15 September, 2020
As a Y13 student at Tawa College, startup CEO Dr Eldon Tate didn’t have a career plan.
“At school I never thought out my career path. I did that classic thing where I looked at my grades and thought, well Chemistry’s my best subject, I’ll go to Victoria University and study Chemistry. I thought I’ll get a degree and figure it out from there.”
And figuring it out has been what he’s been doing ever since.
Chemistry took him into the research laboratory of Professor Jim Johnston (Victoria University of Wellington, Principal Investigator NZ Product Accelerator and MacDiarmid Institute Investigator). During his PhD under the supervision of Professor Johnston, (and in collaboration with The Polymer Group Ltd, Auckland) Eldon developed a new piece of technology. Together with this team, he co-founded the new startup company Inhibit Coatings Ltd, (spun out of the NZ Product Accelerator) which makes antimicrobial coatings for food safety and healthcare applications.
“I didn’t go into my PhD with any intentions of being involved in spinning out a company. But in the last six months of my PhD I was looking at an application in a food production environment, and that’s when we started to seriously consider a startup or similar.”
He says the first few months of running a startup were full on, but that support from key places helped enormously.
“I had no business experience, so to start with I was just sending out huge spam emails to any VC or investor who would listen. Fortunately some of them landed with the right people who did understand the research commercialisation space, and we (Inhibit Coatings Ltd) ended up getting involved in the Callaghan Innovation Incubator Scheme.
He says that early on it was still a common idea that scientists couldn’t run a business and that the business reins should be given over to an expert.
“They’d say oh that’s cool tech, we’ll find someone with a business background to run the company and you can keep focusing on the science.”
But he was keen to take on the challenges of the business world himself.
“I’d spent 5-6 years on the tech side already and was ready for a new challenge.
“That mindset is really changing now though, as people see the success of deep-tech startups like Mint Innovation, Lanzatech, Rocket Lab – all companies founded and grown through their early stages by scientists and engineers.”
A couple of years into his startup journey, a MacDiarmid Institute Business Scholarship gave him access to top level academics from around the world.
“The Advanced Management Programme at the Melbourne Business School gave me a whole other toolset and a new understanding of what it takes to build and grow a business.
He says the course, which the MacDiarmid Institute also co-funded for him, as a MacDiarmid-affiliated researcher, to attend, was incredibly important.
“It’s real mindset stuff – breaking the mould a bit and helping me relate my academic experience to communication, alongside some amazing pitch-coaching.”
And he says academia’s a fertile and good place to practice pitching.
“During my PhD, with the support of the NZ Product Accelerator and Professor Jim Johnston I’d travelled and attended international science conferences, presenting my research to some of the smartest people in the world. Good training for getting out of my comfort zone.”
And as with a PhD, motivation is key to the startup life.
“Nobody’s making you do it, you just have to get on with it and start building it. Just like with a PhD you’re having to motivate yourself, you have to dig deep into the technology and start doing things completely different to what anyone else in the world is doing..”
Nobody’s making you do it, you just have to get on with it and start building it.Dr Eldon Tate CEO at Inhibit Coatings
And while it’s COVID-19 making the most impact around the world right now, Inhibit Coatings was awarded a research grant from the MBIE COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Fundto look at the antiviral activity of their coatings.
“It’s exciting for us to be working towards having an impact on COVID and keeping people healthy and safe. And while we’re working on the antivirals, we’re still getting a lot of enquiries due to the pandemic, I think it’s because everyone’s now so aware of contamination and what surfaces they’re touching.”
And others are starting to notice too. He’s just been shortlisted for the 2020 KiwiNet Norman Barry Foundation Breakthrough Innovator Award.
So what would he tell his 17 year old self?
“Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you want to do and that’s fine. And communication is one of the most important aspects of life. Whether it’s with co-workers, researchers or investors. Good communication is vital.”