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Interview: innovator and scientist Thor Besier

Flagstaff Team

At the cutting edge of biomechanics – Thor Besier

Sensors are quietly revolutionising our lives: monitoring movements from trains, cars, rubbish trucks and, increasingly, human bodies. Thor Besier has been at the forefront of biomechanics research, launching groundbreaking data-capture company IMeasureU and now involved in a second start-up. The Nelson/Tasman raised academic and entrepreneur spoke to Rob Drent.

Devonport has proved the ideal home base for Thor Besier’s parallel academic and business lives.

After a stellar academic career that saw postings to the University of Western Australia and Stanford, Besier returned to New Zealand in 2011 and took up work at the University of Auckland.

Besier was happy at Stanford, and wife Sonia was an electrical engineer specialising in radio frequency in Silicon Valley’s semi-conductor industry.

However, they decided to come to Auckland for family reasons. “We made the decision to bring up the kids in New Zealand.”

Children Frida (10) and Teo (8) were born in California; youngest Mika (3) was born in New Zealand.

“When we came back I’d only ever visited the North Island once before – I went from Otago to Western Australia – so knew nothing about Devonport.”

“My sister said we should check out Devonport; it was an easy commute by ferry and it’s had everything we could want for our family and raising kids.”

To some, Auckland may seem a long way from the power bases of American academia and research. For Besier it has been the opposite, with the opportunity to combine his academic knowledge with an entrepreneurial spirit.

In 2013, he won a Marsden Fund award along with the Spark $100k Challenge and the University of Auckland Entrepreneurs Challenge. And the IMeasureU sensor he and a team developed won a New Zealand Innovation Award in 2014 and a Samsung Springboard award in 2015.
The start-up Besier launched to develop IMeasureU was sold last year to Vicon. Born in Australia and brought up in the Nelson/Tasman area, he completed an honours degree in physical education at Otago University. A soccer player and keen windsurfer, Besier decided to study for his PhD in Perth as it was a mecca for windsurfing. He specialised in biomechanics.

His work began to move from academia to the mainstream through the study of Australian Football League (AFL) players, many of whom were suffering knee injuries.

In 1996, limited scientific studies were available to show how the knee joint performed with the sidestepping and running needed in the AFL arena. Besier worked on an intervention plan used by players at the time. And it’s still being used today by the international soccer federation FIFA in its 11+ warm-up programme.

“Its quite cool that FIFA picked it up and are using some of the fundamental research,” says Besier.

Besier has always been an academic but he has a strong entrepreneurial side as well. The first start-up he was involved in was “out of Dunedin in 1995” – a video-analysis company, which is still operating. It has worked with the British Lawn Tennis Association and Australian Cricket. When he was in Western Australia, he was involved in a consultancy business on the biomechanics of athletes: injury prevention and improving performance.

Besier won a postdoctoral scholarship to Stanford University, where he began specialising in orthopaedic research. He established the university’s performance lab, and worked with 900 athletes. He was there for eight years.

These days, he works four days a week as an associate professor at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI). The institute has 250 staff, with members from all disciplines, many experts in their fields. Ironically, ABI is better known internationally than it is in New Zealand, Besier says.

For the remainder of his university time, Besier is attached to the Department of Engineering Science in the Faculty of Engineering.

The mixture of research grants, business grants and postgraduate funding that funnels its way into bodies like ABI seems to fit ideally with Besier’s experience, international connections and mentoring abilities.

It was ABI student Mark Finch who developed a small sensor in 2011 that had obvious commercial possibilities.

“It was inductably charged – it was waterproof and bulletproof.

“I said to Mark, ‘we have got to commercialise this.’” IMeasureU was born.

Besier knew the swimming director at the Australian Institute of Sport from his Otago University days and quickly the sensor was deployed for research. Its potential was clear, Finch became CEO of the business, research contracts were signed and the company was awarded a residency at The Icehouse.

The sensor measures loads on the skeleton and lower limbs and has proved particularly applicable to basketball. GPS systems can track players’ movements — but what happens if they are standing still and jumping?

IMeasureU can calculate loads on knees: information that is vital for coaches and players in match conditions and training. Questions such as what kind of training session is best after a hard match, which has been tough on the joints, are much more easily answered.

ImeasureU worked with the New Zealand Breakers for a couple of years. It has just won grant, funded by General Electric and the NBA to work with Harvard University, to monitor teams in the NBA, specifically to measure how bone density is affected by load.

The sale last year to Vicon was “perfect timing” for the company.
“Vicon wanted us for our business” what had been achieved and the quality of the IMeasureU product,” Besier says. Staff were retained to continue product development.

Earlier this year, Besier became a director of Formus Labs, a company formed in 2016 by another Kiwi engineering student Ju Zhang as its chief executive. It has a staff of four.

Formus Labs is developing customised orthotics, with the help of 3D-printing technology. The potential to save time is massive. For example, a hip that can take 40 hours for an engineer to design can be produced in just four hours.

Besier is comfortable having a foot in both the academic and commercial worlds.

Conflicts of interest can be declared, and students have the opportunity to put into commercial application what they learn at university.


Source: June 29 2018 edition of the Devonport Flagstaff. Read online.