Academic turned entrepreneur to mine globe's electronic waste, reports Tamsyn Parker.

Privahini Bradoo thought she had her career all planned out.

She would become a professor of neuroscience and teach at an Ivy League university.

But part-way through her doctorate at the University of Auckland, she had a serendipitous meeting which changed her life forever and sent her down the track towards becoming an entrepreneur instead.


"I was with a group of people talking about changing they way we did things ... New Zealand had slipped from three to 30 in the OECD rankings in the last 30 years.

"They were talking about good Kiwi ideas and turning them into world class businesses and I thought this was gibberish."

Bradoo says, first, she didn't understand what the OECD meant back then; second, she took a dim view of business as a whole.

"To me, anyone involved in business was a loser and that was the dark side. It definitely didn't fit in with my employment plans."

But the meeting turned her way of thinking on its head and has driven her ever since.

Born in India, Bradoo moved to Oman with her family following her father's job in the oil industry.

She then moved to New Zealand by herself at the age of 16 to start a degree in biomedical science at the university, before going on to complete her doctorate in neuroscience. During that time she helped to discover a gene involved in helping brain repair.

Bradoo says she chose New Zealand after visiting with her family in 1995, on a trip that was part holiday, part exploration.


"As a family we considered a number of different places," she says.

But when it came to New Zealand she just "fell in love with it".

While some might consider moving to the other side of the world as a lone teenager to be a confronting experience, Bradoo embraced it.

"It is hard to think of challenges - to me it translated as really exciting opportunities. I loved every bit of my time as an undergrad."

It was after that chance meeting as a PhD student that Bradoo helped found Spark - now called Velocity - a competition designed to encourage entrepreneurship by teaching young people how to turn their ideas and proposals into businesses.

She then went on to co-found Chiasma, to encourage enterprise and networking with industry among the university's biotech students.


At just 21, Bradoo knew that she, too, wanted to set up her own business.

"I definitely did know I wanted to start something of my own."

After university, she worked for a short stint in Auckland with BCG - the Boston Consulting Group - which helped teach her about structure.

"Having a passion is great but you need structure to develop a business."

But she left after less than a year to take up a Fulbright scholarship at Harvard University, doing an MBA, then worked at Kiwi firm LanzaTech as their US business development manager.

That was where she got her first taste of the clean-technology industry which was taking off in the US. LanzaTech converts waste carbon gases into usable liquids.


She then moved on to clean-water technology company Microvi.

But it wasn't until she met Bryce Goodman at the Singularity University - a Silicon Valley think tank set up at Nasa's research park - that the seed to form their business BlueOak Resources (formerly called BioMine) was formed in 2011.

Bradoo credits Goodman, a former Mitsubishi Corp rare minerals analyst, as the brainchild for the business, which aims to mine electronic waste for its metals and elements to be re-used in new technology.

"On the one hand you have got the excessive creation of e-waste and on the other a critical shortage of materials that go into making new technology flourish," she says.

According to BlueOak's website, American consumers dispose of 3.2 million tonnes of electronic waste every year and more than 80 per cent of it ends up in the tip.

Globally, just 13 per cent of e-waste undergoes some form of recycling, but a large proportion is dumped in the developing world, including China.


Guiyu, a city in China, receives 4000 tonnes of e-waste every hour and, according to BlueOak, more than 88 per cent of the population suffer from neurological or physiological disorders.

On the other side of the equation, US$12 billion a year is spent trying to mine ore deposits to fill the needs our growing technology demands.

The company raised an initial $7.5 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Boston-based Terawatt Ventures.

Then, in 2014, it attracted US$35 million to begin building a refining factory in Arkansas to extract gold, silver and copper from e-waste.

Those investors included the Arkansas Teachers' Retirement Fund, a consortium of undisclosed European and US investors and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority.

Bradoo won't talk about progress, saying the company is at a commercially sensitive phase, but expects to have more to say later in the year.

At just 36 years of age, she has already managed to do what many just dream of, but she still sees herself as a Kiwi through and through.


"Being a Kiwi is just about who you are."

Bradoo also urges others to follow their dreams into entrepreneurship.

"We always hear about New Zealand being a small country. But the one thing that no census bureau can measure is the size of your dream. Dream big and then dream bigger."

Privahini Bradoo

Job: Chief executive, BlueOak Resources - an e-waste company based in Silicon Valley
Born: In India, but grew up in Oman
Education: Moved to New Zealand when she was 16 and studied at the University of Auckland where she got a Bachelor of Technology degree, majoring in biomedical science, and a PhD in neurogenetics and drug discovery; MBA from Harvard University on Fulbright Scholarship.
Age: 36
Last book read: Lessons of History by Will Durant
Last movie seen: Guardians of the Galaxy
Last overseas holiday: Barcelona, Spain