Episode 7: STEM gets down to business

How do you turn your STEM studies into a living wage? Or even better - how do you turn your golden STEM idea into actual gold? You might just find out in this episode of Secret Life of STEM.

We talk to select entrepreneurs from the Melbourne Accelerator Program, a start up fund that helps grow Australian businesses. These people combined their knowledge of STEM and business, and are now using it to improve the world with the companies Beyond Ag and Curvecrete. You’ll also hear from a teacher that turned her STEM skills into an automated roll-marking system. Neat!

Also in this episode, our reverse engineer Danielle Goulopolous discovers what Google knows about you - and how to reduce that secret knowledge.

Phoebe Gardner: Hi, I'm Phoebe, I'm cofounder of Beyond Ag and I come from a background in architecture and mathematics.

Alex Arnold: I'm Alex Arnold, the other co-founder of Beyond Ag and my background is in research with genetics and agricultural science.

Buffy Gorrilla: So, STEM backgrounds, excellent. So, what is Beyond Ag?

Alex Arnold: Beyond Ag is a new company that is looking at insects to recycle food waste, that would otherwise go to landfill, into sustainable animal protein for feeds for the agriculture and poultry industries as well as pets. We also produce a fertilizer so that's really suitable for the growing organics industry.

Buffy Gorrilla: And where did this idea come from?

Alex Arnold: In genetics, we use fruit flies a lot for molecular genetics research because they're really small but they grow really quickly. They have lots of offspring, they grow without much water and they convert food very quickly from- into more insects. And all of these things are really applicable in an agricultural setting when we're tackling food security issues. You know? We're going to have nine billion people on the planet, more people are going to be wanting to eat more meat, so there's a huge forecasted increase in demand for more protein. But we're running out of land to produce it on, so we need a radically new way to start producing all of this extra animal feed protein. It seems quite obvious to me that we can also solve the food waste problem by feeding the food waste to the insects and solving the protein problem at the same time.

Buffy Gorrilla: Are they worms?

Alex Arnold: No, so they're called the black soldier fly. They're a species, they're in the fly family but they're very different from your regular house fly. They look kind of like a wasp but they're friendly, I promise. They don't spread any diseases or anything and it's the larval stage, the big maggot stage that we're interested in.

Buffy Gorrilla: And so these little guys eat our food waste?

Alex Arnold: That's right. So, they eat anything that would come from a kitchen, or a food processor, so McCain's or Birdseye or something like that ,and they eat it really quickly. So it's about ten times faster than composting. The insects themselves, they grow about three thousand times bigger in twelve days. Doesn't require any additional water, all the water that they need comes from the food waste itself. They can be farmed in a warehouse, they don't need irrigated land or anything like that. They can be farmed vertically and the insect is very amenable to automation.

Erin: Jobs, Gates, Bezos and Zuckerberg … no need to even give a first name - these names are synonymous with some of the most successful companies today. And maybe someday we can add Phoebe and Alex to that list.

Buffy: Sadly, these are mostly American men, but for better or for worse, they are well-known examples of people who took a little nugget of an idea and turned it into a global brand. And maybe someday, we can add Phoebe and Alex and your names to this list as well.

Erin: Welcome to episode seven of the Secret Life of STEM. My name is Erin Grant, I am a PhD student in Physics here at the University of Melbourne. In this episode, producer Buffy Gorrilla and I are going to open up the entrepreneur's toolbox to show you some of the skills you need to become an entrepreneur, plus a whole lot of grit and determination.

Buffy: Let’s start at the top, where all good innovations should start - or should they? Let’s get some help from someone who’s been there.

Greg Nyilasy: My name is Greg Nyilasy, and I'm a fellow at the Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne. I also teach at the Faculty of Business and Economics in marketing and entrepreneurship.

I used to be an entrepreneur because I used to run my own advertising agency for a while. Then I was head of innovation at the consultancy in New York where I worked. And so, I guess I practiced it and then I learned a whole lot more about it since I've been here at the university. This has been now eight years. I always say to my students, "I wish I had known, maybe like 10% of what I learned since, when I was doing it," because I was pretty much just going by the seat of my pants, and I probably made a lot of mistakes. Had I known some of the stuff that we teach at Wade, I would have been much better off.

Erin: Since this is a university, some of the ideas come from the research that academics around here are doing. Let’s look at one concrete example.

Greg Nyilasy: It's a startup that helped architects and builders to create weird shaped concrete pieces. Concrete is really difficult to mould into curves and sort of odd shapes. This startup had a technological innovation of how to do that, how to create that mould. Okay?

