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
“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
“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
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
“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.”