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We are trying to succeed with the spin-off company Galochrom

profesor Michal Kohout

Prof. Ing. Michal Kohout, Ph.D. is originally from southern Bohemia. He started studying at UCT Prague in 2000 after high school in Soběslav. After his postdoctoral research at the Institut of Analytical Chemistry of the University of Vienna, he decided to return to his alma mater, UCT Prague, and extend, apply and transfer knowledge and experience he gained abroad. He was recently named full professor and, in addition to research and teaching, considers his mission as professor to be setting an example for students in terms of not being afraid to start one’s own business since he, with colleagues, founded a UCT Prague spin-off company, Galochrom, discussed below.

What does your research group do? What is the focus of your research activities?

We have been dealing with liquid crystals for a very long time. Liquid crystals are organic materials with various applications, and as research evolves, it’s expected that liquid crystals will have some added value in real-life applications, beyond simply being liquid crystalline (e.g. being chiral, sensitive to light or to magnetic fields). We try to modify molecules so that they can handle the various demands that modern materials chemistry places on them.

The second area of focus, chiral stationary phases for liquid chromatography, I brought back with me to UCT Prague from my post-doc stay. In liquid chromatography, we study systems that are used in the analysis of drugs (if an active substance is chemically and optically pure), for example.

Together with my colleagues and students, we also work on various side projects in classical organic chemistry, such as organocatalysis.

Most people can only conceptualize solid crystals. Can you introduce us to the world of liquid crystals?

It’s quite simple: liquid crystals are basically crystals too. One can imagine a crystal as being an ordered and oriented structure with molecules precisely and unambiguously arranged in space. Liquid crystals also have these characteristics, but their molecules can also move and are mobile even though they have, let’s say, a partially-preserved crystalline structure, for they are in the so-called mesophase. To conceptualize this, one could simply compare this to a system of straws floating in the same direction, because the molecules are arranged like this and are able to move when acted upon by an external impulse (e.g. electric or magnetic field or light). A structure can be rearranged so that it occupies a new, lowest energy arrangement. Liquid crystals are used, for example, in optoelectric devices, and we’re all surrounded by liquid crystals, which are not just used in monitors, televisions, and watch displays, but also in soap or cell membranes. One doesn’t even realize how many liquid crystalline substances and systems actually are all around us in the real world.

Is there anything else you’re up to that you’d like to tell us about?

I’d put liquid chromatography into the background a bit. Let me put it this way: the world of liquid crystals research is a kind of long-distance race, and we don’t know for sure if and when relatively complex molecules will be used. They certainly have the potential to be used in real life, but in the distant future. It is not easy to prepare and enhance them, so that they meet various requirements and do as many extra things as we would like.

On the other hand, if we look at the area of chromatography, the real world application of new research results happens relatively quickly. If we prepare a chromatography column that is significantly better than what’s currently on the market, it might be commercially interesting and result in a product that we’ll see on the market in our lifetimes.

But it bothers me and my colleagues that even the development of unique stationary phases is still too slow, that it takes too long for a chromatographic column to reach the market. In 2017, we tried to approach several large manufacturers with a unique system we patented. Unfortunately, there was no interest in this technology because manufactures would have to change their production technologies slightly. Because of this, my colleagues and I decided to found our own company, the Galochrom, UCT Prague spin-off. This way, we also wish to show younger colleagues and students that they don’t have to be afraid of starting a company and entering the business world.

How is Galochrom doing?

We are in the early phases. We founded the spin-off in September 2023, and since then, we placed second in a European start-up competition, which we consider to be a great success. We are currently trying to put the first products on the market and prove that they are better than those already available. Of course, we believe that our products will be adopted.

What practical value do you think your research and professional activities have for society and your field?

Our multimodal columns will have a wider range of applications and will thus be able to replace three to four standard columns. This will lead to dramatic savings for end users as well as lower solvent and solvent disposal costs.

