December 23, 2009

The Last Hurrah (for now)...

It is with a tinge of sadness that I must announce to all my readers that I will be leaving New Zealand and moving overseas for the foreseeable future. I'm doing this not only to further my career, but also to experience what life in another part of the world is all about. I'm incredibly excited.

Since beginning blogging about 6 months ago I have notched up over a half century of posts (58 to be precise), read many more, and as result learnt far more than I may have otherwise. I have met (virtually) a great number of passionate people and hopefully I have managed to convince some of you of the importance of science and technology in not only determining New Zealand's future prosperity, but the World's.

Rest assured I still have many more posts in me, and I hope to continue while I'm abroad - which could make some interesting comparisons to how things are done here in NZ.

I'll be travelling through SE Asia and China en-route to Europe where I hope to settle. If you know of anyone in that area who would love to employ an enthusiastic and passionate young mind in a science & technology-related area, please ask them to get in touch via this blog!

Best wishes for the festive season,

Aaron

December 21, 2009

Reaching Out...

I was recently sent a link to an article in The Australian, on a survey completed by the UK Innovation Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, on "Knowledge Exchange between Academics and the Private, Public and Third Sectors. The survey, which elicited 22,000 responses, made for interesting reading.

It turns out (in the UK anyway) that academics are engaged in a wide range of interactions with a wide range of partners in each of those sectors - 40 per cent of respondents worked with the private sector, 53 per cent co-operated with the public sector and 44 per cent with a third sector such as charities. I guess the big question to be asked here is, how much did this happen, and is engaging once in the last 3 years sufficient for an academic to give a 'yes' answer? In the case of this survey, I suspect it is, but for my liking once every three years could hardly be called engaging.

Whether that may or may not be the case, one thing was obvious from the survey - academics do seem to have motivation for Knowledge Exchange, albeit for different drivers - improve teaching, greater insights, test practicality etc., rather than making money. However, there are a few constraints to them doing so, the largest being lack of time and university bureaucracy. Academics can't do everything (as I've said before), and as the authors point out, after teaching, administration, outreach etc:

"There may be little capacity left within the university system for a greater level of interaction between academics and external organisations. Simply too much pressure may be placed on universities, or the academics within them, to engage with others and achieve economic impact. Furthermore, such pressure could undermine some of the core strengths of many universities in particular if it leads to less basic research."

This, coupled with the fact that the initiation of external activities was done by Technology Transfer Offices only 24% of the time, suggests the need for special/improved expertise in this area - just as Sir Peter Gluckman has mentioned in several speeches this year, and as Mark Dodgson points out in 'The Australian':

“There are implications for technology transfer and commercialisation offices. These should better reflect the diversity of their home institutions' missions and be much broader in the range of interactions they support. They have to ensure their commercial transactional approaches do not deter academics from initiating conversations with external parties."

I wonder what the results of such a survey would be in New Zealand? Perhaps the academics amongst you could think about who you've approached externally in the last 3 years to ensure your research has impact?

December 9, 2009

From Blackholes to a Laptop near you...

There is a really cool story on stuff.co.nz today about the winner of Australia's Prime Minister's Science Prize. I think it illustrates not only why fundamental research is so important, but also the time scales that the benefits often take to filter through and hence why we have to be patient!

In short: In the mid-70's John O'Sullivan and some colleagues had set out to measure the pulses emanating from black holes. These pulses distort as they travel through space and so John O'Sullivan and his colleagues needed a way to piece the distorted pulse back together again. The solution came from a mathematical equation called the Fourier Transform which was adapted to their field of astronomy.

Years later, when personal computing became more popular, O'Sullivan wondered what it would be like if "you could just cut the wires". The problem they faced was that in offices, cafes, etc. where we all like to use our wireless devices, the signal was distorted by things like walls and floors. This in essence was the same problem as he had faced when researching pulses from black holes - how to put a distorted signal back together again. From there wi-fi technology was born, a technology was developed that has gone on to earn him and his employer, CSIRO, hundreds of millions of dollars, and revolutionized the way we communicate and access information.

