Still Fun After All These Years


For MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator David Williams, twenty years of taking his lab-based research to the market in various forms hasn’t dimmed the excitement of being a part of such development.

“Good science leads to good technology, and if you’ve got good technology you can commercialise it,” he says. “It’s great.”

It’s a familiar area for the Auckland University Professor of Electrochemistry. Williams has worked on a number of spin-offs from his research, in New Zealand and overseas. Lab research led to a line of gas sensors that ended up with a million products a year being manufactured by Capteur Sensors, a VC-funded startup in the UK. Instruments used to measure air quality came out of research into the characteristics of semi-conducting oxides, taking just 18 months to go commercial. The Auckland-based company established to market those, Aeroqual, has seen a “spectacular” growth rate of 30% per annum, recently reaching $4-5 million in annual sales.

In the UK, Williams was working in the diagnostic test area with a company that had its origins in blood glucose measurement devices. Instead of a start-up, the new business that it spawned began with the purchase of another company which made home pregnancy tests. That, says Williams, gave him experience of working in a rapidly growing, acquisitive corporation.

Like many Kiwis, Williams eventually wanted to come home, willing to swap the overseas opportunities for a more relaxed lifestyle. What both startled and delighted him was the discovery that New Zealand wasn’t the sleepy back-water as so often portrayed, but a place where “really neat stuff” was happening in the science arena. “It was a real eye-opener to see the quality and quantity and range of wonderful science going on here.”

And while being at the bottom of the world does sometimes necessitate lengthy plane trips, the international network and collaborations didn’t stop.

Williams maintains significant collaborations abroad. He is a Principal Investigator and Adjunct Professor at the Dublin-based Biomedical Diagnostics Institute; has been a visiting Professor at the University of Toronto and University College London; and an Honorary Professor of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. He has worked on corrosion science at the Australian Synchrotron with Bridget Ingham, collaborated on smart surface developments and nanoparticle synthesis with MacDiarmid Institute researchers in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch; and is looking at laser manufacturing with Cather Simpson at Auckland University. “There’s a lot of stuff going on. People are happy to use whatever expertise I have to offer.”

Williams credits the MacDiarmid Institute with helping to strengthen ties between researchers, institutions and industry, a key factor in success, from networking to funding to equipment provision, right through to business development. “If you’ve got a sufficiently extensive network, someone’s got something going on. There’s always some piece of kit you can use somewhere else. Somewhere there’s a smart person doing something interesting.”

He also cites the “terrific entrepreneurial culture” at Auckland University as inspirational, from the energy provided by the students to the strong support from Auckland Uniservices and relationships with organisation like business growth centre, IceHouse. “It’s the best I’ve seen anywhere.”

Back in 2006, when Williams swapped the UK for New Zealand, he says that he thought to himself “’I can really have some fun here’…and that’s proved true”.