This article was published on 27 July 2014
You’ve heard the saying, “It’s not rocket science”. Well, in Benjamin O’Brien’s case it actually was!
It was a book on rocket science that propelled him down the path to engineering, a field he has since excelled in. Reading the book when he was 15, Benjamin made the connection between science and engineering, two subjects he loved.
"I realised that scientists discover the laws of nature and engineers do something with that knowledge. “Engineers take what is known and make some really cool things with it.” Now 29, and with an impressive string of prizes to his name, and the title Doctor in front of it, Benjamin is co-founder, CEO and director of StretchSense, a company that makes stretchable sensors, which measure human body motion. In operation for less than two years, StretchSense is already a commercial success. It employs 10 people, and their sensors are used all around the world by people working in healthcare, rehabilitation, sports training, animation and gaming.
The biggest buzz I get is seeing people use our sensors to do something I’d never thought they could do.”
Running a start-up business combines two of Benjamin’s passions: carrying out scientific research, and using it to make a difference in the world. “A lot of academics invent great things but relatively few actually quit their job and have a go at commercialising them.
“I want to create high-tech jobs that deliver back to the economy.” Before co-founding StretchSense, Benjamin worked as an award-winning academic. He received his PhD in Bioengineering from the University of Auckland, winning the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize for Best Doctoral Thesis. He subsequently received a two-year Rutherford Foundation Post-doctoral Fellowship to work in the Biomimetics Laboratory of the University’s Bioengineering Institute, which is where StretchSense was launched.
Last year, Benjamin added the 2013 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize to his accolades, and StretchSense took out two top prizes at the New Zealand Innovator Awards. Even with these honours, he says, “I’ve had to get used to perpetual failure. What people don’t realise is I’ve applied for three- to four-times as many prizes as I’ve won!”
His advice to would-be entrepreneurs is that “you have to work hard and take the hits. It’s not pre-ordained, everybody makes their own luck. You’ll succeed at some things and fail at others; the important thing is to keep trying.
“Life is uncertain. That’s the fun thing!”
Benjamin still has a toe in academia and continues to work at the Biomimetics Laboratory as Honorary Research Fellow, something he believes is vitally important. “We need to take the knowledge we have and genuinely get it out into the real world.” Passion is a word that crops up a lot in conversation with Benjamin, but how do you find yours? “Your passion isn’t something you decide, it’s something you explore,” he advises. “You can’t know what you’re passionate about until you give it a go.
“It’s not a matter of sitting down and listing the options – you need to try stuff. Don’t try to preplan too much, just get out there and do it.
“The only wrong decision is no decision.” Benjamin has always aimed for the stars – at one stage he wanted to be an astronaut. These days he talks about starting an asteroidmining company.
“To me, this is a metaphor for the fact we want to do something crazy, on a huge scale, with massive impact. We want to be a big deal, to really become something special, to be a massive company globally.”
And, who knows, one day he might just mine asteroids. After all, his journey began with a book on rocket science.
This story originally appeared in Leaving school 27 July 2014.