While John O'Sullivan and his team clearly put in the hard work and had the vision to do something with their work, I think it is a lesson to us all that we need to support our fundamental researchers in the excellent work they are doing, because you never know how your research is going to be applied years down the track, and what potential gains you (or your country!) might make from it.

December 4, 2009

Living Cell Technologies

You might remember one of my early posts on Living Cell Technologies (LCT), a NZ company who are experimenting with the use of pig cells to treat diabetes patients. They are currently in trial at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, and I read this morning that the first trial patient has had no side effects after transplant 8 weeks ago, and has now been able to reduce his daily insulin intake by up to 30 %.


LCT is actively working to develop life-changing cellular therapies – treatments that will improve the quality of life of patients with diabetes, haemophilia, hearing loss, liver failure and brain degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

In the case of diabetes, this is done by encapsulating the healthy living pig cells that produce insulin, in a seaweed derived extract (alginate) to form tiny particles that are then implanted into the patient to provide insulin.


Diabetes is suffered by 11,000 New Zealander's, and throughout both developed and developing countries, the number of those affected is increasing at a steady rate. Although there are clearly some ethical issues involved with this type of treatment, this is an emerging area which, through Living Cell Technologies, represents an opportunity for NZ to capitalise.

November 30, 2009

Trailblazing

I was just made aware of a new website by the Royal Society UK, called Trailblazing. Compiled by scientists, science communicators and historians, it celebrates 350 years of Royal Society publishing in the form of an interactive timeline that users can wade through at their own pace.

Some of the big ideas in science are present, including NZ's own Ernest Rutherford. One of the things I love about science is the fact that we stand on the shoulders of giants, yet have the ability to make our own contribution. Perhaps that's why the scale extends to 2050...who knows what might turn up there!

Check it out, its a fascinating site.

November 23, 2009

No. 8 Wire

There's an interesting article on Stuff.co.nz this morning about NZ's No. 8 wire mentality being the thing that is actually hampering our growth as a country.

I blogged about this in one of my first posts on this blog, which you can read here.

As per usual there are some fantastic comments in the comments section of the article, but also some mind-boggling ones that illustrate perfectly some of the themes discussed in the article itself.

I'm glad we have people with drive and vision who are willing to step up and give it a go. Science has a big part to play in all of this, and I know from my experience as both a scientist and a junior venture capitalist that the people I work with and for do what they do because they genuinely believe that they can make a difference for everybody in this country. It angers me that when they succeed or encourage others to fulfill their potential they are labelled as 'greedy'. I couldn't agree more with comment #46, by Gareth Chaplin - the person who actually commissioned the report. The same people who criticise are the same people who lament the deficiencies in our infrastructure, health, and education systems.

If this is how the country views its innovators and their role, then the increased standard of living that we all seek, isn't going to happen any time soon.

November 11, 2009

Sweet Deal

BioVittoria is a NZ product development and marketing company founded by former HortResearch scientist Dr Garth Smith, American nutraceuticals marketer Stephen LeFebvre and Chinese Luo Han expert, Lan Fusheng. Their product is PureLo, a zero-calorie natural sweetner extracted from the Luo Han fruit, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar.

The Luo Han fruit is native to China, grows only in Southern China, and the Chinese Government has banned it from being grown outside of China where it is protected by World Trade Organisation Rules. Bio-GFS, the Joint Venture through which BioVittoria has recently set up a factory in Guanxi Province, owns the sole plant variety rights to the only commercially available Luo Han plants, and has a network of over 5000 growers in the Province, for which they help manage the fruit growing and processing aspects of the business.

They have recently announced an Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZX) in order to raise $20 Million in capital (at $1 per share) to buy more fruit, pay off debt and to expand into the USA where some of the worlds biggest foodstuffs and nutraceuticals companies are located. They expect US FDA approval in February, which would open significant doors.

As pointed out by Andrew McDouall of McDouall Stuart, that although risky, this represents a great opportunity to get involved early with a NZ company that is making big strides. "If we waited six months they could have all the regulatory approvals but would pay more. It's a risk return trade-off. There are many investors that want to get in at the ground floor of great opportunities rather than paying top dollar from a private equity firm."

