Inventor Logan Williams has created contact lenses to help prevent people with photosensitive epilepsy having seizures – and it’s not his first invention. Bridget Rutherford spoke to the 22-year-old about why he came up with the idea, and turning an invasive pest-algae into biodegradable products
Tell me about your new invention, Polar Optics.
I have a really close friend named Emily who suffers from photosensitive epilepsy. I’ve seen how it affects her life, it’s awful. That inspired me to find a solution to what she was facing. I found out sunglasses helped her quite a lot, but sunglasses have a lot of faults. They don’t cover peripheral vision – so I looked at how I could allow for full-time protection constantly. It led me to looking into contact lenses, because no one had done anything with them for that purpose. Then I looked into 3D printing them. I went to the Eureka Science and Innovation Competition in October where I won the Ministry of Health Gold Scholarship for Polar Optics. I got to meet the governor-general and Bill English, so it was a really cool thing to do.
How do Polar Optics work?
So photosensitive epilepsy is where flashing white light causes the occipital lobe of the brain to sort of send a warning signal, and the bodily reaction is to go into a fit. Polar Optics are polarised lenses that dampen the intensity of the light so it’s less focused on the occipital lobe. There’s a difference between white light and other surroundings and Polar Optics also break down the difference between the two. Each contact lens is perfectly made for the person so there is full coverage.
Did you get to do testing with people who have photosensitive epilepsy?
Completely, we did testing. The lenses last a month, and it’s been three months since we did Eureka so they were old and had to be thrown out.
Will you begin selling Polar Optics?
Bausch and Lomb, a French company, can make the lenses. I own two companies and I am in the business incubator programme, so I want to launch Polar Optics. For me, I wouldn’t go into business where you weren’t making a difference to the environment or helping people. My passion isn’t to make money.
And it’s not the first interesting invention you’ve come up with is it. Can you tell me about Biome?
So I invented a method to turn didymo into biodegradable materials such as plastic, fabric and paper. So at the moment I’m making a compact hiking set for food. I will launch a Kickstarter campaign over January and February with a goal to reach $150,000. And every $50 someone puts in, they will get one of these hiking sets. In the set is a plate, bowl, small container, cup and a spork with a knife. It will come in a muslin or mesh bag.
How did you come up with the idea?
To begin with it was paper. I came across some didymo dried on the river bed and it looked like paper. I picked it up and played with it and wrote on it. But it was the pure price and competitive nature of paper that meant it wouldn’t really work. I wanted to create something with high value that was good for the environment.
Where do you get it from?
In summer there is more access to didymo. There are two main places – the Mackenzie Country and there’s the lower and upper Waiau River in North Canterbury. I’ve got the material and have started designing the hiking set, and getting the campaign set up. I’m creating a video now which will talk about the company and how I came up with the idea.
Where did the environmental side of your ideas come from?
Growing up I loved the environment. I lived in Timaru so went to the Mackenzie Country a lot. There’s something about being a New Zealander, it’s part of my identity. I lived in New Zealand when there was no didymo. I’ve seen the before and after. It just suffocates the waterways and has a big impact on the wildlife, hydro dams, irrigation and boating – it’s horrible and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the North Island. If you continually extract the didymo starting from the top of the river, and put the infrastructure in place, you can get on top of it.
You’ve won awards for Biome haven’t you?
Yes, I’ve won about seven. I got the sustainability award for the $85k challenge and a few scholarships. I was also a finalist in the student of the year award for business and science. It’s not about the awards though. I could have 100 awards, but if I’m not making an impact, then what’s the point?
What brought you to Christchurch?
I was here for the 2011 earthquake at my grandparent’s house because my grandmother had cancer. I always loved Christchurch, it was my home away from home. One defining moment was when I was on the bus a few months after and this lady stood up and started balling her eyes out. Everyone just went over and comforted her. In a way the earthquake brought the community together. There’s this unified solidarity and support, and I thought ‘this is the city I want to live in’. Canterbury University was also really resilient. It has the Centre of Entrepreneurship with Dr Rachel Wright, which helps build businesses and promotes being innovative. This year we went to Kaikoura and had to help the businesses there that were struggling after the earthquake. My team actually won, it was really cool meeting all the business owners.
Did you always want to be an inventor?
Growing up my family didn’t have much. We lived in a really bad rental and there were gangs down our street. My mum and dad worked incredibly hard and dad worked his way up and bought his own company. Now my family is so comfortable, so I’ve seen what can happen if you work hard and I’ve always liked science and writing down ideas. Now they make manuka honey and have a locksmith company, Allied Locks.
Do you have any siblings?
Yes, I have two little sisters.
Can you remember what your first invention was?
I made this compounding crossbow. A normal crossbow has one string, I made one with eight strings in a circle, it was about 12 times more powerful (laughs). I designed that when I was about 10. I used to write fiction as a kid as well, I was really into that.
What exactly are you studying?
I did a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts with honours, and now I’m doing a Masters in Business Management. The science side of things is really theoretical, and I’m doing the business side to learn how to turn ideas into a viable company that is sustainable. I started at Canterbury University in 2014, so I’ve been here for four years and have one more year to go.
How long did it take you to produce Polar Optics?
About three months. I spent quite a lot of time on it, it was a massive turn around. I had the idea for a while though. I’ve got about 250 ideas, and I’ve written a few papers on different ones. One of the latest ones is to do with the super food spirulina. I’ve designed a method to take chemical run off from dairy farms, and to grow spirulina in it. It cleans water and can be used to feed stock. I’ve entered that in the Alltech Young Scientist of the Year so will find out how I go next year.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Me and my partner Brittany like to go camping, hiking, walking and anything to do with the environment. The Port Hills have so much to offer and Christchurch is so close to lots of amazing places. We’re actually just about to get a springer
spaniel puppy so that’s exciting.
Is there anything you’ve done you’re particularly proud of?
I think I’m more proud of New Zealand that a 22-year-old can create these inventions and have support and be able to be successful. The support has been astounding. It’s not just one person who designs something and makes it happen.