And so, the IP resided with some folks in the engineering department, but then they partnered with students at the Wade Institute who are experts on how to do the business side, the entrepreneurship side. So you'd put these two things together and then you have a startup that it's on its way to success, hopefully.

Erin: By the way, IP stands for Intellectual Property.

Buffy: I went to the Melbourne Accelerator Program or MAP as it’s known around here - it’s where I met Alex and Phoebe of Beyond Ag. I got to chat with some of the other early stage entrepreneurs - and guess what? I met…

Warren Rudd: Hello, I'm Warren Rudd, and I'm a cofounder of Curvecrete.

Daniel Prohasky: Hi, I'm Daniel Prohasky and I'm a cofounder of Curvecrete as well.

Buffy: This is the company and these are the founders Greg was just talking about. Warren and Daniel are making impossibly curved concrete panels. And they are using flash, which is left over coal. The Curvecrete guys are able to reuse something that would normally just be a waste product, to create a sustainable new product.

Daniel Prohasky: So, the original innovation came from the Melbourne School of Design, with Paulo and David Leggett and myself, Daniel. I’m guessing it's just audio so you can't see me. But the original innovation was more about how you create building products in a sustainable way in a more broad context and then we narrowed it down to concrete from that method of manufacturing. The manufacturing method was the center of the innovation and it's about using robotics to form beautiful curves, could have been any material really. Now, we focus on concrete because we see the commercial benefits and the maximum amount of impact that we can make with this innovation we think is in concrete because it's a very carbon dioxide intensive manufacturing process so typically concrete contributes to about eighty percent of its mass in CO2 emissions. So, every ton of concrete that's produced, produces about eight hundred kilos of CO2.

Buffy: Don't worry, we’ll hear more from Daniel from Curvecrete in just a little bit.

Erin: So, you have your idea, you have heard two of them so far - flies and concrete - but how do you get from a great idea to a great company, it’s probably harder than it sounds, right Greg?

Greg Nyilasy: That's right. So there's quite specific skills that you need as an entrepreneur. There's different schools for teaching entrepreneurship, but the new school, the school that we teach is built basically on three pillars. One is called lean startup. There's agile development, and there's design thinking. So these are three different approaches to entrepreneurship, but they are all modern and they are different from an old-school approach. Lean startup, design thinking, agile, they are all much more iterative, which is to say that you actually don't invest a whole lot of your time and money into something elaborate before you know whether it works in the marketplace. Instead, you dip your toes into the marketplace first very quickly and then you change, "You pivot," we say. So pivot means that you make a fundamental change in your business model.

The fundamental commonality between these three approaches is to start with the consumer. To me, I'm from marketing, I worked for an advertising agency and a market research firm, where I was head of R&D. To me, it's natural to always think about the consumer. I wouldn't do anything without thinking about the consumer, but it's not necessarily where a lot of entrepreneurs would start. It's not necessarily where a lot of engineers would start. People tend to, especially technical founders who are really, I guess, passionate about the technological solution, think of the solution first. It's only secondary whether someone would like it or pick it up, or whether there's a real market for it. Often what we see is technologies chasing markets. So people have something, and as we talked about this before, translating suggests sort of that approach. You have something, then you translate it into the marketplace. This modern school of entrepreneurship says, "start with the market," and then you back translate or you go back into what your technology is and-

Buffy Gorrilla: Kind of reverse engineer?

Greg Nyilasy: Almost like you reverse engineer it. It's almost like you're digging a tunnel from both ends, right? You're digging from the market, as well as you have some technology that's hopefully unique, and then you meet in the middle. But if you're just digging from the tech side, you may never find a market.

Erin: And speaking of reverse engineering, here’s Danielle Goulopolous looking at how targeted advertising works. This is a real money maker for companies like Google and Facebook.

Danielle Goulopolous: Hi, I’m Danielle, and today I’m going to explain to you the concept of ad targeting, which sounds really boring but don’t worry, it isn’t. I actually hate hard core science, but I do like scientific explanations, and I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m an arts student doing a media communications degree, which basically means I love talking and writing, and hate anything boring or loaded with scientific jargon. So I know that if I’m falling asleep in the explanation, you would be too.

