Alumni: Ojas Mahapatra – Photonic Innovations

Ojas Mahapatra is one of those enviable people who gets paid to do what he loves. In 2013, he became the CEO of Photonic Innovations, a spin-out company from the University of Otago which is commercialising gas detectors for industries where levels of potentially toxic gases need to be monitored. The technology was developed by Professor Andrew Wilson and uses laser spectroscopy, unlike most detectors on the market. “The detector has high reliability, high accuracy, you don’t have to calibrate it, and there are no consumable parts, so you don’t have to replace anything in it, this is a huge cost saving for the industry,” says Ojas. 2013 was also the year Ojas completed his PhD at the University of Canterbury, and he freely admits he had a life-changing moment when applying for postdoctoral fellowships. His supervisor, MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator Simon Brown, recognising Ojas’ business nous, advised him to pursue that rather than sciences. Without that advice, Ojas probably would have continued in research, rather than going into business. Following Brown’s advice paid off quickly, as Ojas was soon hired by PowerHouse Ventures, and within a year was placed as CEO of the company’s new investment, Photonic Innovations. PowerHouse Ventures had already worked with Ojas when he and a team mate had entered a business plan competition called Entré. The idea was to paint or infuse nanoparticles on to buildings or roads, using them to break down organic pollutants. The team won both the best technical and financial business categories and second overall, scoring prizes worth $26,000, including working with PowerHouse Ventures on their business plan. “I’ve always had this entrepreneurial bug,” Ojas says. “I was always fascinated by the applications of what we study. If you’re just studying it, there’s no point, you’re just wasting your time and money. It doesn’t make sense unless you can actually convert it into something, and it is beneficial to the society or someone.” After the Christchurch earthquake, the project was put on hold. For many people, this would have been a major blow, but Ojas simply says, “I’m really happy where I am right now.” “The earthquake was a major event in my life. It actually made me stay in New Zealand, and Christchurch especially. I have never seen so much organisation, the people here are amazing. Probably the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” he says. Ojas came to New Zealand from India on a fully-funded MacDiarmid Institute doctoral scholarship studying the electronic properties of bismuth. He had other offers from Germany and the US, but was attracted by the reputation of Brown’s research and New Zealand. He says coming to New Zealand was easily “the best decision of my life.” “My life would have been completely different if The MacDiarmid Institute hadn’t funded me,” says Ojas. “I now have control over my future, where I can decide what steps I want to take, and they have enabled me to do so much. I don’t think it would have happened anywhere else.