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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 6 | Jun. 2, 2005

Physics Alum has Clear Image of Future

By Brian Lin

Helge Seetzen is about to revolutionize what millions of people watch every day -- thanks, in part, to the German military.

Seetzen is a UBC physics and philosophy alumnus and chief technology officer of Sunnybrook Technologies, a UBC spin-off company developing monitors that display images as life-like as the real thing.

Arriving at UBC in 1998 immediately following compulsory military service in Germany, Seetzen was inspired by then dean of science Maria Klawe -- who is now dean of engineering at Princeton University and a Sunnybrook board member -- to help bring more outstanding international students to the Vancouver campus.

“I had this idea to collaborate with the German military and recruit the brightest students straight out of military service,” recalls Seetzen, who pitched the idea to Vice-President, Academic, Lorne Whitehead, who at the time was an associate dean in the faculty.

“I was immediately impressed by his entrepreneurial and creative approach, and his interest in helping things work in new and better ways,” says Whitehead, who offered Seetzen a job in his laboratory on the spot.

Since then, Seetzen has improved upon Whitehead’s invention in high dynamic range (HDR) imaging and identified commercial applications. He then co-founded Sunnybrook which, with more than a dozen patents filed, recently received the TSX Venture award for “Most promising company to go public” -- all before the tender age of 26.

“Normally I would probably just be getting out of university and fetching coffee on my first job,” says Seetzen, who adds Whitehead has always treated him as a peer rather than a student.

“Instead, I’m working on an exciting technology that can really change lives.”

The jewel in Sunnybrook’s crown is an advanced display technology that accomplishes a 100-fold improvement in brightness and contrast to conventional monitors. The innovation replaces fluorescent backlights in LCD monitors and televisions with a small number of individually-controlled LED lights, which are combined with sophisticated software and the human eye’s natural reaction to scattered light. It is also more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, as can last decades.

The technology is being pursued for medical imaging to improve diagnostic accuracy, and is being used by film post-production company Technicolour and software giant Adobe, whose latest version of Photoshop fully supports HDR.

Seetzen says his experience with Whitehead has also inspired him to run Sunnybrook very differently from other technology-based companies.

“We firmly believe that people who create value should receive value,” says Seetzen. “The university, which developed the original technology, should receive a large share of the benefits from the commercialization, and so should the people who worked on improving and promoting the technology.”

Currently, 14 research groups -- many of which are based in post-secondary institutions -- are contributing to Sunnybrook’s technology development and over a dozen inventors have received common shares of the company’s stock. “This allows us to run the company on a small core group of people and invest the maximum amount of funding into research and development,” says Seetzen, whose proudest accomplishment is his staff.

“Most of the people working here are co-op students,” says Seetzen, who has also helped to establish a student co-op program with a number of German institutions. “But they are not fetching coffee or doing grunt work. All of them are encouraged to create their own projects contributing to the research and development -- and they all receive stock options.”

In addition to extensive volunteer work as an undergraduate at UBC -- Seetzen received the UBC Faculty of Science Ambassador Award five times -- Seetzen is a mentor with the Vancouver School Board’s Gifted / Enrichment Education program and a “Big Brother” with young offenders and disabled children.

“I’m indeed proud of Helge,” says Whitehead. “But pride is a tricky word because it suggests that you deserve some credit for it.

“I’d like to think the opportunity I made available to an undergraduate student was a bit unusual. So I’m proud that I recognized his entrepreneurial ability and was able to create a space for him to shine.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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