UNSW Alumni in profile: from chemical engineering to multiple tech start-ups
When Professor Jimmy Yun moved to Singapore unexpectedly 17 years ago, he didn’t realise the decision would change his life. Not only did it deepen his relationship with UNSW, it led to a successful entrepreneurial career.
In 2012, UNSW appointed Jimmy as Adjunct Professor of Chemical Engineering and, in May this year, Dean of Engineering Professor Mark Hoffman gave him a part-time professorial role. “Jimmy checks two boxes,” Mark says. “He is enabling research here [at UNSW] and connecting us with industry and government in China. I’m very keen to get UNSW involved in major projects in Asia.”
The early years and UNSW
After Jimmy spent his childhood in Hong Kong, his family immigrated to Sydney and he attended De La Salle College in Ashfield. “I was a rare breed – I really enjoyed doing Chemistry,” he says. “I was really fascinated by it and wanted to do a practical degree.”
Although initially enrolling in another university, Jimmy switched to UNSW. “It wasn’t the hardware of UNSW that attracted me but the people,” he says. “It seemed really welcoming to overseas students. From the beginning, I felt a real sense of belonging, so much so that I stayed there happily for eight years.”
Jimmy graduated with first-class honours with a Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical) in 1988, with Professor Neil Foster as his supervisor. He then stayed with Neil throughout a PhD, in the application of super-critical fluid technology, until 1992. “Neil helped open my mind to emerging technologies for the first time,” he says.
His PhD success led Jimmy – accompanied by his new wife, Dr Michelle Liew, also a UNSW PhD graduate and an environmental engineer – to take up post-doctorate research fellowships. He was first with the Hokkaido National Industrial Research Institute in Japan and then the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States.
The young couple returned to Australia to start a family but within two years Michelle was offered a job opportunity in Singapore. “Usually in our Chinese culture, the man does not follow the woman,” says Jimmy, smiling. “But we thought about the opportunity for a few weeks, and felt peaceful about it, so we moved to Singapore.”
The Singapore story
Within days of landing in Singapore, Jimmy found a job in a start-up technology company, Lucus Origin. The year spent meeting potential investors and government officials opened his eyes to an exciting world of entrepreneurship. He added to his knowledge tool-kit by getting positions with the Singapore Government’s National Science and Technology Board, overseeing a multi-million grant portfolio and, a year later, becoming technical manager at NatSteel Chemicals.
When a colleague’s nanotechnology concept was knocked back, Jimmy and the researcher left to launch their own start-up, NanoMaterials Technology (NMT), in 2000. “Everyone starts companies for different reasons,” Jimmy says. “I started NMT because I was passionate about the technology, the specialised nanoparticle design. That is what drove me.”
From 2005 to 2008, NMT had two Australian Research Council grants with UNSW. In 2006, Neil and Jimmy started collaborating with the Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT). By the time Jimmy sold the business in 2012, NMT was developing, manufacturing and commercialising nanomaterial products for multinational companies. These were used in projects involving oil and gas, coatings, plastics, glass, electronic materials and pharmaceuticals. NMT had more than a dozen patents granted and employed more than 30 research staff, mostly PhD graduates.
After selling NMT, Jimmy capitalised on his well-established networks and has been involved in various start-ups and joint ventures with innovative technology companies across China.
In 2013, Jimmy and Neil established a laboratory with BUCT’s Changzhou Advanced Materials Institute in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province. Jimmy has also developed research partnerships between UNSW, the Chinese Government and private industry.
Jimmy on the thinking behind his start-up, NanoMaterials Technology (NMT)
He has initiated two delegations from southern China to UNSW over the past 18 months, leading to memorandums of understanding. Changzhou city officials visited UNSW last December and met with then Vice Chancellor Fred Hilmer.
“China has come an amazingly long way in the last 15 years,” Jimmy says. “What they’re seeking now is active collaboration with Australian universities and industry, so it’s a win-win situation when both benefit from each other’s leading-edge technology.”
Jimmy also oversees PhD researchers, imbuing students with entrepreneurial thinking. Last year, he was elected as a Fellow of the prestigious Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
“Because Jimmy speaks his mind, and at the same time understands the Chinese business culture, he’s a great facilitator and an asset to UNSW,” Neil Foster says. “He’s a brave academic, as well as an entrepreneur prepared to take risks.”
Professor Les Field, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Professor Yun with Changzhou city officials.
Research Partnerships @ UNSW
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