Imran Asghar is a researcher who wants to break the boundaries of his lab. He wants his research to get out into the world and make an impact. But he didn’t always think like that.
Back in Pakistan, Imran studied Mechatronics Engineering — that is, he built robots. Some of his robots, which he had playing a basketball-like game, even participated in an international contest in China. There, he heard about other kinds of robots, much smaller than his: nanorobots that could be injected into humans. He was enthralled by the potential in nanobots and decided to do his Master’s in nanotechnology. His university didn’t offer one, but he found a suitable program from none other than the Helsinki University of Technology, one of the three universities that later formed Aalto University.
While Imran was studying for his Master’s, he learned of the applications of nanotech in energy and decided to focus on clean energy solutions instead of injectable robots. After graduating, he continued at the newly formed Aalto University with doctoral studies on solar cells. With his doctorate finally in hand, he faced a question that would define his career: should he choose industry or academia? Join a startup, or stay in the lab?
When Imran started his doctoral studies, he didn’t consider himself entrepreneurial, or that research should have practical applications. He was brave, though, and doing something unfamiliar is scary. And what do brave people do when they’re scared? Imran took the leap — he left the familiar behind and joined a photovoltaic panel manufacturing startup.
Ever since I stepped outside academia, I’ve wanted all my research to focus on applied science.
After a year in the startup world, Imran was a changed man. He still loved research and the academic world but now thought more about the world outside, too. “Ever since I stepped outside academia, I’ve wanted all my research to focus on applied science,” he says. Now, however, was the time to step back in — a postdoc was calling. This time, Imran focused on hydrogen fuel cells and batteries.
But Imran had had a taste of the private sector, and after his postdoc, he again stepped out into the industry for a year before continuing his research. Now convinced that no good idea should be kept hidden from the world, he started looking for a commercialization expert. Because he indeed had a good idea.
Imran and his new research team had started to dabble in additive manufacturing and 3D printing of energy devices. Eventually, they found a way to manufacture new kinds of cells that could produce heat and electricity. Interestingly, in reverse mode, these new cells could efficiently produce electro fuels such as green hydrogen. This led to a lot of papers and conferences, but also business potential. In his search for commercialization help, Imran ran into Aalto Ventures Program. He eventually found an expert from outside the university but kept a close eye on AVP for future collaboration. He didn’t have to wait long.
When Imran saw an email about Ginkgo in 2022, he immediately knew it was an event for him. At the event, he talked with industry people, academics and students, who all shared his mentality. “I had amazing talks with amazing people. We all wanted to contribute to society with research,” he says. He also talked with MJ, our Head of Operations, and heard about Junction and AVP’s challenge there. Soon after, it was AVP’s and Imran’s research group’s joint challenge. In ‘Energy revolution, now,’ participants had to think of ways to make Europe more self-sufficient regarding energy, and Imran’s expertise was a great asset. “Junction was a great opportunity to share what I’ve been working on for years in a meaningful way,” he says.
Aalto has amazing opportunities and channels for commercialization, but you need to know where to ask.
The next step for sharing what he’s been working on could already include sales. Imran’s invention has taken a step forward — he now has cells that could produce green hydrogen at a lower cost than anything else currently on the market. “Everything works in the lab, but it’s still small scale. Before we start manufacturing, we need to upscale for industry standards,” he says. Indeed, manufacturing is in the short-term plans, and Imran wants to do it in Finland. “We have everything we need to produce here. We have the skills needed, so I don’t want to license, and we want to be more energy independent. Finland is a logical choice, and I also want to help the economy here,” he says. His trust in Finland isn’t one-sided, either; Imran has just received Research to Business funding from Business Finland for the commercialization of his invention.
Imran has come a long way from building basketball-playing robots, but he couldn’t have done it alone. He’s received a lot of help and support and hopes other researchers will also know how to look for it. “Aalto has amazing opportunities and channels for commercialization, but you need to know where to ask; there’s little incentive. The support is there, but there could be more education on how to get it,” Imran says. That’s something we hope to be able to help with.