University graduate wins £90,000 NERC Enterprise Fellowship award

A University of Aberdeen graduate who has turned his PhD into a business idea has been awarded a prestigious NERC Enterprise Fellowship by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The Fellowship, worth £90,000, will provide Rotimi Alabi with support to develop RAB-Microfluidics, a company he formed with support from the University.  The start-up offers oil analysis to businesses through ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology that aims to dramatically reduce maintenance and repair costs for heavy equipment.

Rotimi, who is from Nigeria, developed the idea while working on his PhD alongside Dr Stephen Bowden and Professor John Parnell, from the University’s School of Geosciences.

Their work on the application of microfluidics to oil analysis – a relatively new area of research – led to the development of a chip capable of carrying out mobile online oil measurements. 

With oil analysis usually carried out in a lab, the development of the ‘lab-on-a-chip’ sparked a business idea that led Rotimi to contact the University’s Research and Innovation Department, who provided expertise that helped him create RAB-Microfluidics.

Now based at the University’s ABVenture Zone, which provides support and state of the art office facilities for innovative start-ups through the Accelerate Aberdeen programme, RAB-Microfluidics is poised to begin its transformation into a fully-fledged business.

Although delighted to be in a position where he is ready to take his company to the next level, Rotimi admits that it hasn’t been plain sailing.

 “During my PhD I worked in the lab all day and every day – including weekends – for seven months without any breakthrough,” he explained.

“Stephen had proved the concept that it was possible to analyse oil by using microfluidics but my job was to take that a step further and demonstrate it in the lab.

“It was very much a process of trial and error and there were moments where I really doubted myself, but Stephen and John gave me great encouragement until one day we turned the corner and captured the measurements, which was a huge relief.”

With his perseverance having paid dividends, Rotimi was determined not to let the matter rest there.

“After my PhD I found a job, but I knew I wanted to do something with my PhD otherwise it would just sit in the archives. I just didn’t know how to make the move.

“I got in touch with the University’s Research and Innovation Unit who  told me all about the opportunities that were open to me and it was like seeing a new world for the first time.

“They made me think less like an academic and more like an entrepreneur, and helped me build my business case that led to my acceptance to the ABVenture Zone and registering the company.”

The NERC Enterprise Fellowship will provide Rotimi with a year’s salary and expert support to grow his business in a package worth £90,000.  This builds on existing grant funding for RAB-Microfluidics from the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre and Energy Technology Partnership, worth £65,000.

Describing his product as “potentially revolutionary”, Rotimi is looking ahead optimistically.

He said: “We have the expertise and we have the vision and the ambition to revolutionise the way testing and analysis is done on oil.

“To get to the point where we can provide a portable device that can take measurements will take another 12 months and around £500,000, but I’m optimistic we can achieve this. When we have the product then a new journey will begin.”