Universities are institutions built on fact rather than fantasy, but unicorns aren’t magical thinking at ANU.

Our world is awash with plastic. There’s so much we’ve created islands of it in our seas. In Australia alone, we generate 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year; only nine per cent is recycled. A shocking 84 per cent goes to landfill.

Fortunately, ANU chemists have a solution for all this pollution. They’ve created an enzyme that breaks plastic down to its core elements, creating building blocks to make new plastic. It’s called ‘infinite recycling’.

Now, the researchers have teamed up with some major financial backers, including Woolworths Group and venture fund Main Sequence, to create an innovative enviro-tech start-up, Samsara.

Illustration: Anya Wotton/ANU

Fantastic plastic and the unicorn hunt

Launched in 2021, Samsara is setting its sights on PET and polyester — the key ingredients for bottles and fast fashion, which make up one-fifth of plastics created annually. 

Woolworths Group has already committed to turn the first 5,000 tonnes of recycled Samsara plastic into packaging for its own products within two years. Ultimately, Samsara aims to achieve a world-first and use its process to recycle all plastics forever.

“ANU has some of the best researchers on the planet,” ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt says. “Their work has contributed to our understanding of the world and the development of new knowledge that accelerates the prosperity and sustainability of humankind.

“Our involvement in Samsara is a perfect example of this. We’re proud to be a driving force, bringing to life technology that can have real impact in the world by helping to solve the plastic pollution crisis.” 

Samsara’s mission may be distinct, but at ANU it isn’t unique — it is one of many start-ups. Schmidt has affectionately labelled these spin-outs the University’s ‘unicorns’, as they hold the rare promise of becoming billion-dollar companies powered by bold thinking and visionary ideas.

Researcher Matthew Spence testing the activity of the plastic degrading enzymes in the Samsara laboratory. Photo: Research School of Chemistry/ANU

Flower power delivers liquid gold

Dr Caitlin Byrt is not quite turning water into wine, but making dirty water clean — which is much more practical. 

She and her colleagues, Dr Samantha McGaughey and Dr Annamaria DeRosa, are researching membrane transport proteins, critical to all life. In nature, they are what allows plants to extract nutrients from soils and ignore toxic contaminants. In space, it’s what allows astronauts to safely drink their pee.

This research inspired Byrt to co-found ANU spin-out Membrane Transporter Engineers (MTE). The team is developing technology that could help harvest valuable resources from massive volumes of liquid waste. This includes collecting precious resources from the 500 million tonnes of annual waste from mining, the most squander in Australia. It could also ensure better crop yields.

“Every year plants filter half our global precipitation,” Byrt, who is also co-director of MTE, says. “Our studies inspired us to engineer novel components to advance membrane separation technologies. Our components will help industry harvest precious resources and clean water from complex wastewater mixtures.”

Others are cottoning on to the potential. The team has received $5 million in research funding in the past five years. It is now looking to expand. While it is early days, Byrt and colleagues are sowing the seeds of something big. 

Dr Caitlin Byrt, co-founder of the ANU spin-out Membrane Transporter Engineers. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

From Einstein to a lab in your hands

More than 100 years ago, Albert Einstein theorised the existence of gravitational waves; ripples in space and time caused by black holes colliding and the devouring of suns billions of years ago. In 2016, we found them.

To spot them, we needed super sensitive sensors.

A key player in the international hunt was Professor Daniel Shaddock. He’s since successfully spun out Liquid Instruments, a company based on the technology that powered gravitational wave detections. The company’s raised more than US$25 million in venture capital and delivered three products. The latest, MOKU:GO and MOKU:PRO, launched at ANU in a ‘Silicon Valley-style’ event in June 2021.

Now also CEO of Liquid Instruments, Shaddock describes MOKU: PRO as a ‘magic box’ with the potential to revolutionise the $15-billion global test and measurement industry. A low-cost, mobile laboratory, it allows scientists and engineers to make measurements in the field and create their own instruments in real time. These tests are vital for industry, including automobiles and aerospace.

From sub-zero to quantum hero

Quantum computing will solve problems much faster than the machines of today, including our most powerful supercomputers. It will drive future applications in health, finance and education, and inspire a new era in ultra-secure networks, artificial intelligence and therapeutic drugs.

Dr Andrew Horsley at the Quantum Brilliance laboratory at ANU. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

ANU start-up Quantum Brilliance is aiming to transform the world of quantum computing. The team’s processors use synthetic diamonds, and the company is one of the only worldwide delivering on-site systems customers can run themselves.

Now it is building the world’s first cool-temperature quantum computer. Unlike other quantum computers, this lunchbox-sized invention doesn’t need extreme sub-zero temperatures to work. It could also potentially be the most powerful computer ever. The machine is in its final stages of development, and promises to make quantum computers cheaper, more accessible and part
of everyday life.

The team, including ANU physicists Dr Marcus Doherty and Dr Andrew Horsley, received a major boost in 2021, netting more than $13 million in seed funding to develop their innovative tech. They hope their world-first product is ready for market within five years.

These potential unicorns are far from spin. They are using the power of fundamental research — new knowledge — to solve challenges and develop the products, industries and jobs of tomorrow.

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