Desi Ramoo – Innovation Agent

There are more than seventy MacDiarmid Institute researchers around the country, burrowing away at the frontiers of knowledge. Their fundamental research is uncovering secrets to bend the rules of modern life and shape our future. But when they are burrowing this deep, it can be easy to forget their reasons for starting in the first place—the purposeof the research. It is Desi Ramoo’s job to remind them. Desi is the MacDiarmid Institute’s ‘Innovation Agent’.  He brings an incredibly diverse range of experience to the role: from research and running businesses, to selling pancakes and digging holes on building sites. At the MacDiarmid Institute he helps researchers spot commercial opportunities for their research, and connects them with the right channels to transform their research into real-world applications. He also runs workshops to train researchers how to think like entrepreneurs. “I’m excited by the potential I see,” says Desi. “We’re particularly strong on sensor devices—medical applications and water-quality sensors. There’s a sensor being developed that will allow medical centres to test for STDs in half an hour. Usually you have to send a sample off to a lab and it takes at least 24 hours.”  “There’s a surface coating being developed that has self-cleaning properties. That one’s massive! We’ve already had enquiries about this from industry.”  The process of transforming research into real world applications takes a particular way of viewing things. The best ideas are often sparked by encounters with people from completely different fields. An example of this is a recent potential collaboration that has sprung up with a Māori group from Whanganui. “When I first started working with the MacDiarmid Institute I was based at Creative HQ in Wellington. Two guys came in and wanted to speak to a scientist,” Desi explains. “I was the only scientist on site, so I spoke to them. They turned out to be part of a trust that have a big operation growing mushrooms, making compost, and raising eels to export to China. We got on well and started developing ideas together. I saw the opportunity to extract methane from the compost and to store it … there’s another researcher I know that’s working on a system for storing a large amount of methane in a small volume. In terms of the eels, we can provide water sensors so that they can check on the water quality to make sure the eels stay healthy.” “I’ve spoken with their iwi leaders and they’re keen to see this project progress. They have money available to fund the right projects. It’s a win-win.” Desi is the ultimate connector. He works with the local councils, startup companies, local community groups, researchers, schools, government departments and anyone else that calls for help.  If you look at Desi’s varied work history it makes sense that he can build relationships in so many different circles. He started out digging holes on a building site. Then he became a plumber and owned his own business. It was through visiting science museums on a year-long motorcycle tour of North America that he caught the science bug. He embarked on an adventure in theoretical physics, completing a PhD and postdoctorate before designing lasers for British Telecom. He also started an incredibly successful pancake-making business. When he came to New Zealand he worked for the Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ), developing computational fluid dynamic models for research into ‘leaky home’ issues, ultrasound techniques to view timber framing inside walls, and technology to stop rooftop solar panels from overheating. Desi has a special way with young researchers and works closely with the MacDiarmid Emerging Students Association (MESA.) “When students hear about commercialisation from Desi they warm to it,” says Brendan Darby, chair of MESA. “They see that he’s been in the academic world; he knows the route to make these things possible. He’s a scientist. It’s a real issue.” “The young researchers are very open-minded,” Desi says. “They’re keen to see commercial outcomes and learn how to do it. If you can get them to see opportunities early on, it makes all the difference,” he says.  “In many cases, all it takes is a slight change of angle to make a piece of research line up with a commercial outcome. Sometimes you could do a few extra experiments on the side of your main research to explore a commercial opportunity. Then I can step in and support them to do a scoping project and work out the commercial potential.  “The challenge now is to get researchers thinking about commercial opportunities outside New Zealand,” Desi says. “Our researchers are driving future industry—they should be thinking about where our market is globally. That’s going to benefit New Zealand hugely.”