Quick thinking, soft skills, and calculated risk: What our PhD learnt at a Singapore startup

8 December 2023

For three years, Jacob Earnshaw has been honing his thesis and building entrepreneurial skills at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, where he specialises in carbon based nanomaterials for energy storage.

Researcher Jacob Earnshaw has joined the growing list of AIBN PhD scholars to embark on a UQ Startup AdVenture

Like many of his fellow PhD scholars, he’s approaching a crossroads.

Angle for a postdoc?

Go into lecturing?

Join the private sector?

Maybe even spin out his own company?

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While Jacob is far from settled on where his science will take him, he remains keen to pursue technology that will pave the way for clean, cheap energy solutions.

And if he does decide to head down the startup route, a two-week stint in Singapore has given him a decent head start.

This year Jacob joined the ranks of AIBN scholars to be selected for a Startup AdVenture, spending two weeks in the heart of Singapore at tech firm TicTag.

Run by UQ Ventures, the Startup AdVenture is a learning experience that places UQ students in working startups alongside experienced innovators, showing them the skills needed to meld science and entrepreneurship and grow an early-stage business.

For Jacob, a taste of the startup path essential for anyone thinking of embarking on the real thing.

“My approach was to seek out an experience in a startup setting that is low stakes, while still being exposed to a lot of the lessons that come with it,” he says.

“And after that approach, I can tell you one thing about startup culture: If you want to go down that route, you absolutely cannot do it half hearted.”

The AIBN caught up with Jacob upon his return from Singapore to hear about the skills he picked up at TicTag and whether this placement will shape his approach to building an entrepreneurial career in science.

The Chinatown district in Singapore, where Jacob was based with starup TicTag. 

Jacob, first things first: how did you come to be here at the AIBN?

I initially did my bachelor’s degree in chemistry here at UQ. One of the course lecturers we had happened to be Professor Michael Monteiro who, as we know, is one of the AIBN’s big names.

I’d sometimes make conversation with him before lectures. One time we’d been chatting for a few minutes, and he mentioned that I should try to get an internship in his lab for that coming summer holiday. So I did. And that’s how I found out all about the AIBN.

I made a lot of friends at the AIBN that I kept in touch with even after the internship finished. And so when it was time to look at honours, the AIBN was on my mind.

How’s the PhD going? You’re looking at nanomaterials yeah?

It’s going well I think. I think a lot of PhD students feel like their progress is not really linear, in that your work evolves as you go and things go up and down. I think you do get to a certain point where you feel like you have enough of a handle on things to push through.

And yes, my thesis is looking at carbon-based nanomaterials for energy storage. In particular, I’m looking at devices called supercapacitors. They‘re used in a lot of applications with rapid charge/discharge cycles. Braking systems in hybrid electric vehicles, for example.

In the Yamauchi Group we examine a lot of fundamentals with nanoarchitecturing and nanostructuring. One of my projects is focused on hierarchical porosity, or why it matters that the nanopores in certain materials are ordered a certain way to assist electrolyte flow.

This is quite a broad question, but how to you see your research being applied outside the lab?

I suppose ideally my research would be used to implement more solar and wind energy. I think supercapacitors can really help us with the wider electricity grid, especially in helping the grid respond to fluctuations when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing.

Jacob Earnshaw's work in nanomaterials focuses on improved supercapacitors. 

There’s also great potential for electric vehicles to benefit from improved supercapacitors. The batteries are some the most expensive components in electric vehicles. If they use supercapacitors in tandem with batteries, not only can it increase the lifespan of the batteries, but you could also potentially require fewer batteries to make a vehicle work.

So really, if solar and wind are going to be heavy hitters in our energy supply mix, and we want more transport options that don’t require fossil fuels, I think we are going to need technologies like supercapacitors to facilitate it.

How did a nanomaterials scholar end up in Singapore with UQ Ventures?

I had always had my eye on the Start Up AdVenture program, but I'd never thought it was something I should go for.

But then I started investigating what it would take to start a business, or get on board with a startup once I’d finished my thesis.

I received some advice - if you go down that route, you’re best off first getting a taste of life in someone else's startup, and seeing for yourself what it’s like. Because if your first experience in the startup world is based on: ‘I'm just going to start a business and it's going to be great’ … it’s probably not going to be.

So my approach was to seek out an experience in a startup setting that is low stakes, while still being exposed to a lot of the lessons that come with it. The Singapore Start Up AdVenture definitely was that.

You spent your AdVenture were with Tictag? Who are they?

Tictag is a data collection and annotation startup for generative AI. They’re based in Chinatown, right in the middle of Singapore.

Obviously, the work they do is something a little different to my usual work – but I don’t think that was a bad thing, especially when I was looking for lessons about the fundamentals of startups and startup culture.

What’s the Singapore startup scene like?

One of the biggest things I picked up was how intensely focused these startup communities are on what they want to achieve. They honestly live for it. I suppose it’s similar to research in a lot of ways - it becomes such a big part of your life.

For example, you'd imagine most people are going to finish work and just go home. In the startup world I was in, you’re going out after work, seeking out other startup events or presentations, watching some new business proposition or idea.

I guess also in that way the sense of community is really strong. And people use their community really well. We do see this a lot in research as well, but I feel like the networking and communication across startups is on another level. Your network is more useful and powerful than you know.

Another thing was that people in the startup world are incredibly flexible, always thinking on their feet. The attitude is one where they aren’t afraid to try something different, roll the dice. Every day they are pushing hard, they're always pedal to the metal.

Are there any particular skills you picked up that will come in handy at the AIBN?

I think what I did learn over there was how important your soft skills are as a researcher. How you speak and sell yourself and communicate. This is sometimes more important than the science itself.

At startup events you're constantly introducing yourself to people who have honed their pitches and what they are spruiking. People will ask you straight up: what do you do? And then you've got to have your spiel down pat.

My view is that PhD stuff shouldn't be any different, right? You’ve got to be able to introduce who you are, where you’re from, and what you’re working on in a way that is clear and succinct, and leaves people interested to hear more from you.

Has your time with UQ Ventures brought you any closer to deciding which path you want to take after your thesis?

I think the most important thing was that getting an inside look at a startup was a really valuable thing to experience.

If I commit to the startup route, I now know exactly what I’d have to bring. This is not something you do if you are only half-interested.

It was also interesting seeing what the payoff is if you get it right. The sky really does seem to be the limit. If you find something you like and you have the energy to put everything into it, you can really achieve big things.