According to Dr Erol Harvey, winner of the 2018 ATSE Clunies Ross Entrepreneur of the Year Award, there is no magic course for success in entrepreneurship – but enthusiasm, practical skills and a multidisciplinary background can help.
While university courses such as University of Sydney’s Invent the Future program and startup incubators have helped young engineers start successful businesses, Harvey said aspiring entrepreneurs in engineering and science fields should “get on and do it” rather than wait for training in how to succeed.
“If you are thinking of being an entrepreneur, don’t wait; get yourself plugged into support networks and have a go at it,” Harvey told create.
To help grow the entrepreneurs of the future, he suggested universities should focus on the practical aspects of their courses, provide opportunities to learn from peers and encourage lifelong relationships with mentors.
Harvey added that career success for researchers should be looked at more broadly than becoming a group leader or professor.
“We need to perforate the walls between academia and industry, show alternate career paths and help students plot a course,” he said.
Harvey, whose father was a very hands-on mechanical engineer, started his career as an academic.
After a PhD in laser and plasma physics and a stint at Oxford in the UK, Harvey became a professor of microtechnology at Swinburne University. Although he loved research, he wanted to turn it into products that could go into people’s hands.
In 2002 he founded MiniFAB, a microfluidic manufacturing startup that works with high-tech medical researchers around the world to turn their products into commercial, manufacturable devices for the market.
Harvey said MiniFAB was a response to megatrends in the medical device industry at the time. These included the failure of hype around nanotechnology to translate into marketable products, and developments in microfluidics enabled by new manufacturing technologies at the right scale such as laser micromachining and photolithography.
Using their knowhow in microfluidic manufacturing, Harvey and his co-founders built an international business model that provides a service to help people translate their ideas into manufacturable products.
Harvey credited his team’s multidisciplinary skills as an important factor in MiniFAB’s success. As there is no core engineering discipline called microfluidics, team members needed to be able to understand and apply concepts across disciplines such as chemical, mechanical and microbiological engineering.
Enthusiasm was another trait Harvey looked for in his employees, as without it, no amount of training or knowledge would help them succeed.
According to Harvey, the global medical device industry is worth $80 billion a year, and its value is growing due to the trend towards people buying devices to look after their own health rather than relying completely on the hospital system.
Around 85 per cent of MiniFAB’s business is in North America and Europe. When tapping into overseas markets, Harvey found his academic networks useful.
“Researchers have … the ability to share new ideas, trends and observations. This is taken for granted in academic networks, but in business it is not so common,” Harvey said.
Harvey retired as CEO of MiniFAB at the end of last year, and is now working as a strategic adviser for the Melbourne University affiliated Bionics Institute, where he is helping to commercialise several innovative medical technologies.
One of these technologies is the EarGenie, which uses infrared light to measure the brain function – specifically hearing – of babies.
“By shining LEDs through babies’ skin we can measure their brain’s response to sound. This is good for parents whose babies have failed their hearing test,” Harvey explained.
The EarGenie provides an objective measure to help clinicians decide whether the baby needs a hearing aid or cochlear implant, as early intervention results in better outcomes.
The institute is also working on a joint venture with St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne to develop an implanted device for epilepsy patients that provides accurate monitoring of brain activity during seizures while the patient is out of hospital.
“It will help tune medication and let patients get on with normal life,” Harvey said.