The changing face of New Zealand research

September 2013


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General Manager of KiwiNet, DR BRAM SMITH, says new entrepreneurial research is changing the face of innovation in New Zealand.

We are in the middle of a global knowledge race where the success of a country’s economy is increasingly dependent on the strength of its innovation system. The winners of this race will be those who can combine research discovery with commercial application. So how can New Zealand’s research community rise to this challenge?

As New Zealanders, our culture of resourcefulness and invention has enabled us to overcome our size and isolation to compete in global markets, particularly around food production. Agriculture is, and has always been, our bedrock, but to secure our future, we need to create new innovations across the spectrum.

We’re seeing some great examples emerge from clever research.

ArcActive is commercialising innovative new technology for stop/start batteries in modern cars that is capturing the attention of automakers worldwide. The innovation is based on 30 years research by former University of Canterbury researcher Prof John Abrahamson.

Aduro Biopolymers is developing and manufacturing a range of new bio-derived polymers and materials. Their lead product, Novatein, is based on an innovative process for making bio-plastic out of bloodmeal developed by University of Waikato researcher Dr Johan Verbeek.

World-leading wireless power company PowerbyProxi was born out of research from the University of Auckland’s Engineering School. The company is positioned to be at the front of the wireless revolution to unplug cables in homes and workplaces.

While we have these great pockets of success, how do we convert this modest flow of commercialisation outcomes from research organisations into a raging torrent?

Self-imposed barriers

It is tempting to think we are hamstrung by limited resources, distance to markets, and scale. However, many of the real limitations we face are more self-imposed.

The university research community has focused on promotion through publication and we’re well above the OECD average for scientific productivity on this measure. But we need to translate more into commercial ventures that benefit the New Zealand economy. To do this, we need to create a culture that values seeing technologies applied as commercial ventures above writing papers.

The crown research institute (CRI) community faces the added restriction of being told to focus only on areas of core purpose, meaning we are missing opportunities to apply their clever ideas in areas outside target sectors. On top of all this, the contestable processes for accessing government funding have driven a culture of competition between research organisations that is taking time to break down.

Joining forces to compete globally

The good news is that new strategies are emerging to overcome these limitations and position New Zealand’s research and business communities to become much more powerful engines of innovation. The Government is moving beyond simply funding research and subsidising business R&D to place more emphasis on creating an innovation ecosystem in New Zealand.

Research funding is increasingly being directed towards research organisation consortia and setting clearer expectations on outcomes that can be applied to benefit New Zealand. The Government has established Callaghan Innovation as a business-focused crown entity to drive private sector innovation. Callaghan will not just provide subsidies for business R&D, but will help businesses use this funding most effectively, encourage engagement with research organisations and facilitate collaboration.

On the research organisation side, the Government has supported the establishment of the Kiwi Innovation Network (KiwiNet), the largest collaboration of universities and crown research entities in New Zealand. Thirteen research organisations have now joined forces through KiwiNet to strive for greater collaboration and economic impact from commercialisation of research.

As a result, these organisations have secured $7.5 million of PreSeed Accelerator Funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). This money is earmarked specifically for turning research ideas into business ventures.

The funding falls under the governance of the KiwiNet Investment Committee, which combines independent business experts with representatives from each of the research organisations involved. This is a great example of the New Zealand science community pulling together to compete globally.

This committee represents around 6,000 researchers from universities and crown entities. The scale of this collaboration is large, even by international standards. It is certainly larger than some of the global innovation powerhouses such as Stanford, MIT, and Oxford.

The committee already has a growing track record of supporting researchers, encouraging collaboration between research organisations, applying CRI research outside of their core purpose areas. The result is a valuable portfolio of commercial opportunities that is capable of generating over $200m in export earnings for New Zealand.

Getting researchers excited about commercialisation

As with business innovation, boosting research commercialisation requires more than just investment and collaboration. A key focus must be on raising awareness of research commercialisation amongst scientists.

KiwiNet recently surveyed a group of researchers to better understand their views on this subject. Researchers overwhelmingly stated their main motivation for commercialising their ideas was a desire to “make a difference” in the world; to see their knowledge and discoveries improve people’s lives. However, they also listed a number of barriers to their involvement in commercialisation.

The researchers said the demands of teaching, research and publishing left them with little time to pursue commercial outcomes for their research. Many were not aware of the growing network of commercialisation offices across New Zealand that exist specifically to turn their research discoveries into commercial ventures.

To fill this gap, KiwiNet is running commercialisation training sessions across New Zealand to help researchers learn about commercialising their ideas and understand what support is available.

Another barrier raised by researchers was a concern that if they started down the commercialisation pathway, they would be restricted from publishing. Many did not realise that with clever planning and support from commercialisation staff, they can achieve both.

When it came to engaging with business, the survey found that many researchers didn’t know where to start. This has been responded to through the running of activities to bring researchers and businesses together. This is producing larger and more active networks of researchers, companies, and investors and increasing researchers’ understanding of industry needs. It is also helping industry to understand how researchers can help.

Finally, one of the key priorities must be to raise the profile of research commercialisation success stories, so KiwiNet established the national research commercialisation awards, which saw a number of inspiring stories emerge from entrepreneurial researchers who have turned their discoveries into commercial successes.

Linking research discovery and commercial application

Through building collaboration and providing high quality support for researchers who want to pursue commercial outcomes, KiwiNet is helping to ensure that New Zealand is well placed to rise to the innovation challenge. Kiwis are resourceful and inventive, and our research community produces some world leading science in a variety of domains.

The challenge is to break down the fragmentation in our research community and the artificial barriers that inadvertently constrain commercial outcomes.

We know scientists want to see their ideas find application. We know our businesses are crying out for more innovation to help grow New Zealand’s economy. If we can bridge this gap between research discovery and commercial application, New Zealand could become one of the most exciting innovation driven economies in the world.

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