Ok, so I’m sure we’ve all wondered how Google knew that we were looking for a new phone or that we were secretly online dating. And the way Google does it is pretty simple – their algorithms track all our online searching activity. Like, when you sign into Gmail on your phone browser, Google has now linked your entire browser with your Google account. It doesn’t matter if you sign out at the end of your Gmail session – since it’s the browser that’s logged in, anything you search on Google can now be tracked and linked back to your Google account. And even if you were evasive and didn’t give out much information in the Gmail sign up-process, you can pretty much be sure that Google at least knows your name, the names of friends that you email, and the kinds of emails you like to write, which gives a name and social network to your search history as well.

This is how Google target ads – now they can see everything you search and click on, they can guess what might interest you in the future. For example, searching “best 2018 science-fiction novels” tells Google you are interested in sci-fi and reading. And searching “Balwyn cinema session times” shows not only that you like movies, but that you probably live in the suburb of Balwyn. Google can even be sexist, guessing your gender and age based on your interests and searches. For example, Googling “best restaurants in Parkville” can lead Google to discover that you’re affiliated with the area of Parkville and Melbourne Uni, which probably means that you’re a student there, and likely between the ages of 18 to 24.

So now we know how they do it, we can get Google to stop pestering us with wrongly deducted ads, or embarrassing ads for health insurance or new underwear. Instead of just clicking dismiss on every wrong ad, we can hack into the profile that Google has created for us and alter it. All we need to do is Google search “What does Google know about me?” and click on the second result, by a website called Medium. This page has links which will take you to a secret Google page that shows your Google profile and lists all that Google has deducted about you. On this page, you can alter Google’s deductions so that they know more or, depending on your interests, less about what you really care about. Make the algorithms work for you, and not for Google.

So, there you go – the next time you’re looking at a wrongly deduced ad for hotels or health insurance, you know the secret to Google’s brains. And now, like a clever citizen or a science type, you can hack into those brains and change what Google knows and thinks about you. If only we could do that to people in real life! Well anyway, that’s it for me, I hope you learned something, and if you’re listening it means you’re still awake so thanks for listening right to the end!

Good luck in your science adventures and don’t be one of boring scientists. Be a compelling communicator.

Erin: Thanks, Danielle - I always learn so much from these segments!

Buffy: If you’ve got your great concept, and you are armed with some business skills to scale it so the world can benefit, where does STEM figure into these innovations? Daniel at CurveCrete showed me how their innovation uses STEM, back at the MAP offices.

Buffy: Oh my God, that's so cool. So, I'm looking at, I'm going to do some fast math - twelve concrete panels.

Daniel Prohasky: Correct.

Buffy: I'm out now.

Daniel Prohasky: So, tell me science, technology, engineering, mathematics.

Buffy: You got it, yes. So, STEM. So, what -

Daniel Prohasky: Let's go backwards.

Buffy: All right, so tell me how these twelve concrete panels utilise STEM.

Daniel Prohasky: Okay, so, let's do this backwards. M for mathematics. Each panel is a ruled surface which is a hyperbolic paraboloid so the way that you describe this saddle curvature like a Pringle chip or a saddle on a horse. We can describe those with ruled rulings, that are straight along the surface and sort of twisted. Each panel is a quad panel so it has four edges, so it's like a rhombus or rhomboid if you like. It's like a twisted rectangle and some are more like a diamond shape than others.

Buffy: So, they're not equal sizes?

Daniel Prohasky: No, they're all different but they're all produced by the same robotic method. So, the single mould is reusable, over and over again and that's where the engineering, so the E, comes in. Where we use mechatronics and robotics to design a control system using that mathematical method, the M, to drive that mechanical process. Where are we up to now? Technology. Using digital fabrication techniques we can fabricate these sort of custom robotic systems. Create our own custom components to produce the mechanical mould but also, say, in the structural frame that's behind that's holding up all the panels, there's some digitally fabricated tubing that's drilled with a robot, there's some water jet cut steel plate connection details that have been used and structurally optimised using engineering principles, and the science in the material. So, the concrete that I was talking about before that's low carbon is called geopolymer cement and typically, standard cement called Portland cement is very alkaline in nature so it's very basic, it's the opposite of acid. So the flash that you get from coal power plants as a waste product needs an alkaline stabilizer to be able to activate its chemical reaction.

Buffy: That sounds like the S to me, I think we have our backwards STEM!

Daniel Prohasky: You add in some caustic soda that you can find in your home, mix that in with flash and alumina silicate which is another component to it to add to the silicate content of the cement, then you fuse all of that chemical reaction together and you've got a basic cement reaction that you can create with a waste product that's actually incredibly strong. It's got the equivalent strength of Portland cement and you can produce all of these wonderful panels with it with about eighty percent reduction in CO2 emissions.

