Powering the Photon Factory in New Zealand

If you have ever been to Auckland, New Zealand, you know the natural beauty of its surroundings and the vibrancy of the city. What you may not know is that the campus of the University of Auckland is home to a unique facility, one that uses the power of intense pulses of light to manipulate, measure and machine matter — it uses photons as its ‘machinery.’

The Photon Factory

This unexpected find is the result of the efforts of Dr. Cather Simpson, who joined the faculty of the University of Auckland in 2007. Soon after arriving, Dr. Simpson challenged herself to “bring the rich versatility of high-tech ultrashort laser pulses to New Zealand academic and industry innovators.” This challenge resulted in the creation of a facility dubbed the ‘Photon Factory.’ The Photon Factory fulfills multiple functions: it is a laboratory for education, research, innovation and even economic development.

The ‘Photon Factory’ at the University of Auckland (left) and Dr. Cather Simpson (right) along with members of her team of students, researchers & entrepreneurs
The ‘Photon Factory’ at the University of Auckland (left) and Dr. Cather Simpson (right) along with members of her team of students, researchers & entrepreneurs

Dr. Simpson became familiar with ultrafast lasers and their extremely short pulses (on the order of 100 fs = 100 x 1015 seconds) while pursuing research in ultrafast energy conversion in molecules. She used them as a tool in her lab when she started her career as a professor at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). Light can be converted by molecules into other forms of energy; by studying the dynamics of molecular complexes excited by light on femtosecond to microsecond timescales through both experiments and modeling, it is possible to learn how molecules direct the energy acquired in light absorption. The ultimate goal of these investigations is to understand how the structure and environment influence molecular functions so that photochemical and photophysical behavior can be both predicted and tailored.

Having achieved tenure at CWRU, she found the opportunity to move to New Zealand compelling, and there, her research has flourished to span from fundamental spectroscopy to applied device development. The Photon Factory is the facility and resource she has developed to accomplish her research goals and to bring the power of laser light to New Zealand, and beyond.

A Factory of Ideas & People, Powered by Light

How did the Photon Factory come into being? When Dr. Simpson moved to New Zealand, the country was undergoing a transformation in how academic research was being funded. A newly-formed government was in the process of making structural changes, closing the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology and moving some of its functions to a newly created agency, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment. This signaled the new government’s stance that science and technology were to be viewed as drivers of economic development. Because she arrived at this time and had no history with the previous methods of funding, Simpson was able to embrace and navigate the new system. She realized that the government wanted to use the academic community to fill a large gap in R&D spending that New Zealand companies were not filling — the level of spending on internal R&D was well below that of international companies, and nearly non-existent. She also realized that, unlike what she had encountered in America, funding sources would scrutinize how she engaged with industry and what type of business case there was for the proposed work as a key factor in whether her work would be funded or not. She began to pay attention to what companies were identifying as the problems they wanted to solve. But at the same time, she was eager to continue her ultrafast chemistry research.

Dr. Simpson recognized that the laser tools that she was using in chemistry were being used for other applications, some that might have more immediate use to industry. Her experience and interest in laser-matter interactions was a natural bridge into material processing applications. She also understood that there were challenges, such as slow machining speeds, that kept ultrashort pulsed machining from widespread use. With these ideas in mind, the multi-purpose, multi-user Photon Factory, was born.

Since its opening in 2010, the facility has grown to over 30 students and employees from physics, chemistry and engineering backgrounds who work on dozens of academic and commercial projects. These activities range from basic research stemming from Simpson’s chemistry background, such as evaluating the photobehavior of improved solar energy harvesting molecules, to more industry-friendly applied research, such as fabricating photomasks for microfluidic chip production.

The Photon Factory generates commercial contracts and grants, and also serves as a test bed for science innovation and a training ground for future scientists and engineers. Interactions with New Zealand-based companies including Next Window, Rakon, Fisher & Paykel, Izon and others have produced such wide-ranging results as improved touch-sensitive displays, better locking nuts, more efficient designs for solar thermal energy harvesting, and new designs for GPS chips. Global companies like Intuitive Surgical (based in Sunnyvale, CA) have brought projects to the Photon Factory to develop laser-based surgery in difficult tissue. Such projects have yielded patent filings, and an increased ability to understand commercial opportunities. They have also created conditions for both students and Dr. Simpson herself to get involved in industry-sponsored and spin-off technologies.

Entrepreneurship has become a buzzword in academic circles, but in New Zealand, the Photon Factory takes the concept to heart. Two spin-off companies have already been generated by the work of the Photon Factory. The first, Engender Technologies, Ltd., was established in 2011 as a result of taking a serious look at the challenges faced by New Zealand’s dairy industry. When approached by a venture capital firm with the five top problems in that sector, Dr. Simpson found one that seemed possible to address by photonics and then chose a team of students and engineers to find a solution. The problem she chose was that of improving sperm sorting by sex, to address the needs of dairy farmers who are turning to artificial insemination to control the numbers of bulls versus cows. The resulting microfluidic and photonic device is a huge departure from the state-of-the-art flow cytometry based solution, and one that could only be identified by people with a new set of tools at their disposal. A second spin-off is currently being formed to commercialize a new centrifugal microfluidic technology developed in the Photon Factory to analyze milk at “point of cow” in the milking shed. The new company already has backing from VC and other investors. It is probably no coincidence that both start-ups are addressing New Zealand’s important agricultural sector.

Cell-sorting prototype developed within the Photon Factory
Cell-sorting prototype developed within the Photon Factory

Transforming Matter & Lives

So, what has the Photon Factory achieved thus far? Besides new chemical insights, material processing to solve diverse problems, and generating novel concepts and devices, it has turned Dr. Simpson into an entrepreneur and led her to tackle questions that she previously would not have envisioned. Her passion for research has been applied to significant problems in diverse application areas, from touch sensor displays to challenges in dairy farming. And perhaps most importantly, this passion has been applied to developing future engineers and scientists with deep curiosity and an entrepreneurial spirit. All of these things have resulted from the fortuitous confluence of a researcher, with a specialized high-tech tool, finding interesting challenges and opportunities based on New Zealand’s desire to develop more innovation to drive economic growth. Who knew that photons could be so powerful?

For more information, or to reach Dr. Cather Simpson, visit www.photonfactory.auckland.ac.nz/en.html