wellington’s primary strategies is to enhance the impact of its research, so commercialisation is increasingly being recognised as a marker of professional achievement," he says. "There’s also an understanding that successfully commercialising IP not only creates more visibility for the University, it generates income to fund more research projects.”

French-born Franck completed his PhD in Physics in France, before moving to New Zealand to complete his post-doctoral study under the University of Canterbury’s Professor Simon Brown—an entrepreneurial academic who, at that time, was leading a nanotechnology start-up from his research. 

“I got to experience first-hand the merge between science and business; it really opened my eyes to the benefits of commercialisation,” says Franck whose next job involved working for industry—at French company Riber, who provide innovative solutions for the semiconductor industry.

Franck says there are more synergies between science and business than people might first think. 

“When you’re working in a lab, you’re experimenting; when you are trying to build a business out of your research, you’re also experimenting. And just like a lab experiment, your success comes from attempting something new, not just the result.” 

He says he was excited by the opportunity that the Innovator-in-Residence position offered him. “It’s a new model for Viclink and the University so it’s a privilege to be the first to take on this role and maximise the chances of commercialising our group’s novel IP. 

“The Viclink team has a great mix of skills and scientific knowledge which makes them easy to talk to, and I find them very open and willing to understand the academic point of view. At the end of the day, they just want you to be successful.”