Considering diseases associated with high sugar intake (such as diabetes) are becoming more and more prevalent in developed and developing countries, this could be a very sweet deal indeed.

November 6, 2009

Geometric Growth and finding our Mojo

I frequently enjoy the blog posts of Chris Dixon, a web startup guru operating out of New York. One of his latest posts discussed Startup career paths, where he states that a career start in a startup is like an apprenticeship in becoming an entrepreneur.

If you talk to any of the main commentators on what NZ's high tech economy requires for growth, it is geometric growth. Much in the way Neville Jordan describes in this article about the success of his old company MAS Technology leading to half a dozen employees starting their own telecommunications businesses in NZ.

An interesting non-tech parallel is that of Mojo Coffee and their 'magic formula'. Mojo has expanded throughout the Wellington region and nationally since its establishment in 2003. Being in the service industry it is vital for them to retain the personal touch. "Its all about people", says owner Steve Gianoutsos in the Jan 2009 article on Stuff.co.nz. He has turned down numerous requests for franchise licenses, preferring to go into partnership with employees from his stores to open new stores. This is geometric growth - a store opens, another two stores open with someone from the previous store, which generate a further few stores, and so on and so on.

If NZ is to generate the 200 new tech companies people such as Prof. Paul Callaghan talk of, we need people to do "apprenticeships in entrepreneurship", as Chris Dixon says. If you want to really make a difference to NZ as a recent graduate, working for (or even starting) a startup company is a great way to do this. The benefits of working in a startup are well documented.

Although we are not a startup company just yet, I've learnt one or two things myself this year while working at scaling up and commercialising some of our university research toward forming a startup company. That is a post for another day, however.

November 2, 2009

Punching above our weight

Prof. Richard Faull may not be known to many of you. In fact, until last weekend, he wasn't know to me either. I happened to be reading the latest issue of North and South Magazine, and an article on the new Centre for Brain Research at Auckland University of which Prof. Faull is the director.

What was suprising to me, is that Prof. Faull and his team (plus colleagues in Sweden) were the first to discover that diseased human brain cells can regenerate - that is they have a repair pathway. We previously didn't know this (we thought once they died that was that), and as such it turned accepted knowledge on its head. The discovery was so astounding, that the research plan couldn't even be written into the original grant application for fear of rejection because it was 'dreaming'. Here is yet another case of a New Zealander conducting world class research that has ashamedly slipped under the radar.

Prof. Faull also mentioned in the article that he likes to keep the facility in NZ, because here we were small enough to remain flexible and adapt to new challenges as they arise. That reminded me of comments made by Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, that NZ's advantage was its small size (something that some may find hard to believe) and something that Shaun Hendy has touched on with Innovation Networks - that NZ must remain flexible enough to change to any new demands, as the Finn's did with Nokia and the mobile phone boom - that is easiest if you are small.

We like to think we punch above our weight in sport (and we do), so why don't we take this frame of mind and apply it to other areas like science and business? I know the people active in these areas most certainly do, as do I, but the whole country should take a sense of pride in people like Richard Faull and the ground breaking work they're doing.

October 19, 2009

Scared of letting go?

There was an interesting article on Stuff.co.nz last week about Crown Research Institute AgResearch having to find work overseas in order to meet the NZ Government's demands for a 9% dividend - which has come under criticism from some.



I agree with CEO, Andrew West - business is business, and I think this highlights what, in my opinion, is one of NZ's big problems - the inability to let ideas (and businesses) go. Jim Donovan talked about this with respect to businesses and manufacturing on his blog 'En Avant' last week.

The world will see increasing food shortages due to its burgeoning population, and with the growth of developing nations, that means the potential market is getting increasingly bigger. If the Chileans mentioned in the article succeed in developing a pastoral export business based on our expertise and IP, and we perhaps had a stake in that business, surely that would be more beneficial than keeping quiet and fending for our tiny selves, wouldn't it? What's more, competition and networks are conducive to innovation, and that is how we really want to be viewed - as an exporter of ideas. Perhaps some of my economist friends could shed some light on this...

