Shaun Tan

Dr Shaun Tan is the Head of Technology at Lanaco, a Kiwi start-up that is pushing the boundaries of materials science. Lanaco uses premium grade wool to make high performance masks and filters, and counts NASA and the NZ Olympic Team among its clients.

Materials engineer Shaun Tan has had a busy past two months.

As the Head of Technology at Kiwi filtration company Lanaco, he is helping create new economic opportunities for New Zealand’s wool industry.

One of its products is masks, which harness the natural, breathable qualities of wool. Demand is surging and in the last few months his team has expanded from 10 to 20 during a lockdown.

“I was the first full-time technical materials person at Lanaco. It’s a fast-paced company and the start-up environment can be challenging.”

“But while I was at University, I was a member of a lot of organisations and connected to a broad network of people across a range of sectors and industries, and that has served me very well. Being heavily involved in Spark (now Velocity) and a stint at Stanford gave me the commercialisation and life skills that I needed and still use today,” Shaun says.

Lanaco has invested years in the development and testing of its products to arrive at the quality wool-based masks it makes today. Working with Otago farmers, it developed the first flock of sheep in the world specifically bred to grow the premium wool needed for respiratory air filters.

Shaun joined the company directly from his PhD in Mechanical Engineering after dedicating nearly eight years to study. He gained his BE (Hons) in only three years instead of four, then jumped straight into a PhD. He also did a month-long intensive course at Stanford University in his early days at Lanaco.

During his PhD, he also spent an entire year managing the Spark entrepreneurship competition (now called Velocity). As a result he is passionate about bringing research out of the lab and into the commercial world.

This set him up perfectly, Shaun says, with his current role requiring an advanced understanding of materials science, commercialisation and business skills.

One of Shaun’s highlights with Lanaco has been working with NASA to develop emergency filters for astronauts on the Orion spacecraft.

“NASA were looking for a material that in the case of a fire that would not clog up with dust or water. The wool technology we used was perfect, and we now are their official supplier. They are a high-profile customer and it was a great experience,” Shaun says.

He is also proud to have helped Lanaco supply the entire NZ Olympic team with their masks for the recent Tokyo Olympics, and also to have helped donate hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of masks to Fiji via Rotary at the height of the island nation’s battle with Covid-19.

And for everyday New Zealanders, Lanaco masks are also on the shelf at Bunnings hardware stores.

Shaun paid tribute to Geoff Whitcher, “the Godfather of Velocity” for his unique ability to see the best in people, and his company CEO Nick Davenport for his leadership during the start-up phase.

“His tenacity and persistence are traits I admire, and I can only hope to be as optimistic and forward-thinking as he is when working in the challenging start-up environment.”

One of Shaun’s own learnings, he says, is making full use of the opportunities given and to not take them for granted.

“Some of the biggest opportunities in the world are there for the taking and recognising the right time to act on them is important.”