21 April, 2021
Many students dream of undertaking a PhD, expecting this to lead to an academic career. The reality is that most people with a PhD, do not end up in academia. But a PhD can take graduates in many directions, as has been the case for MacDiarmid Institute graduate Dr Shalini Divya who is now commercialising her research in aluminium-ion batteries.
Shalini came to Aotearoa New Zealand to undertake her PhD at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, initially under a former Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Professor Thomas Nann, and later with MacDiarmid Institute Emeritus Investigator Professor Jim Johnston. She received the Victoria Doctoral Scholarship in 2017. Shalini had originally planned to research lithium-ion batteries. But like many a good PhD, plans changed along the way and she ended up completing her PhD on new cathodes for aluminium-ion batteries.
“Getting a PhD was always my dream. I wanted to know if I could do anything for society.”
Early in her PhD (in 2018) Shalini found what she describes as a ‘magic material’, with what she and her supervisor saw as good potential applications as a battery cathode.
“The new material had high energy density, and right from the start, my results exceeded those in the literature.”
Shalini then worked closely with Wellington UniVentures to help with patent filing and the initial due diligence process. Fast forward to now and Shalini is proudly the Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at TasmanIon, a company set up to bring aluminium-ion batteries to market.
An aluminium-ion battery is cheaper, safer, and more sustainable compared to a lithium-ion battery. Everyone wants to shift from fossil fuels to clean tech.Dr Shalini Divya Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer TasmanIon
Shalini says going from PhD student to company co-founder was not easy. She credits the success of her commercialisation journey to her two supervisors Professor Nann and Professor Johnston. She also says she had some good opportunities along the way.
“I was funded by the MacDiarmid Institute to go with Professor Nann to Germany, to the Fraunhofer Institute, to establish the proof of concept. While we were there, we also realised the new technology would not need an entire battery manufacturing plant to be built in Aotearoa New Zealand in order to succeed. We could use existing production facilities overseas instead.
“My second PhD supervisor Professor Johnston, having himself gone through the commercialisation process for his own research, was a great person for me to learn from after the patent was filed.
“He was the best. Very supportive as a mentor, and a visionary.”
(Professor Johnston won the 2020 KiwiNet Supreme Award for his work adding value to industry and the New Zealand economy through high-quality research, having pursued the commercial application of his research as a matter of course, founding a number of innovative companies and industry partnerships as a result.)
In February 2020, Shalini received a KiwiNet Emerging Innovator award, a grant enabling international travel for her innovation, to communicate better with global battery manufacturers and support the transition from science into the world of commercialisation. She then took on a Technical Lead role with Wellington UniVentures for three months which helped her better understand investor appetites.
As travel around Aotearoa loosened up in 2020, Shalini was invited to give a handful of public talks. It was there that she realised her second passion - communicating science.
"Giving these talks and sharing my research, I realised I enjoyed communicating the significance of this sustainable technology and sharing it with society.”
Although the journey from aspiring academic to savvy businesswoman has not been what she initially expected when she embarked on a PhD, Shalini says it’s been thoroughly enjoyable.
Putting TasmanIon out there in the world has been my new dream come true.Dr Shalini Divya Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer TasmanIon
She says she is grateful for the help provided by the MacDiarmid Institute and Wellington UniVentures.
“These organisations have helped in so many ways. My advice to young researchers thinking of commercialising their research is - take any support you get, and eagerly put yourself out there and challenge yourself. It’s ok not to know what to do as long as you’re honest with your work and willing to explore and learn.”