From life-saving drones and phone-charging solar panels to biodegradable coffins and a climate change portal, it’s full steam ahead for some of UOW’s entrepreneurialminded students and alumni whose bright ideas look set to have global impact.

LIFE-SAVING DRONES

Beaches around Australia could one day be equipped with a life-saving invention developed by a pair of UOW PhD students.

The New Breed (Nicholas Roach and Leo Stevens) - Inline Image Medium

Leo Stevens and Nicholas Roach are the brains behind the ‘Guardian Drone’ that provides a safer and faster way for lifesavers to assist swimmers in distress at sea.

The drone, which is controlled remotely from the beach, drops a flotation device to swimmers in danger, allowing lifesavers precious extra time to organise a safe rescue.

Stevens, who has been a volunteer lifesaver for more than a decade, saw the need for the device after many rescue attempts during treacherous surf conditions.

“On these days, choosing to perform a rescue is also choosing to put yourself in danger,” Stevens said.

“The Guardian Drone provides a fast and safe way to deliver a floatation device to a swimmer, giving lifeguards precious time to prepare a safe and effective rescue.”

“In lifeguarding, time is critical. A tool that rapidly delivers floatation to swimmers not only improves their chance of survival, but expands the window of opportunity for other rescue equipment, like a jet-ski or helicopter, to arrive in time.”

Stevens took his idea to fellow student Roach, who had been using drones for his aerial photography business Phoenix Media.

Roach’s expertise with the technology meant he and Stevens were able to create a prototype for the Guardian Drone in just 10 weeks, which saw them take out the crown of equal winners at UOW’s Innovation Works! competition in 2014.

The device was informally tested on NSW South Coast beaches in late 2014 and the duo hope to one day commercialise their innovative technology.

BIODEGRADABLE COFFINS

“It’s their final piece of furniture.” That’s how environmental engineering student Chris Nicholson describes the reality of his elegant, biodegradable funeral caskets that take up to 50 hours to handcraft, only to end up buried in the ground or burned.


“A lot of people want to be buried or cremated in a low-impact way and to be able to provide that service is very rewarding. Knowing the timber I’m using would have otherwise been put in landfill is environmentally satisfying.”

Chris was the winner of the undergraduate category of the UOW Pitch 2014 competition, a university initiative to help staff and students with innovative ideas turn their bright ideas into reality.

While studying at UOW, he continued to channel his love of woodworking into his startup company Australian Handcrafted Caskets and has recently started a second business, Forest Furniture, that specialises in handmade furniture.

It was during his time with the Illawarra Flame house, a UOW and TAFE Illawarra student-led project to turn a 1960s-style fibro house into a solar-powered, net-zero energy home of the future that first sparked the idea of sustainable caskets in Nicholson’s mind.

“As I was sourcing the timber for the project I saw how much timber ends up in landfill and so I was always thinking about how this resource could be utilised,” Nicholson said.

“The final piece of the puzzle was a chance meeting with the founder of a non-profit funeral organisation and she told me this problem they have with coffins being overpriced and made out of materials that are not great to bury or incinerate.

“That was the light bulb moment. Here was a resource and now I had a good application.”

In the past year, Nicholson has received a steady stream of environmentally conscious customers from the Illawarra, Sydney and Melbourne.

“People seem to be attracted to the caskets because of their simple and down to earth design.”

He has also been designing and building custom furniture and fit outs for shops and cafes through his second business Forest Furniture.

“I’d like to keep growing the business to a point where I can employ local people. That’s one of my main goals in the next few years,” he said.

CLIMATE CHANGE EDUCATION

When six-year-old Parrys Raines asked her mother why she needed to wear sunscreen, she never expected the answer (a hole in our ozone layer) would spur such a fascination for science and a dedication to protecting our planet.

The New Breed (Parrys Raines) - Inline Image Thin

Raines attended her first UN conference at age 13 and by 14 she had founded Climate Girl, an education website for youth wanting to learn about the planet.

“I found all the information was really scientific and hard to understand, so I wanted to create a place where young people could go to access information. It’s now a global platform for young people to share their stories,” Raines said.

