A research group solving ‘today’ problems

An interview with

Meet Cather:Cather Simpson, PhD

Cather Simpson is a Professor of Physics & Chemical Sciences at The University of Auckland in New Zealand. She earned an interdisciplinary BA as an Echols Scholar at the University of Virginia and a PhD from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.  After her PhD, she took a postdoc position at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then got a tenure-track position in the chemistry department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Soon after securing tenure at Case Western, she moved to New Zealand to accept her current position at the University of Auckland. Recently she has also taken a part-time position as a partner with the Pacific Channel investment firm, helping to fund the commercialization of new technologies in New Zealand.

Initially motivated to pursue cooperation with the private sector by the different funding environment in New Zealand, she found that industry collaboration was a great fit for her entrepreneurial interests. In the years since then, she has grown this collaboration into an impressive effort that includes the Photon Factory, a research facility that conducts fundamental research and solves industry problems using state-of-the-art laser photonic technology, and three spinout startup companies.

I was particularly impressed by the strong focus that Cather and her group place on identifying and solving their client companies’ problems. They make a point of listening to their clients, rather than the far-too-common brute-force approach of trying to push their technology out into the marketplace, hoping to find a market application.

Below is an excerpt of my interview with Marinna to discuss her career path so far. (Look for the full interview to appear in my forthcoming book, Shaping the World: The Privilege of Being a Scientist in Industry)

An excerpt from our conversation:

Dave:  How did you come to collaborate with the private sector?

Cather: That came about because I moved to New Zealand. My first professor position was at Case Western in the United States, and industry collaboration was not a part of the program I built there. There wasn’t really a logical commercialization step in the field that I'm in, which is ultrafast spectroscopy. We weren’t going to open an ultrafast store where people could come pay us to buy a spectrum. In the mid-nineties you could support very fundamental research in the States by saying that you might uncover something really important with commercial application in 15 or 20 years.

It wasn't until I came to New Zealand, where they have a very different funding system, that I created a laboratory that was explicitly outwardly facing. I was pushed outside of my comfort zone just to get funding to build my lab, and I realized these really exotic laser pulses that we used for spectroscopy were useful for all sorts of industry applications.

It's a bit like where NMR was before it became useful to organic chemists. An NMR machine is actually a complicated quantum mechanical device that uses the spin of fundamental particles, but an organic chemist can get something useful out of it without knowing any of that.

I felt femtoseconds laser pulses were at a similar transition point, so I set up my lab to test that hypothesis out. It was a matter of trying to figure out how the 10,000 hours of expertise that we had, to borrow a bit from Malcolm Gladwell, could be repurposed to solve problems that were not spectroscopically focused. I figured that we were really good at controlling light and really good at making electronics and instrumentation talk to one another, so we ought to be able to find out what problems needed to be solved outside of the research lab. That's how I started working with industry.

Dave:  That 10,000 hours reference is a great way to think about industry collaboration. Companies tend to hire people who can make things quickly, not people with a deep knowledge of the research and techniques. But sometimes things don’t go the way they planned and end up needing that deep knowledge. That’s when an academic collaboration can be a wonderful solution for them. They don’t need you on their staff, but they may well need you on their team.

Cather: That’s right. Companies like Bell Labs used to hire employees with that expertise. They brought together a bunch of people who love to solve hard problems and gave them hard problems to solve, sort of like ‘brain candy.’ But that doesn’t happen much in companies anymore.

Our first big project turned out to be very rewarding. It was with an optical touch screen company called NextWindow. They don't exist anymore, but at the time they were trying to make optical touch screens that use light rather than the electronic screens in your iPad.

The way those work is they have a sheet of glass with infrared emitters around the edges and sensors at the corners. When put your finger on the glass, it creates a shadow and the sensors can triangulate that shadow to find the position of the finger on the screen. They wanted to do multi-touch sensing on a large screen so someone could do something like playing the piano, but the dynamic range was too large and the response they were getting was too variable. They brought us this problem as our first commercial project.

It was right after the lab had opened, so I literally said yes to everything. But I told my team the caveat was that we actually had to fix their problem. And I told the company, ‘Look, I have a small team and we’ve never done a project like this before, and I’ve never worked with a company before, and it’s easy for me to say, ‘Oh yes, we can solve your problem,’ but this is my first time through this. How about if we start with a four-week proof-of-concept project where we'll work with you to see if we have the skills, the equipment, and the understanding to solve this problem. And then if it looks promising, then we'll do a big contract where we develop the complete solution.’

The company was happy with our approach and our honesty, and the university was happy with the arrangement because it was a proper contract. The team that I set up to work on it got so excited about it, and worked so well with the company, that we actually solved the entire problem in that first four weeks. We never needed the big contract phase we had discussed.

The solution required designing a widget that fit into the customer’s instrument. We had to design it to meet the performance requirements and fit into their instrument, and along the way we had to develop some new fabrication processes. The design engineer from my team was on a patent, and the widgets we developed ended up being mass manufactured. So, this was a proper industry project, and an awesome success story for our first commercial project.

It also got us some valuable testimonials because we did what we said we would do. We met their goals, and we did it on their time scales, and that was just what they were looking for.  We ended up with multiple follow-on contracts with them and the design engineer was seconded to their company for a period.

And when our NextWindow contact moved on to another company, he brought us in to help them a few times. I ended up sending several students to work on-site with their team. They would essentially hire someone from out of my team to bring their expertise, go sit in their company and work closely with them, and then come back to the university. It worked out really well and it was so fantastic for all of that opportunity and experience to come from that first success.

Dave:  I love that you were aggressive and took a risk, but approached the company with full integrity regarding your experience level. It sounds like that approach worked out very well.

Cather: It also completely changed the way I thought about the impact I could have with my work. I’d started my career imagining that success might be defined as having my discoveries appear in a physical chemistry textbook in 15 years, and yet here we were solving problems were making a big difference today. That contrast between my early expectations and what we were achieving was just huge to me.

Dave:  What a great story, Cather.

It took me about three years to switch from thinking of industry collaboration as simply a means to fund my basic science habit, and being almost apologetic about it, to recognizing that the impacts we were having through our industry-facing research were extremely rewarding in and of themselves.

I can still remember the moment when that switch happened. We were doing a project with a company called Intuitive Surgical in the US, the company that makes the da Vinci robotic surgical system. They have a grant funding program and we had gotten some funding to study using femtosecond pulses to do bone surgery. This is a medical technology company, so they're looking for science that will drive improvements in health outcomes, and it was a very exciting project. I was in California with the PhD student who was working on the project to present our results at the symposium they held for the grant recipients. I was sitting in this room full of scientists who were doing all this really stretchy science, but it was all directly related to solving immediate problems in clinical settings. I sat there and thought to myself, ‘This is so cool. We are doing something that might help people in only three years or so.’ And that was the moment when I made the switch. I realized that impact isn’t just about papers or talks that underpin tomorrow’s innovations. Impact can be practical, direct research and development to solve a “today” problem.


Find Cather's LinkedIn profile here.

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