The Photon Factory: Matheus’s story

Developing DVD technology set to revolutionise the dairy industry

Combining cutting-edge skills and technology, with an unquenchable curiosity and drive for success against all odds, this is a fascinating tale of how research meets the real world.

Brazilian-born Matheus is in his final year of his PhD through the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Auckland, and has already developed some of the most advanced milk analysis the country has seen.

“Milk-on-a-disc,” uses transparent discs marked with tiny channels and wells – the size of a human hair –  to mix a milk sample with reagents. These are then spun at high speed to separate the particles and advanced laser technology is used to measure components within the milk. This knowledge informs farmers of the cow’s health, reproductive and nutritional status. The information can be used to adjust the care of the cow, as well as determine the best use of the milk – some types are better for cheese and yoghurt, and others more suitable for turning into milk powder.

Matheus says he and his supervisors saw the commercial potential of his PhD project from the outset. “Of course there is a huge scientific basis behind it, as it is a PhD project in a science department, but at the end of the day I want to see my work being applied in real-life,” he says.

Matheus conducts lab test wearing blue gloves

E tangata – it is people

While Matheus has never doubted the potential of the technology, one of the greatest challenges over the past three years has been working with the right teams. Matheus was a key member of the initial “proof of concept” team that – with critical seed funding from Auckland UniServices – transformed the initial idea a reality, and carried it to company stage. Now, he’s a key science leader in the commercialisation team.

“This team has a very focused goal of achieving valuable outcomes for dairy farmers. We want to make a real difference. The communication is easy and we all hold the same mindset. The presentation and functionalities of our product then greatly improved, as well as its robustness,” Matheus says.

The new team focused on improving the speed and quality of the disk prototyping, expanding milk analysis capabilities and refining their product pitch. This attracted a new round of investors through Pacific Channel and Orbis Diagnostics was formed.

Matheus and Cather inspect a device in the lab

Orbis and the Photon Factory

Orbis is now ten people-strong, with leaders in science and technology Professor Cather Simpson and Professor David Williams championing the Milk-on-a-disc project.

Matheus has taken on the role of one of the lead scientists and the team is currently working from the Faculty of Science’s Photon Factory filing a patent for new features that will expand the possibilities for this lab-on-a-chip technology.

The Photon Factory’s team of students and staff bring together their engineering, physics, chemistry and biology expertise to examine how the energy carried by light can be converted into more useful forms. In addition to determining  the composition of complex fluids, like milk, they are using the light’s energy to make laser micromachining more powerful for industry.They have also launched Engender Technologies, which uses the technology to sort a bull’s sperm cells by sex.

The ‘never give up’ attitude

Even when he was on his own and clambering over new stumbling blocks, giving up was never an option for Matheus.

“I am really determined, so my problem is the opposite of giving up. Sometimes I am going through a brick wall, but my supervisors’ experience helps guide me through,” he says.

He says his University of Auckland supervisors were instrumental to helping him to find solutions that enabled him to continue to work towards achieving his PhD and entrepreneurial goals.

“At times there are rough patches and you do burn out. This is a matter of fact and no different than any other start-up project or PhD project. Nevertheless—”

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I have no doubt that microfluidics in general is the future of diagnostics. Not only for dairy industry, but also for health and toxicology.

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What else is on his horizon?

Matheus says he is also absolutely passionate about technology “and when it is related directly to science, even better”. In his spare time, he has been developing a language app, which has just been tested in the USA, Brazil, Canada and China, with positive feedback. “It’s completely different to anything you’ve seen on the market. It’s a lot more diverse, fun and useful. All I can say is we are really optimistic about its potential,” Matheus says.

And in any other hours he can squeeze out of the day, Matheus is also investing in blockchain-related companies. “Despite the controversies related to cryptocurrencies, I really enjoy blockchain development and I believe science can take so much advantage of this technology,” he says.

1am workouts to avoid burnout

Matheus counts Elon Musk, Jack Ma and Flavio Augusto amongst his idols. “They all have something in common. They put in the time and effort to innovate and emphasise that you need to push extra hard – if you need to work 80 hours a week to achieve something, you will. This is what I do.”

Matheus maintains a tight and organised schedule, but he knows schedules can change at anytime. ”Organisation and flexibility are key to achieving balance,” he says. He can be found on the football pitch on Saturday mornings, riding waves at the beach, and hitting the gym at 1am.


Matheus’ advice to entrepreneurs and innovators:

  • If you want to have your life on a 9am – 5pm schedule, this path is not for you.
  • If you want an exciting and busy life that is guided by your curiosity, come along and you will have fun!
  • Work with people you like, who share the same mindset.
  • Avoid lazy people, even if they are talented. Tech and science will always move too quickly for them.
  • You cannot change or do great science and technology by yourself! You need a team, so choose it wisely. If it does not work out, change it fast.

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