After only completing the first year of her law degree, Raines has a clear idea of where she would like to take her future career as an environmental lawyer.

“I aim to specialise in environmental law, but I am particularly interested in the human rights aspect of environmental law,” she said.

“The knowledge gained from my studies here at UOW will enable me to advise governments and corporations of best practices that will benefit the long term sustainability of the planet, people and animals.”

Raines is continuing to break new ground, having been the youngest person to attend the recent 11-day entrepreneurial conference run by The Unstoppables in Antarctica.

PAPER-THIN SOLAR PANELS FOR PHONE BATTERIES

If UOW PhD student Joseph Giorgio has his way, smartphone batteries will never run out at the worst possible time, laptops will never need to be plugged in, and you will be able to take your television camping.

The New Breed (Joseph Giorgio) - Inline Image Thin

Giorgio is working on a new type of solar panel that’s paper-thin, made from low-cost material and can charge day and night.

A model now in development at UOW’s Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI) is made of titanium foil and plastic, electrodes, and a coloured dye that works like chlorophyll in a plant.

“That’s what is absorbing the light,” Giorgio said.

“You could put it wherever you want. You could roll it out on your roof. You could take it camping with you. You could put it on the back of consumer electronics. It works better than a normal solar cell, it’s lightweight, and it works indoors. There’s no minimum light-intensity needed. They come in different colours too, so they can be aesthetically pleasing.”

Giorgio is working on new solar panels that fit on the back of your mobile phone and charge the device quickly.

“I love to do work where the research I do gets translated into a prototype that goes on the market and becomes something people can actually use.”

Giorgio expects that stand-alone panels will be on the market within five years, and mobile phone-sized versions soon after.

AN ON-DEMAND PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM

Current computer science student Thomas Headland wants to create a fast, low cost, door-to-door transport service that eliminates the need to wait at a bus stop, check a timetable or stand in crowded buses.

The New Breed (Thomas Headland) - Inline Image Thin

“Every day I’d be riding to uni thinking about this idea, and one day I fell off my bike when I collided with a removalist van. I guess that was the catalyst to investigate the idea further.”

UOW.LINK was born and Headland took the idea for to the UOW Pitch 2014 competition, where he won an Undergraduate Student Encouragement Award and a $2,000 prize to help further his innovation.

With this funding, mentorship and connections made from UOW’s startup incubator iAccelerate, Headland has been able to pitch his idea to generate a commercially viable business model and a software-as-a-service prototype.

“My vision was for an automated courtesy bus that enabled real time use by passengers who could be collected anywhere within a 10-kilometre radius of the University,” he said.

“A passenger can simply go to the UOW.LINK app or website and book door-to-door transfer. The application handles bookings and payments while optimising routes for the driver to ensure you arrive safely and on time.

“It’s designed to be as efficient as a taxi service but with the economy of scale of bus transport.”

In between his engineering day job at a mining company, where he has been developing cloud-based IT systems, Headland has been hatching plans to travel to the world’s undisputed tech-hub, Silicon Valley, to pitch his ideas. “I’ve prototyped and tested the UOW.LINK app and I’m working on a few other exciting projects now. So it’s small stepping stones but Silicon Valley is the ultimate goal.


  • NICHOLAS ROACH
    Bachelor of Medicinal Chemistry Advanced (Hons), UOW (2009)
    Currently completing a Doctor of Philosophy, UOW
  • LEO STEVENS
    Bachelor of Science Advanced (Chemistry), UOW (2010)
    Graduate Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UOW (2015)
    Currently completing a Doctor of Philosophy, UOW
  • CHRIS NICHOLSON
    Currently completing a Bachelor of Engineering (Environmental), UOW
  • PARRYS RAINES
    Currently completing a Bachelor of Laws, UOW
  • JOSEPH GIORGIO
    Bachelor of Nanotechnology Advanced, UOW (2011)
    Graduate Certificate in Business Administration, UOW (2014)
    Currently completing a Doctor of Philosophy, UOW
  • THOMAS HEADLAND
    Currently completing a Bachelor of Computer Science, UOW