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Tell us about yourself

Having completed his PhD in Physics, Ojas has now landed a job as CEO of Photonic Innovations Ltd, a role which gives him an opportunity to satisfy his entrepreneurial drive and use his expertise in the field of nanotechnology.

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.”

What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Following his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Nanotechnology, which he gained at SRM University in his native India, Ojas was keen to come to UC for his PhD. He was awarded a MacDiarmid Institute-funded PhD scholarship and couldn’t wait to get started. 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. ‘I was very keen to work with Professor Simon Brown’s research group because they are a world-class research group. I wanted to see New Zealand too.’

Can you tell us about your research?

Ojas’ PhD focused on the electronic properties of the substance bismuth.

‘I studied thin films of bismuth using Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy (STM). With this technique we study the electronic properties of the material at the fundamental level and how those properties can be applied to a particular application, for example in next-generation electronic components. Bismuth is a very interesting material because it can change its property from semimetal, to metal, to insulator, depending on how thin a film you make.’

Ojas describes PhD research as being full of uncertainties, but that is what he likes most about it.

‘When you are doing research you win and lose on a daily basis. Your research extends your knowledge about the unknown and it gives you pleasure. It’s like a high, knowing something that nobody else on the planet knows – until you publish it of course!

‘As far as a PhD in Physics or Nanotechnology goes, it is wonderful. You have the chance to work on extremely sophisticated, million-dollar equipment which you can brag about all your life! The job opportunities after any degree always depend on the candidate, but a PhD next to your name and Dr in front of it does help.’