The Buzz of Business


Eight years ago, PhD student Sam Yu was inspired by a seminar on entrepreneurship organised by Bill Swallow as part of the Growth Industry Pilot Initiative to build enterprise culture in Lincoln University and the University of Canterbury.

“It really made me feel passionate about doing the hands-on aspects of science,” Yu recalls.

This year, Dr Yu is in front of the audience talking about his experience in both science and sales in a presentation at the BIC-MacDiarmid Institute Innovation Workshop, organised by Dr Simon Brown. 

Yu undertook his PhD in nanotechnology with Dr Alison Downard at Canterbury University, but wanted to look further afield than the lab.

I always thought about doing something other than research,” he admits. “I wanted to take a different path to the usual post-doc.”

Yu’s path took him into Canterbury’s Science and Entrepreneurship Course and on to papers for a Graduate Diploma in Management. In 2009, when technology company Izon Sciences Ltd looked to establish its headquarters in Christchurch, Yu jumped at the chance to join them and is now Izon’s Research and Business Development Manager for the Asia-Pacific region., Despite the long hours and punishing international travel schedule – 33 weeks away from home each year have only recently dropped back to a more manageable 22 – it’s a job he clearly loves.

That workload has played a large part in the company’s successful development of an international client base in 31 countries, including top-ranking organisations such as Harvard, MIT and the US National Cancer Institute. Although Yu initially joined the company as a scientist, his role has expanded along with the scientific applications of nanotechnology. Identifying likely markets, making commercial connections and keeping an eye on the underlying research all come under his watch. He cites multi-tasking, enthusiasm and determination as skills vital to an entrepreneur. Problem-solving is also high on his list – if you can’t make a product or service that is faster, better or more cost-effective than your competitors, then you can’t succeed.

“There are many things we can do, but you are only paid for products and services that can solve a problem.”

Sometimes that success comes through following diverse directions, or a simple “suck it and see” approach. Izon’s very successful nanopore technology was developed through an unlikely sounding source – a flexible plastic used to produce foldable kayaks. An early focus was on DNA sequencing, but difficulty in getting a consistent pore size led to investigations shifting from the nano region to include micropore applications, opening up the potential for working with drugs, vaccines and viruses, bacteria and blood products. After much testing and many prototypes, a product range was officially launched in April 2010, supported by back-office software/hardware engineers, administration and support staff and researchers.

Yu has found his research background a door-opener for making connections with the science-oriented companies and organisations with which he works. “They don’t necessarily react well to conventional sales and marketing approaches, but with science there’s a lot of connection and understanding.”

Scientific collaborations and networks provide an entry, which makes things easier when you’re from an unknown company in a country at the bottom of the world. Yu has seen a lot of networking spin out of universities and institutions like the MacDiarmid Institute. Cross-disciplinary growth has helped as well. As a chemist, he looks at blood components in a totally different way to biologists, and out of that can come a broader understanding of research directions, instrumentation applications, and commercial potential. “I get a buzz from the customers,” he says. He cites the satisfaction to be gained from, for example, developing a diagnostic tool for early detection of cancers. Who wouldn’t get a buzz from that?