Meet Professor Cather Simpson

July 31, 2023

Professor Cather Simpson has been at the forefront of driving innovation and transforming ideas into tangible ventures. In this Channelling Our Thinking interview, we have the privilege of finding out more about the drivers behind Cather's passion as she provides valuable insights into the importance of building a world-class deep tech ecosystem.

Before we get into the questions, here are a few excerpts from a 2017 speech Cather gave to a group of university graduands that exemplifies her commitment and passion for making our world a better place:

Professor Cather Simpson
If you had to name three, what would your top career highlights be?  

Founding and directing the Photon Factory; founding Engender, then co-founding Orbis and Skin Photonics; Seeing the young people I’ve worked with and helped grow into successes in their own right – Chuck, Simon, Peter, Michel, Claude, Matheus, Rakesh, Reece, and so many others


Tell us what piece of advice you were given that you still stand by today:

My grandfather once told me that I should live a life with no regrets.  At the time, I thought that meant I shouldn’t take risks, it sounded hard and boring.  But that’s not what he meant.  I actually gave a commencement address about this at the university.  I still try to live this advice.  Define my “better” and then do better, be better.  The other way I sometimes say this is that I try to live my values.


What’s the secret to mastering the success of commercialising ground-breaking technology and accelerating growth?   

I used to think it was being smart.  But actually, I think the most important thing is to be persistent and to have a thick skin about driving the things you believe in to success. 

We get rejected a lot more than we succeed, and that can be daunting.  But if you can bounce back, and learn from your failures and rejections, then you’ve got a very important edge.


Which industry or sector do you think will benefit the most from commercialising innovation?  

At the moment, I’m focusing (pun intended) on the optics and photonics industry.  The 21st century is going to be the “Age of Photonics” in the same way that the 20th was the Age of Electronics.  It’s exciting to be on the cusp of that translation of deep new science and understanding into powerhouse technologies that are already changing the way we thrive.


What is your favourite activity outside of growing great businesses?   

I’m a big fan of sports, though I don’t play many any more. Basketball and baseball are my favourites, though I’m learning to like cricket and rugby.  I also love puzzles of all kinds, from Japanese number puzzles to jigsaws – for the last several years I’ve been into wooden puzzles of fine art and 5000 piece puzzles that take months to complete.  I really enjoy spending a grey winter NZ day listening to audiobooks and doing a challenging puzzle. 

My dirty little secret is that I also love action movies, like the Marvel movies, Star Trek movies, Star Wars (the original ones), Transformers, Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Bond …


What great quote do you tend to use all the time?    

Harry S. Truman (an ethically interesting man): 

It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.

Though to be fair, I often paraphrase rather than quote.  I get “accomplish” and “achieve” mixed up all the time!


Who (or what) are the biggest influencers on how you conduct business?   

Ethics and honesty are very important to me, and always have been.  The people I admire are the ones who are trustworthy and straightforward. They do what they say they are going to do.  They look out for others, while they are conducting their business.  I’m afraid I’m a bit unforgiving on this point.


What’s your perspective on the importance of building a world-class deep-tech ecosystem?  

People don’t go backwards.  We are not going to return to an agrarian society where everyone grows their own food.  Technology has always been the engine of improvement – of moving humanity forward.  This is true whether it’s the smartphone or the scythe. 

Yes, there are dangers, and pitfalls and absolutely there are challenges and negative consequences (intended or otherwise).  Would Milton have written A Paradise Lost if he had a smartphone to distract him? But I think building a world-class deep-tech ecosystem is essential if we want to better our condition. 

I think you’re asking about the importance of doing this in New Zealand and why don’t we just use the deep tech from the rest of the world.  Well, it’s critically important to build our own ecosystem – one that’s connected globally, of course – but one that’s here. Everything comes down to people.  We need to make sure that we have people here, in New Zealand, who know how to ask the right questions and solve the right problems.  Historically, we’d call that the No8 wire mentality.  It’s just that now it’s quantum computing, artificial intelligence and implanted sensors.


You must come across a lot of people who are on the edge of a leap of faith moment. What advice do you have for that?   

See #2above.  Leap!  If you don’t leap, you’ll never fly.


Which of Pacific Channel’s three key investment areas interest you most and why? 

I’m a polymath.  I like all of them, and hope that I will be able to contribute positively to all of them.