Research and industry: bringing expertise to the business world
“I've really liked science, especially physics, ever since I was in high school,” remembers Yu, who is the only one in his family to pursue a career in science and technology. He undertook his first degree at the Chinese University Hong Kong in physics and completed his masters at the same university, where he became engaged in the field of magnetism.
Upon completion of his masters research in non-destructive evaluation techniques based on magnetism, Yu came across and gained particular interest in the topic of tunnel magnetoresistance (TMR). TMR is the magnetoresistive effect that occurs in a magnetic tunnel junction (MTJ), which is a component consisting of two ferromagnets separated by a thin insulator.
If the insulating layer is thin enough (typically a few nanometers), electrons can tunnel from one ferromagnet into the other. Since this process is forbidden in classical physics, the TMR is a strictly quantum mechanical phenomenon. It was a hot new topic for research in 1996 when Yu was awarded a Croucher scholarship to complete a PhD at the University of Oxford.
Starting in Japan
In the second year of his studies at Oxford, Yu delivered a presentation at the Intermag-IEEE conference on magnetics in Vancouver. When he won the best student presentation prize, he realised he may also have a talent for communication.
On completion of his PhD, he was awarded a Croucher Fellowship in 1999, and while Yu gratefully accepted the fellowship title, he declined the funding award after he was selected by the Japanese government to continue his research in Japan.
He eventually decided to work under the mentorship of Prof T Miyazaki at Tohoku University in Sendai, which also offered him a fixed-term junior faculty position. He politely declined the offer and continued to stay with the Japanese government research fellowship.
“The Japanese government offered me 100% flexibility and freedom for my research,” says Yu and he joined a national collaborative research programme between academia and industry while he was one of the co-principal investigators in Prof Miyazaki’s team. The overall mission was to develop the next generation of non-volatile memory and ultra-high capacity digital data storage technology based on TMR and spintronics.
“I was young and looking for new challenges and I had so many opportunities to meet talented and experienced scientists and engineers in the industry and work with the big technology corporations like Sony, Toshiba, and Fujitsu,” says Yu and in 2001 he received a call from Sony and was invited to join them.
Move to Sony
“It was a very nice offer directly from the Sony Corporation Headquarters to join around a hundred very carefully selected non-Japanese scientists, engineers, or MBA graduates from world-class universities or experienced professionals,” says Yu. He subsequently joined Sony as a researcher deployed on different projects as required by the company.
“The bridge between universities and industry I experienced in that 1-2 year programme convinced me that our research could be converted into reality and that really excited me,” says Yu, who remembers the change in priorities when he made the transition to industry.
“My first mentor at Sony told me that now my job was not to write papers but to write patents,” he says. Yu has now invented and co-invented about 100 patents and he felt comfortable making the transition to applied science.
He spent ten years at Sony moving across several business units from data storage projects to flat panel display technology, solar energy, and lithium battery technology. He was later given the opportunity to stay in R&D or move to a more commercial role.
He accepted a position supporting senior management at Sony in strategic development and corporate alliances. His role included attending high-level meetings with senior management looking to collaborate with other multi-national corporations and provide expertise on science, product technology, and patents. He was also the contact point for R&D departments within Sony’s collaborative partners.
“I had worked a lot with patent lawyers and sales and marketing managers and I was intrigued by the notion of the commercial value of technology. I just picked up the skill of explaining complex technology to laymen and commercial people,” he says.
Yu thinks that while many researchers do outstanding work, far fewer are adept at communicating their ideas and some prefer to “live in their own worlds.” In his experience, he found there to be much stronger collaboration between universities and industry in Japan than in Hong Kong or the UK.
In March 2011, Yu was having a meeting in one of the Sony sites in Sendai when the area was struck by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. That traumatic experience was enough to persuade him to leave Japan where he had lived and worked successfully for some 12 years.
Initially, he moved to the USA briefly and took a commercial role for a Harvard University spin out technology company (now merged with a NYSE listed company) helping the company to overlook the Asian market and develop a new China sales force. In 2012, Andrew returned to Hong Kong to run the Asia-Pacific sales and marketing operations for Raith Nanofabrication, which is headquartered in Germany.
“My role is very commercial now, though still very scientific and technical. I am a businessman but I still deliver scientific talks, including invited ones, at international conferences and university seminars and provide technical advice to university researchers who use our technologies,” says Yu. He estimates that about 70% of his clients are universities and research institutes, engaged in waveguides, display technology, quantum dot fabrication techniques, and data storage development.
In a new development, his company is developing ways of taking nanofabrication into the life sciences and transferring the technology to brain structure imaging by allowing electron beams to provide high-resolution images of large surface areas of the brain.
Andrew Yu completed his first and master’s degrees in physics at the Chinese University Hong Kong before being awarded a Croucher Scholarship in 1996 to complete his PhD in Materials on tunnel magnetoresistance (TMR) at the University of Oxford in 1999. He was awarded a Croucher Fellowship in 1999 and was selected by the Japanese government for a national research programmer focused on the next generation of non-volatile memory and data storage technology.
To view Yu's personal Croucher profile, please click here.