Sean Feast

BE(Hons) 2017, PhD 2022 Chemical and Processing Engineering

Founder & CEO of Precision Chroma

Sean Feast

Can you tell us about what you’ve been up to this year with Precision Chroma? What is your ‘starting a business origin story’?

Precision Chroma is commercialising 3D printed chromatography columns (originally invented by UC’s Professor Conan Fee) which was the subject of my PhD at UC. Through nearly four years of post-grad and post-doc research I helped further develop the technology to the point of commercialisation. Then last year I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Kiwinet Emerging Innovator award to help kick-start the commercialisation journey. This led to meeting Bridgewest (our funding partners) who saw the value and potential in this technology. Precision Chroma was founded at the beginning of 2022, and it has been a busy year so far for our small team of three. We have engaged with several biotech companies within New Zealand, Australia and the US and we are upscaling our technology out of the lab to meet commercial needs. 

What actually is chromatography? How do you explain the process and it’s use to a person with absolutely zero prior knowledge about it?

Chromatography is a method of separating out components of a mixture. It takes advantage of differences between molecules such as size, charge, hydrophobicity, solubility, etc. The classic form of chromatography many people will have done at school is separating out all the individual colours from vivid or white board markers. On a long strip of paper, a dot is placed at one end by a vivid. A small amount of acetone is placed in the bottom of a jar and the piece of paper is dipped in the acetone dot end first. As the acetone soaks up through the paper it drags some of the different dye pigments that make up the vivid. This results in a colourful smear that moves up the paper. Because each of the dye pigments have a different attraction for the paper and acetone you should see different colour bands at different heights up the paper. This is a separation of those pigment colours based on their solubility in acetone.

This is just one type of chromatography, with many different types used in a wide range of industries. It is commonly used in pharmaceutical production to separate out important drug components from the mixture of unwanted contaminates that are a by product of making said drug. It also has many use cases in analytical analysis for drugs, food, and forensics.

You mentioned you secured a partnership with Bridgewest Ventures to grow the commercialisation of Precision Chroma – what’s on the cards for the next couple of years?

We have a funding runway until roughly June 2023 and will need to raise more capital prior to then. We will be continuing to grow the company here in Christchurch ideally looking to set up manufacturing within the next two years. We are also hoping to secure strategic partnerships to supply our columns around the world initially at research and pilot scales with plans to research commercial size columns.

What drew you to study chemical and process engineering at UC in the first place?

At high school, I was fortunate enough to have both a great science teacher but also a great technology teacher both of which directed me to chemical and process engineering. It was a great balance of understanding chemical processes and practical implementation. Then in my final two years, I took up the bioprocessing minor which I believe was the best part of the degree. It has such a wide range of possibilities in an ever-expanding field from alcohol fermentation to production of cutting-edge biological pharmaceuticals.

You first started your studies at UC 10 years ago and you are now an assistant lecturer and run your company out of UC – in those years, what memories or experiences have really stood out as highlights?

Wow yeah I hadn’t actually thought about it, but it will be coming up 10 years since I started my undergraduate degree! Studying at UC was awesome, I made some great lifelong friends and have seen the university rebuild into start of the art research hub. Some of the best memories were end of year Tea Parties, late nights in the old Von Haast building finishing last minute assignments and all the awesome post grads in CAPE. I did a couple years of assistant lecturing for the School of Product design but am now running the company full time.