Accelerating innovation

A new program has sped-up the process of taking a unique and promising new sensor technology to market. DAVID SIMPSON writes about CSIRO’s new accelerator program.

Article from resourceful: Issue 9, March 2016.

READY TO MARKET

One of the popular memes about Australia and innovation is that we are good inventors, but are less successful at bringing our ideas to commercial fruition.

CSIRO's new innovation and entrepreneurship program, ON, aims to address this by creating teams of customers, partners and staff to fast-track the development of new technologies.

The creation of ON is a timely development that received a welcome boost in the form of a $5 million annual commitment from the Australian Government, as outlined in their recent innovation statement.

The funds will be directed to expanding the AcceleratiON program to other research institutions. This will expedite collaboration between CSIRO, participating universities and other publicly funded research agencies while also helping to build relationships between researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, start-ups and established companies.

AcceleratiON is an intensive three-month activity in which participants – comprising CSIRO staff and external collaborators – are given the opportunity to explore the commercial potential of selected technologies.

One of the keys to the success of the program is that staff take temporary time away from their other responsibilities so they can focus solely on the task at hand – in this case the new Sensei technology.

Sensei comprises robust solid-state electrochemical sensors. Traditional leaching process monitoring generally involves taking samples, analysing them outside the process stream and making drawback of delayed results and making adjustments accordingly. This has the drawback of delayed results and the risk that the sampling itself may change the results.

Using Sensei, sensors are embedded in the material being processed and can be set to transmit readings at whatever time intervals are required.

The golf ball-sized Sensei sensors can either be hard-wired or wireless, and can deliver readings including physical parameters such as temperature, redox potential, conductivity and chemical parameters including pH and levels of dissolved metal ions.

Inserted in low numbers, or at particular points in the process, Sensei can provide operators with a simple picture.

Embedding hundreds of Sensei sensors into a material stream can enable complex 3D maps to be generated, digitising the entire process.

The CSIRO team's challenge began before the start of the 12-week AcceleratiON program and took the form of a knock-out round of activities with some 70 other applicants. This process culminated in a residential camp in which 20 shortlisted teams competed for one of the nine prized places.

"They were able to articulate a sizable market opportunity and explain that their competitive strength was due to unique aspects of the Sensei technology that enable it to operate in extremely hostile environments," ON program director, Liza Noonan, says.

"Additionally, they put forward a very diverse team; it wasn’t solely a research team. They also had an intellectual property manager and people with previous business development, industry and commercialisation expertise.

"I think this diversity helped them demonstrate good early stage thinking that enabled them to envisage what a successful strategy would look like."

While the team may have had an idea of what a successful strategy might comprise, the AcceleratiON program provided them with the opportunity to identify where it might be best targeted.

According to one of the team members, Dr Mikko Vepsalainen, they went in to the program thinking that they were going to apply the Sensei technology to a specific area – heap leaching.

"During the first couple of weeks we decided to broaden our horizons and see whether there were other areas in which we could apply the technology.

"We looked for extreme operating environments in the oil and gas industry, in water treatment and processing, environmental monitoring and even food and beverage manufacturing."

Another CSIRO team member, Jean-Pierre Veder, adds that it was “a valuable exercise”.

"Because it involved talking to potential clients in such a wide range of industries it gave us insights into how they saw their requirements or, if you like, their needs.

"We were almost surprised, but reassured in our own thinking, when we found that the greatest need and opportunity was in the mining industry," Dr Veder says.

One thing the team realised, as they spoke to 150 potential customers, was that the market did not necessarily see Sensei solely as a technology solution. While initially they thought they would be selling sensors, client feedback made them realise that there could be opportunities to sell systems, data or a complete service, all based on Sensei.

"Different companies see the technology in different ways," CSIRO's Dr Miao Chen, who developed the technology, explains.

"Some want to buy a service, including everything – software, hardware, operating it – the lot. Others just want to get the devices and integrate them into their existing systems.

"The process made us realise that we probably need to be flexible about delivering different solutions to different customers."

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