Interview: Professor Shane Telfer

We’re thrilled to welcome a new founder into the Matū portfolio, and to kick off a new series highlighting founders and management teams in the Matū Karihi portfolio, understanding what makes them tick. Senior Analyst Kiri Lenagh-Glue talks to Professor Shane Telfer:

Captivate Technology has developed novel Metal-Organic-frameworks (MOFs) for capturing carbon dioxide at the point of release. Their technology, MUF-16, is a porous material consisting of linked metal ions that act as ‘sponges’ for specific molecules. Captivate is able to target emissions at the point of production to sequester greenhouse gas emissions in hard-to-abate industries. MUF-16 achieves CO2 absorption as a solid-state material, which enables improved outcomes to existing sequestration technologies, including higher energy-efficiency, increased ease of handling, longer product life cycles, and more environmentally friendly.

Professor Shane Telfer is the founder and CEO of Captivate Technology. He is a Professor of Chemistry at Massey University, and runs the Telfer Lab, a research group focusing on the use and development of porous materials to selectively capture CO2 for climate change remediation.

Learn more about Captivate Technology here, and at their website.

Tell us a bit about the places and people important to you.
There are two places that are important to me – one close by and one further away. Arapuke Forest Park just outside of Palmerston North is an amazing place for mountain biking. Even though it is council owned, the Manawatū Mountain Bike Club has been heavily involved with planting, foresting, and trail maintenance and we’ve really been able to tailor the space to our ideal. It’s an unusual and special set of circumstances to have so much input over a place you love. I love mountain biking, but also the rewards that come with volunteer input. There is a big team of us who are involved with the space and all driven by the same motivations, and you can really see the positive outcomes of investment of time and effort. 

A bit further away is Japan. Since I was 16, I’ve had a strong connection with the country, learning the language, welcoming an exchange student and going on exchange myself. It was quite a transformative experience culturally, and the sense of immersion and connection with my homestay family was very meaningful – from that point on I’ve had a longstanding connection back to there. I spent two-and-a-half years there as a postdoc researcher, my daughter is half Japanese, and I have a lot of family connections there starting from that first experience when I was 16. 

As for people, lots of people are important in your life so it’s hard to single people out, but my daughter is a really important part of my life. Watching her grow up is a very profound experience, and being able to support her development and seeing her flourish is a great thing. Similarly, in my 17 years having been at Massey University, the research students who have come through, despite all the different levels and ages, we’re all united in the universal language of chemistry and the commonality of understanding that brings people together from all different backgrounds. The dynamic in running these groups has always been very interesting – it can be mentor/mentee or more collegial – but it’s always been a huge part of my personal and professional life.  

What is your connection with science/technology, and why did you get into it?
I’ve been on a science and tech path since highschool. I was initially interested in a wide range of things like history, language, classics, but eventually science won out. Pretty early on I made the conscious decision not to head into med and biosciences, and focused more on physics and chemistry in the end. I ended up at the University of Canterbury knowing I wanted to do something sciencey, and in the end chemistry won out, and I’ve been a chemist for 30 years. I love chemistry, it just felt right – you have a connection with a subject where you find it easy where others find it hard. I have a real affinity for the subject, and it never felt like work or study. Really, I just fell into it and I’ve never left.

In your experience, what is a defining characteristic of successful science/technology development?
Oh boy – is there a defining characteristic? I suppose something I see time and time again is around the drive and determination of the people involved. The technical aspects are either going to cut it or not, but that’s hard to assess at the start, and it’s an objective thing that is really out of anyone’s control, but the team you build around an idea is key. 

One of the people I think of in this space is Sir Paul Callaghan – I got to know him a bit in my early days at Massey and MacDiarmid Institute. He had a lot of mana and the ability to unite people. He had this presence that made you respect him as a leader, and make you feel that he represented your interests and were supported. He was also pretty fundamental in supporting the pathway for scientists to be hardcore fundamental scientists and research entrepreneurs, and reassuring that the two could coexist without ‘selling your soul’. There was this enthusiasm and spark he had, and when I think of his developments, and where others’ have been successful, there is always this personality characteristic behind them. When you see a sort of positive, open, resilient, and determined leader, those characteristics of the people driving the science are reflected in the successful technology.

What value does Matū have that made you want to get involved?
It definitely comes down to Andrew Chen’s involvement – he closely followed our commercial journey and progress all the way since 2018-2019 when we were still undertaking our initial development in the lab and just starting our engagement with Massey. He was interested and genuine, and kept up to date with the developments in those early days all the way through to when we became more serious about spinning out. I really liked the fact that there was unobtrusive guidance and support. We also knew that Matū had supported other startups out of Massey, and we got to learn from their experiences as well. We knew that Matū were investors coming in with smart money, and would be directly involved with the business providing tools and strategies to achieve success. Massey Ventures is a smaller organisation, so Matū was able to help fill some of the gaps that other larger organisations might not have. It’s been a really positive and beneficial experience to have been involved with Matū as an investor, and we feel really fortunate. 

What is your favourite art medium, and do you have a favourite piece?
This is so hard – it’s like eliminating the important people in your life! Down to the essence of having a favourite medium, while I love music, art, and film, I have a real affinity for music. If I had to point to a genre or era that was really impactful, Flying Nun Records from New Zealand in the 80s/90s would definitely be it. When I was at uni, I was involved with the radio station there and at that time we had to lobby for New Zealand music to be played on the radio – back then there was a specific quota that could only be played. Now we have bands like Lorde and Six60 that are huge, but back 20 years ago, you had all these high quality artists who were struggling really to be heard at all. I think my favourite artist is Chris Knox – he and his music had a massive impact on me. He’s not the best singer or player, but an amazing lyricist – not high art but more lo-fi and impactful.

Thinking about art though, I’ve never been as moved by anything as going to the Rothko exhibit at the Tate – my phone case is one of his blue strip pieces. Without being a major art critic or guru, I think art has a real power and I will never forget that experience. It brings real joy and satisfaction when I think about Rothko and his art. There are also certain kinds of movies that just grab me, things like Tarantino or the Coen Brothers – again, I wouldn’t say high art, but incisive dialogue that allows deeper themes to come through. Movie dialogue happens in such a different way to everyday life, that sort of stylized dialogue that carries a lot of meaning while still being funny and thought provoking. I just saw A Streetcar Named Desire for the first time and it just blew me away – I’m not sure if I loved it but it was very powerful.