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Scientific measures

Michael MacKnight banner

Scientific measures

From humble beginnings as an Otago master’s project, ADInstruments is now developing equipment that is being used worldwide, from the lab, to Everest Base Camp and the very edges of outer space. The history of specialist electronics company ADInstruments is never far away for its creator, Otago physics and computer science alumnus Michael Macknight.

Artefacts on display at ADI’s Dunedin headquarters chart the company’s evolution; clunky “first generation” electronic devices bearing the serial number 001001 (first used at Otago in 1987) sit alongside smaller refined instruments. The corridors are lined with recent posters showing the integration of software products into a business model geared for growth. The future, it seems, is “in the cloud”.

Macknight says the company’s equipment is now used “just about anywhere signals varying over time need to be measured”. In real terms, this means its products are commonplace in more than 10,000 universities, polytechnics, hospitals, and contract and private sector industry laboratories worldwide.

It is no exaggeration to say the company – and Macknight’s story – started “from humble beginnings”. In a very unassuming way, he reflects on how a global company that now employs more than 200 staff (70 of whom are based in Dunedin) and has offices in 12 countries, had its genesis in his mid-1980s master’s project.

“My father was head of Physiology at Otago and I’d seen students in labs measuring signals from nerves with old, expensive equipment. I needed a master’s project and thought about ways of saving money and getting more functionality. I built a box that plugged into a Mac, which had come out the year before, and wrote software that converted data into a more easily manipulated format.”

The innovative system’s potential for academic research applications became apparent when “we noticed the gear seemed to be making its way from the teaching labs to the research labs when the students were on holiday”.

“In combination with other technologies, our products allowed for more powerful analysis. Researchers didn’t want to use old, expensive chart recorders once they’d seen what was possible. Previously, there were hilarious scenes with researchers unrolling chart paper down the hallway that was metres long, or using scissors to cut out wave-forms then weighing the paper to get an area under the curve.”

Findings from this master’s “MacLab” project – supervised by Brian Cox and Don Warrington – underpinned a presentation at a world trade exhibition in Washington and more interest followed.

These early realisations also informed an enduring company ethos – research and education are “built in to ADI’s structure”.

These twin priorities are reflected in its sales figures: about 50 per cent of sales go to teaching facilities, while research laboratories absorb the remainder of ADI’s instrument and software lines.

Another early realisation was that the way to maximise profits and stand out in the market place was to package products from various places together so sales people could advise on tech “bundles”.

“We didn’t want our products to be marketed or sold as part of a catalogue that contained our competitors’ offerings so, fairly early on, we flipped the whole thing and developed our own sales force and distribution processes. The centre of sale remains the hardware and software, but we also offer advice, training and installation – the whole service.”

The company has kept its business core – its programmers, sales and finance management, and education writers – in Dunedin, which Macknight says solves many problems, apart from geographical isolation from its major markets.

“We’ve often been asked ‘why stay in Dunedin?’ I’d say ‘why not?’ We are a global company with 13 offices around the world so we’re going to be a long way from most of our customers wherever we are. The group we have built up is as good as you’d find anywhere, plus the cost base is lower. Most of the people here are local graduates – in fact, some employees used the equipment when they were studying – and they like the lifestyle, so we have a settled workforce.”

ADI’s Dunedin offices also have a special connection with Macknight’s family. Housed over several floors of an historic wool store in the city’s increasingly trendy warehouse precinct, the building was refurbished in collaboration with his wife and brother, who runs a heritage restoration company responsible for several inner-city projects.

Macknight also counts close links with the University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic as a great asset.

He likes that students and secondary school pupils can visit ADI to gain insights into real-world applications of their studies. Software engineering classes from Otago regularly come to ADI “to see what the workplace is like, how we do things and what a future in science can look like”.

Ease of use is a key value with ADI’s offerings, and customer expectation and requirements often dictate product development. Engaging with students and pupils provides valuable insights into what “end-users” want – aside from being very computer-literate, young people are “very, very honest about what works, and what doesn’t,” he says.

The rise of cloud-based computing represents the most recent challenge. “It certainly raises issues around data security and privacy, but you can’t stop technology and cloud systems are where things are headed so development and staying relevant in multiple markets becomes a question of managing disadvantages.”

New directions in IT are also changing the way people learn, although Macknight remains a firm believer in the practicalities and less tangible benefits of physical laboratories and learning environments.

“There’s no doubt that ‘e-campus’ learning affords some great opportunities to prepare for lectures or review findings, but I still think physical campuses are essential for science. Beyond obvious reasons, like the need to house a range of equipment and safety, I think interaction with the staff is crucial.”

Students in “well-run, sensible labs” learn about using equipment and patient sensitivity and, occasionally, a lot more about their own physiology. 

“Nursing students using the wrong cuff can see how this leads to erroneous blood pressure results, but we’ve also seen students discover a heart condition or subtle colour blindness, so it’s great to see them using our instruments to learn more about how variability and physiology is important.”

Macknight also enthuses about seeing ADI’s measuring equipment used in ground-breaking research. Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner leapt from the edge of space wearing technology that collected high quality data on his physiological changes and state as he sped towards Earth.

Similarly, in 2016 cardio-respiratory researcher Trevor Day, Associate Professor of Physiology at Mt Royal University, Canada, took ADI equipment on a 120 kilometre trek to the Everest Base Camp. His results yielded important information on the effects and causes of acute mountain sickness.

Macknight is equally enthused by the science behind recent Dental School research, which uses video capture software to analyse chewing muscles and forces on teeth, and another project involving the company’s products that tests the efficacy of a preliminary drug administered immediately after a heart attack.

ADI’s continuing growth is immensely rewarding, but Macknight seems more pleased by the fact that its success is driven by the company’s ability to adapt to meet a need to improve life sciences data measurement and collection equipment and software. And, as he pores over the internals of an “ancient” prototype, more than a trace of a boyish fascination with gadgets and how to make them work more efficiently is evident. 

“Technology and science change all the time, and so do the requirements of life-sciences-related analysis and our users’ expectations. I think it’s worked for us because our twist is taking ideas that others may have pioneered and making stuff simple; you don’t need to know how your TV or car work to operate them – and that’s what we aim to achieve."

“We’ve always been expanding, but with online platforms there a lot of places we can take it. The boxes we make will always be important, but our core IP is the software and, with that, there’s no limit, except for your imagination.”

Photo: Alan Dove