Orissa born Ojas Mahapatra-led Photonic Innovations featured among top three in New Zealand Awards 2016 Innovation category.

We aim to make the company a world leader in gas leak detection technology in the next five years, he said, adding that the company has recently launched its first gas leak detector Ammonia LD 4000.

Photonic Innovations was among the top three finalists in this year's New Zealander of the Year Awards 2016 (Innovator of the Year category) and narrowly missed out to the eventual winner. Ojas Mahapatra is a young achiever who moved to New Zealand from Orissa in 2010 for his Ph.D. from University of Canterbury and was appointed the CEO of Photonic Innovations in 2014. He has been credited with the success of the company in the last two years, with recognition at the New Zealand Awards being the icing on the cake. We spoke to Mahapatra recently to know more about Photonic Innovations. Below are excerpts from the interview.

IWK: How did it feel to be among the top three most innovative companies in the country this year?

Mahapatra: Wonderful, really. It is a reflection of the effort and resources we have put in the last two years in the company's R&D.

IWK: What was the nomination for?

Mahapatra: It was for our patented innovative laser-based gas detection technology. Conventional gas leak detectors are electrochemical in nature and suffer from low accuracy and reliability as well as high maintenance costs. With our laser spectroscopy-based technology, we offer unprecedented accuracy and reliability with zero maintenance costs. There is no need to replace sensors, there are no false alarms and our detectors are completely calibrated.

We have patented this technology in New Zealand, Australia, US and Canada jurisdictions, with the patent application pending in Europe.

IWK: Tell us a bit about your company.

Mahapatra: Photonic Innovations manufactures laser-based gas leak detectors. These devices are placed at hazardous gas-filled confined spaces and they alert employees when a toxic/inflammable gas' concentration goes above the prescribed safety limits. This facilitates early evacuation and a quick fix of the leak before a mishap happens. The company is a spin-out from University of Otago and was established in 2005. The company became dormant after a few years of operation and was picked as a potential investment opportunity by Powerhouse Ventures in 2014. That is when I joined the company as well.

In the last two years, we have been successful in reviving the company and have recently launched our first gas leak detector Ammonia LD 4000 targeted at the food processing sector in New Zealand. We have already sold two units to the Silver Fern Farm and the market is showing some healthy demand.

Equity-wise, our company has three stakeholders: Powerhouse Ventures, the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund (of the New Zealand Government), and Otago Innovation Limited (of the University of Otago).

IWK: So how did this turnaround happen?

Mahapatra: Before Powerhouse Ventures and I came on board, the company had a bulky laser-based portable hand-held gas detector, which was used to detect four gases. After the revamp, we decided to change the product to a sit-on-the-wall gas leak detector, which detected only one gas, Ammonia.

This was essentially a game-changer.

Moreover, a unique thing about our detectors is that by just changing the laser wavelength, we can modify the detectors to detect other gases, which gives us a huge competitive advantage.

IWK: Where is your company headquartered now, and where is the manufacturing set-up?

Mahapatra: We are currently based in Dunedin with some out-sourced manufacturing also done in Christchurch. The final assembly of the product is done in Dunedin.

IWK: Finally, what are your future plans? Where do you see Photonic Innovations five years down the line?

Mahapatra: Currently, we are in the process of raising capital for the future expansion of the company. Once this cycle is over, we plan to hire more staff and scale up our manufacturing. Exploring international markets and seeking partners will come after that.
Overall, our vision for the next five years is to make Photonic Innovations a world leader in the gas leak detection business.