As for liquid crystals, they’re a long shot, as I’ve already said, but we might, for example, use a system of so-called dopants. Let’s take a photosensitive material. We don’t have to use it as a single component; instead, we can add it to a cheaper commercial material and mix it (5-10%). Thanks to the dopant, an entire system is sensitive to light and we can not only switch individual parts (pixels) from the mesophase to the liquid phase, but also read this information with a laser. Such systems could serve as optical memories.

You recently became a full professor. What does this mean for you? What do you teach and what are your first impressions as professor?

Of course, I consider this a great personal success built upon the great work and support by my students, colleagues, and mentors. My original motivation for entering academia, a long time ago, was a promise I made to my dad: that I would graduate as one of the best in my class at UCT Prague. And I’ve made it this far, so I think he would be proud of me and that fills me with a certain sense of fulfilment. I teach organic chemistry. So for first impressions: I have more work, but it’s interesting for me, nevertheless, to teach students who are just starting their university programs. My lectures before this were for advanced students and doctoral candidates. All of a sudden, when you’re teaching core subjects, you start trying not to influence students’ mind sets too much while still conveying the information in some absorbable way, reassuring them that chemistry is actually cool and that chemists are pretty normal people.

It must be quite challenging to capture the attention of an auditorium full of people and to decide how much to go into detail. Do you struggle with this kind of thing? Do you have any tricks for engaging your audience?

It’s true, when you enter an auditorium and there are 180 people sitting there instead of 20, it’s really an incredible difference. It’s not so much about the number of people itself, because there are about the same number of people at conference presentations, but conference attendees are experts who aren’t really surprised by anything in the field. Teaching core subjects is rather about setting some level of comprehensibility for what you’re explaining.

Gradually, I’m getting faster at preparing my lectures, but at first, it was very time-consuming. Yet, during the class, sometimes I still get taken away a bit and then I get behind and play catch up. (He laughs.)

As for student engagement, I tell my colleagues that I’m trying to use my latent theatre talents, so hope that's at least somewhat successful. I’m going back in time a couple of decades and am going to use some simple, themed experiments from back then in my lectures.

You started studying at UCT Prague in 2000. What do you think has changed the most for students since then?

Definitely the quality of the food in the canteens. One hundred percent! But what has really changed for the better are the travel possibilities. That's the biggest shift I see. Today, it’s easy to go abroad for a semester, almost whenever you want. There are countless ways to do this. I remember how I tried to do an internship during my doctoral studies, but preparations were crazy. So instead, I arranged at a conference with my mentor’s colleague to join her laboratory within a European project because it was so much easier to go this way. Going abroad gives you a wealth of new experiences, and it’s great that this option is much more accessible than before.

Is there anything that you did not like as a student and managed to change—or are at least trying to change—as a professor?

For a relatively long time, my colleagues and I tried to appeal to UCT Prague’s management to provide competitive scholarships for doctoral students. Doctoral candidates are the UCT Prague’s main strength because without them, the university couldn’t do basic research. They should be valued accordingly. So I’m a supporter of finding ways to increase scholarships and I think we’ve been quite successful in this regard.

What would you like to achieve in your professional and personal lives?

As a professional, I would like that the things we’ve invented would actually be used. Research, whatever form, should aim at developing things that are useful for humanity. Basic research is great, but I like finding applications while striving to advance both science and society as a whole. Why else would we be here?

Personally, my highest priority is work-life balance. Achieving some reasonable balance with work, what I like to do, and time for family.

What does the future hold for your research group?

The long-term plan involves spin-off companies and connecting academia with the commercial sector. Engagement in basic research is necessary for finding usable materials and applications, yet connecting these applications directly to the industrial sector is crucial for us. The plan is to try to make a platform for quick and simple technology transfer at UCT Prague.

What do you do when you turn out the lights in your lab?

I have hobbies I’ve done for a long time. I’m either going to volleyball or trying to go fishing. Fishing is more time-consuming, so I mainly stick to volleyball. And, of course, I’m running home to spend time with my loved ones.

Updated: 6.5.2024 16:01, Author: Jakub Drahonský

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