Buffy: And, may I tap it?

Daniel Prohasky: Yes, of course.

Buffy: Yeah, it really is very strong. Very thin.

Hey listeners, if you have an idea that you believe is the best idea ever, here’s Greg with some thoughts of how to test the waters to see if your innovation has what it takes to make it. And it’s not all success stories.

Greg Nyilasy: The first thing I would do is I would test it. You can read up on Lean Startup and how this works. I think those materials that you find online, for example, Steve Blank, the Lean Startup guru. There's a lot of materials about how an idea is translated into something workable. You cannot just sit on an idea and think that the idea will carry the day. In fact, ideas are overrated. You might not want to hear this. I worked in advertising, which was pretty much the same situation where on the one hand we love ideas because they are manifestations of creativity, and it's great. But the problem is that ideas are cheap and they are cheap to copy and they are cheap to dream about. But the reality is real entrepreneurship starts with testing with the market, finding a market, finding the best customers. Often that means actually giving up your idea or changing your idea so much that you don't recognise it. We see entrepreneurs, students, as well as others, in some of these programs who love the idea so much that they don't want to let go, even when they get direct feedback from the marketplace that it will never work.

Buffy: Okay, so in addition to finding an idea - here’s another thing you need to add to your to-do list: become resilient and develop a thick skin. We’re ready Greg, what else have you got?

Greg Nyilasy: I would also look at competition. So it's a fundamental pillar of strategy that you're not alone, unfortunately. However great your idea is, there's always competitors, either directly or indirectly. So again, that's depressing in a way, right? Because it's saying, "Well there's others who did the same or very similar."

Erin: Noted… and here’s a recap from Greg, with his final point, which you may want to file away for ‘future you’ to look at some day… soon.

Greg Nyilasy: An entrepreneur is a strange person who's able to resolve that conflict, right? So on the one hand, believes in the idea enough to venture, and even when it looks not realistic, but at the same time realistic enough to do something that the market will like. So customer centricity, looking at the competition and certainly life experience. So getting an internship or getting mentored by someone who's done something in that area, or any entrepreneurial activity would matter a whole lot. And again, this is not to dismiss the dreamers. I'm a dreamer myself, but you need this sort of heavy dose of reality check.

Buffy: Because as Martin Elhay, a Business Development Manager at the University of Melbourne says, it can be a long process to get a STEM idea to market - depending on which letter of STEM you are interested in.

Martin Elhay: It really depends in what area and the kind. I don't have a lot of experience in the engineering world, although I've had some exposure recently to that. It feels like it can be easier in areas that are not regulated to the same degree. I think that sometimes when it's not medicine, when it's not veterinary science, you can actually find pathways for a product that could be more immediate. You find people already starting companies on detecting water stress and plants using drone technology and imaging. That's happening at this university already. That's taking months and years, rather than decades. But if you've identified say a pathway in cancer, for example, the Venetoclax-

Erin: -is supercool cancer melting drug - but hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

Martin Elhay: Which has taken 30 odd years, that's the kind of timeline we're talking about. There's different timelines for different things, depending on the regulatory requirements, and also the way the dice fall. I mean, science is an activity that there's a lot of failure, so you just don't know where it's going to go.

Erin: Let’s go back to Buffy at MAP - she’s tracked down another entrepreneur who has been part of MAP for over a year.

Zoe Milne: My name's Zoe Milne and I'm cofounder of Loop Learn.

Buffy Gorrilla: And what is Loop Learn?

Zoe Milne: Loop Learn is computer vision technology that is designed to automate attendance recording processes. So, being able to, basically, use small camera computer devices that will be able to do people counting and be able to mark the roll automatically in schools and in different environments as well.

Buffy Gorrilla: And how did you identify that this was a problem that needed solving?

Zoe Milne: I've worked in schools for five or six years before I decided to come out and develop Loop Learn, and just working in that environment you see the pains that teachers have, and administration officers, and all these issues that can be solved with new technology. Then when I was doing some research around computer vision, facial recognition just out of interest we realised that we could build a solution for schools that have evolved into industries as well, that can be something that we were capable of building and were really interested in.

Buffy Gorrilla: What advice would you give to a year ten student who has an idea but isn't sure what to do next with that idea?

