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Owen Matthews, Antipodean innovator

Owen Matthews

10 June 2013

What does your current job involve?
I am self-employed as an innovation facilitator, trading as macoe, based in Brisbane, Australia. With a PhD in chemistry and broad experience in organisations of all sizes, I offer independent assessment and advice.

Chemical enterprise in Australia is driven by many smaller businesses. They're often very responsive, productive and the owner makes all major decisions, taking full responsibility. As an innovation facilitator, my role is to understand, assess and then implement their vision. I spend time on their site immersed in their world but I am independent and have no direct management role. My activities might cover any area of the business including research, product/process development, manufacturing, sales, quality, supply chain, marketing, legal, financial, IT, IP and human resources. It is very exciting with a lot of variety and I can make a genuine difference to the businesses and people I work with.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
All kids are scientists at heart, constantly experimenting to find out how the world works. Both my parents were teachers with an interest in science and they encouraged me to be inquisitive. Because a majority of my life has been enjoyed in the outdoors of tropical Australia near the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), my childhood interest in science was concentrated on biology and the marine environment.

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
When I was about 13 we moved to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. My parents recognised my interest in marine science while we were there so we moved to Townsville when I was about 15. In this tropical city, a gateway to the GBR, there are several internationally renowned marine science research establishments, including James Cook University (JCU).

After secondary school I enrolled in marine biology at JCU but changed to chemistry and biochemistry double major in my second year when I realised the wonders of biology were far more fascinating at the molecular level.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
So many things... In a general sense I have found that the most successful entrepreneurs are quite difficult people, and invariably awful managers! Being a good ‘starter' means a desire to change the status quo so these passionate people regularly clash with others and thrive on change and conflict. For every creative entrepreneur, there should be many more ‘finishers' who are more methodical and can work as a team to turn the vision into reality.

I believe that international calibration is crucial for chemists as well as a broad foundation of education, training, hard work and experience, all of which takes time. I also believe that it is important to find and nurture relationships with professional mentors whom you trust and respect, and have experience in roles to which you aspire.

Would you have done anything differently?
I prefer not to use the retrospectoscope, and of course I have made some decisions and taken actions, which were not the best at the time. But I would not be who I am today if I had done anything differently.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
It's crucial to have a broad foundation in education, training and experience across various disciplines so that you have genuine capability and can actually do what is promised. Moving out of a comfort zone and taking risks will build confidence. And the most important factor is self-motivation, which I think is best summarised by another chemist, Primo Levi, when he wrote: ‘There is nothing more vivifying than a hypothesis.'

How did you first become involved with SCI and what has that involvement meant for you?
I joined in 1999 after working with Nigel Tinker at BNFL in Lancashire, and he outlined the benefits. In Australia, the only benefit is C&I magazine, which is an excellent resource for maintaining awareness of changes at the interface between science and business in the UK and further afield. Neil and his team do an exceptional job with this publication!

If you hadn't pursued a career in science, what would you be doing now?
When I finished secondary school I sat an exam for the public service and was offered a job in the Department of Transport as a clerical trainee. I recall that my parents were amazed at the high starting salary but as a 17 year old I didn't find the 8am start time very attractive!

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