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EUREKA's innovation heroes: Ida-Maria Sintorn

A lecturer at Uppsala university and Chief Technology Officer at Vironova, she tells us about the important role that failure has played in her success as an innovator.

With the emergence camera phones and face recognition technology, image analysis is experiencing a boom and the industry is demanding more detailed analysis, at a faster rate. Ida-Maria Sintorn is convinced that the product she helped to develop through the Eurostars project MiniTEM meets that need.

“When I did my PhD in Image Processing 12 years ago, I spent many hours, manually analysing nanoparticles. As I worked, I would often think, ‘There has to be a quicker and easier way of doing this’,” says Ida-Maria.

Flash forward 12 years and Ida-Maria has achieved what she calls her proudest moment; the creation of an electron microscope, capable of capturing high resolution images of nanoparticles and producing a range of data about them.

And best of all? It does this at a speed Ida-Maria could only have dreamed of as she painstakingly analysed nanoparticle after nanoparticle all those years ago.

Ida-Maria’s advice to other innovators:

- Don’t let your disappointment with failure cloud the positives and the lessons to be learned from it.

- Achievement comes with struggle. I you’re not motivated by the work, consider looking for something that stimulates you.

- You don’t always need to see the end goal. If you feel you can learn something from a project, get involved.

But as the old adage goes, ‘It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.’ And she can trace her trail-blazing spirit back to her childhood.

“I’ve always been fairly single minded. Even when I was a child, I never asked for permission from my parents before doing something. If I thought it was a good idea, I just did it. And I think this sort of mentality is important for people who like to solve problems.”

Connecting people

It is this attraction to problem-solving that motivates Ida-Maria, in both her role at Vironova and as a lecturer at Uppsala. For many of us, coming up against problems cause stress. But they excite Ida-Maria!

“Because image analysis is such a new field, there are many unknowns in terms of the technology around it. New problems are constantly arising and I  find it almost comforting to discover that many other people in my field have been having exactly the same problems as me. And then it’s quite exciting to learn that nobody has figured out how to solve it yet,” she says.

It’s at this point that Ida-Maria’s mind usually goes into overdrive. Describing herself as a “facilitator”, she believes the idea of connecting people in different (but related) areas of expertise is paramount to the problem-solving process. She credits her educational background for her ability to do this.

“My qualifications have given me a decent grasp of a broad range of areas from physics to maths to computer science. Knowing a bit about all of these areas allows me to see possibilities that somebody with a more narrow focus, but who may be a total expert in their particular field, might not,” she says.

Failure as inspiration

Like many innovators, Ida-Maria is not someone who always knew what she wanted to do. And if it wasn’t for her keen sense of smell, she might never have ended up in image analysis.

“During my primary degree in Engineering, we had to do a lot of lab work and these are messy and unpredictable places. We mostly worked with bacteria which would produce the most horrific smells. I decided right then that I wanted to work with computers. They are clean, reliable and don’t smell!”

However, Ida-Maria’s nose was not the only thing that has guided her throughout her career. She has consistently found inspiration in another unlikely source. Failure!

The MiniTEM project grew from a basic idea, into a groundbreaking product which is now commercially available and is catching on fast. But the journey has been far from seamless.

“Around one year into the project, we realised that we were focusing on the wrong issue. To make a long story short, we put a year’s work into a product which was more or less useless to potential customers.”

But rather than becoming despondent, she and her team dusted themselves off and started over, mindful of the valuable lessons they had learned from their errors.

Today, MiniTEM is nicely primed to make a huge impact in the industry.

“The older generation in the industry tend to be more reluctant to embrace our technology. They like the old way of doing things and can be quite resistant to change. But given how quickly the industry is growing, we believe MiniTEM will become the go-to instrument for newcomers,” she says.

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