Newest Board member a natural fit

Published Sep 8, 2020

Victoria University of Wellington’s newest Pro Vice-Chancellor—Professor Ehsan Mesbahi—was warmly welcomed to the Wellington UniVentures Board on the 8th of September.

Professor Mesbahi—Pro Vice-Chancellor of Science, Engineering, Architecture and Design Innovation—has always believed in research excellence with a purpose, and says he has a ‘natural, organic chemistry’ with Wellington UniVentures, the University’s commercialisation office.

“Everything we do as a university needs to contribute to addressing national and global challenges and building a better world—commercialisation plays a vital role in us being able to achieve that.”

He says that Universities have to look beyond “research for the sake of research, and teaching for the sake of teaching” if they want to stay relevant to society and their communities.

“The mindset 30-40 years ago was that researchers talked about what they are good at—but today, I think we need to take a step forward and ask ‘what are they good for’?

“If we focus on building research that is industry-driven, end-user driven, application-driven, and ‘mission-driven’, our research and teaching will meet the demands of society, industry, the environment, and government.”

Although still fairly new to Wellington and the University—arriving in March this year, just before New Zealand’s Alert Level 4 lockdown—Professor Mesbahi says he is already impressed by what he has seen of Wellington UniVentures.

“There’s a strong structure in place for supporting the commercialisation of the University’s intellectual property (IP),” he says. “Their tactical and influential approach gives our academics a solid place to engage with industry from, helping them to create impact from their research as a result.”

As Wellington UniVentures’ newest Board member, he says he is looking forward to seeing more engagement —potentially through seminars and workshops—aimed at informing the University’s academics and students about the importance of research commercialisation, and the impact it can have.

“I’m keen to support any efforts that enable our people to think like entrepreneurs,” he says.

No stranger to the risk-taking nature of entrepreneurship himself, Professor Mesbahi’s long and extensive career in industry and academia—including 21 years with Newcastle University in England—saw him set up a marine division in Newcastle, followed by a branch campus in Singapore in 2011, where he became the first dean and founding chief executive officer.

“When I set out to take Newcastle University into the Singapore market everyone said ‘no, it can’t be done’,” he says. “But with risk comes reward.” By the time he returned to the UK to take up the role of Vice Principal and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) with University of the West of Scotland, he had grown the Singapore branch to a team of 90 people who he says were “organically developed but strategically-fertilised.”

He attributes much of his career success to the fact that “half of my brain is an academic and the other half is a businessman”—something he says that he owes to his late father, a self-made millionaire in national and international trade.

While much has been written about Professor Mesbahi, one thing that people may not know is that he is colour blind—something he has turned to his advantage.

“I don’t see what you see, and you don’t see what I see,” he says. “Therefore, I need to ask more questions, and gain a fuller understanding of a situation or environment, before I decide whether to trust my eyes.”

He says that he utilises the same approach to engage with industry.

“Academics don’t see the way that industry sees, and industry does not see the way academics see, so there can be a reluctance to trust what is not understood. By seeking more information to fully understand something from both sides, I always aim to bridge the gap between what academia does and what industry wants.”

In complete alignment with Victoria University of Wellington’s philosophy of research with impact, Professor Mesbahi says he sees potential for the University to experience exponential growth with industry at all levels.

“Input vs output is not a worthwhile measure in my book,” he says. “Input vs outcome however, encourages us to create output with impact, which is far more important,” he says.