Zoe Milne: Talk about it. Take that idea and start positioning it to a whole range of different people and try to align it with a problem. So, if it's an idea, who is going to benefit from it and what is either the problem that's going to be solved or how is it going to improve people's lives dramatically? Like, why are they going to want it? The only way you're going to find that out is by going and talking to as many people as you can about it.

Buffy: This talking to people is a recurring theme - so you may need to dust off your conversation skills. One tip distilled down from the teachings of Seth Godin, a marketing guru from the US: be the same person in every room. So figure out who that might be - and stick to it. Here’s Zoe again, about becoming a ‘people’ person:

Zoe Milne: It's definitely something that you grow into with confidence. There's being a people person, but that's different to being a strategic leader. The confidence that you don't always feel but you have to demonstrate so that your team feel confident, your costumers feel confident. Like, sometimes it can be lead by example and you might have self doubts but you've just gotta think it through and make sure that you've got the reasons why you're making your choice really sound in you own mind, discuss it with people, get the right feedback on that as well and then you just persevere. So, you know, being a people person or being confident a hundred percent isn't what it's all about.

Erin: Lots of the ideas that come out of universities are trying to make the world a better place, recycling food into animal feed, or flash into concrete, and using capitalist methods are just the best way to scale those ideas so they can have a bigger impact on the world. Here’s Martin Elhay, with another example of two of the oldest games in the world working hand in hand.

Martin Elhay: Science and business? I suppose that Venetoclax story is probably one of the ones that makes me think that ... That's not my story, that's actually a colleague of mine, David Vaux at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. He and I did our PhDs at the same time and while he was there, he made certain discoveries and then people that he worked with later and others developed drugs that inhibited a particular gene, and that's a very simplistic way to put it, but the point is that that drug then was taken up by a couple of drug companies that worked together to now get this drug on the market. Which is now making cancers melt. I mean, this is a fantastic story and this drug is now registered in the United States, Europe, and now recently in Australia, I believe. We're seeing a fantastic story where pure academic science has led to a very good industry collaboration, a very good business development team at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, under Julian Clark, getting the deal that led to a very good result which is benefiting society.

Erin: If you find yourself with a million dollar thought, and have the grit to grow that idea into a successful business - there are ways to balance your wealth with doing some social good.

Buffy: Bill and Melinda Gates launched their foundation in the year 2000 and they are using all that Microsoft money to focus on healthcare, education and ending poverty. Steve Jobs’ widow - funds education and media initiatives. There are so many ways companies are trying to pay it forward and help the world be a better place.

And if you are not an idea generating machine - no worries - there are other ways to approach innovation.There was this guy, Brian Fahey - he walked into Stanford University Hospital looking for problems. During his 6 week stint at the hospital, through the Stanford Biodesign’s entrepreneur training program, Fahey and four of his classmates found about 350 problems, or unmet clinical needs. Over the course of 10 months, these fellows on the Stanford course carefully whittled them down to those with possible solutions.

Erin: Sometimes by embedding yourself into a situation and thinking about it differently, you can see a problem that is desperate for a solution. This could mean improving an existing innovation or it may mean inventing something totally new. Remember Zoe? She drew on her experiences working in schools to develop Loop Learn, and she has some thoughts on this very topic.

Zoe Milne: In general, we jump to creating solutions before understanding problems, and we see that a lot. There's a lot of different starts up and different companies out there that will try to perfect a product and then go and find a market that wants to buy and it doesn't really solve the problem because they haven't taken the time to go and understand it. I think new things or adapting existing things, either way they're going to take innovation and a new approach, but at the end of the day it's always going to come back to "go and talk about it". Go and make sure that whatever you're redesigning or building from scratch is actually solving that problem and make sure that you're continuing to get that feedback every step along the way.

Buffy: Time for some credits! This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories. This episode was hosted by me, Buffy Gorrilla and my co-host was Erin Grant. Thank you, Erin.

Erin: You are welcome! The reverse engineering segment on targeted advertising was researched and presented by Danielle Goulopolous, with editing and sound design from Silvi Vann-Wall.

Buffy: This podcast is produced and edited also by me, and the supervising producer and science advisor is Dr Andi Horvath. With additional production support from Arch Cuthbertson.

Erin: You can explore the range of STEM courses the University of Melbourne has on offer by visiting study.unimelb.edu.au - we’ll pop a link in the show notes.

Buffy: Thanks for listening!

Erin: Oh you're gonna add outtakes to this?

Buffy: Your surprise by outtakes will probably be the outtake, it'll be super meta.

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