If we are to succeed in an increasingly flat world, surely it is better to have our ideas out there being used - a small piece of a HUGE pie is a lot better than a large piece of not much. Don't you think?

October 12, 2009

The Masters of Light

The 2009 Nobel prizes were recently been announced over at http://nobelprize.org. One half of the Physics Prize has gone to Charles K. Tao of Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, Harlow, UK, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication". The other half was jointly awarded to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith of Bell Laboratories, USA, "for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor" which is used in digital cameras.

From the Nobel website:

Today optical fibers make up the circulatory system that nourishes our communication society. These low-loss glass fibers facilitate global broadband communication such as the Internet. Light flows in thin threads of glass, and it carries almost all of the telephony and data traffic in each and every direction. Text, music, images and video can be transferred around the globe in a split second.

If we were to unravel all of the glass fibers that wind around the globe, we would get a single thread over one billion kilometers long – which is enough to encircle the globe more than 25 000 times – and is increasing by thousands of kilometers every hour."

Although the hypertext transfer protocols (http) that allows users to view data over the Internet in web browsers (the ‘world wide web’) were developed mainly by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland (also home to the Large Hadron Collider), the development and laying of fibre optic cables is what has really enabled this technology to be of use to the world.

It is hard to imagine another 20th century invention that has changed the way the human race interacts with each other as much as this one. Individuals are now empowered – they are the authors of their own digital content, they can collaborate rather than compete, they find the news rather than the news finding them, and anyone can do business with anyone else in the world. As author Thomas L. Friedman rightly points out - "The World Is Flat"...

October 9, 2009

Endeavour Capital Blog

In the other half of my working life I work as an Analyst at Endeavour Capital, a New Zealand Private Equity and Venture Capital company that invests primarily in New Zealand Science and Technology companies.

We have recently started a blog at http://www.ecapblog.co.nz/. The blog is really about two things: sharing the wealth of information we come across in supporting our portfolio companies or evaluating new Science and Technology Investments, and about contributing to the wider discussion about investment in the New Zealand Science and Technology space.

Please check it out if you get the chance - we'd love to hear your feedback.

October 7, 2009

Scientists need to be Entrepreneurs?

A few posts back, I posted my interpretations of the remarks made by Chief Scientist Sir Peter Gluckman at a seminar in Wellington on ‘Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand’. As I pointed out in the post, I agree with Sir Peter on his comments that the boundaries between science and business are blurred. As he said, there has been a shift towards scientists taking responsibility for business in proposals for funding. This leads to confusion and ultimately second rate science from which not much can be achieved. The scientists should be left the research and business should be left to the development.

Last week I noticed that Godfrey Bridger wrote in his opinion piece in the Dom Post that ‘Scientists Must Become Entrepreneurs’ and that money should be spent to train scientists in business on the job. The danger with this approach is that we will lose the fundamentals of basic research if all our scientists are ‘forced’ to conform to some entrepreneurial stereotype. Like Sir Peter, and Simon Upton, I believe that money would be better spent training experts to understand the technology transfer and commercialisation process, and to attract large multinationals to NZ that have money to invest in RST.

Isis Innovations, Oxford University’s tech transfer arm, are one of the most successful companies in the world at commercialising university research. Managing Director, Tom Hockaday, states that Isis will only commercialise an inventors research if the inventor wishes. That is a quite an important point, and illustrates to me that not all scientists need to be entrepreneurs for successful high growth businesses to emerge – we just have to understand the parties involved and the processes a little better. Like the Gen Y Scientist points out, and which I think that Tom Hockaday is saying as well, is that universities are complicated beasts. There are issues around publication vs. patenting, time for teaching etc, all which need to be ironed out or understood a little better.

And while it's true that a lot of the world’s most innovative technologies have come out of universities, people seem to forget that the private sector has played an important role in innovation in other countries with their huge R&D budgets. Take Finland for example. It trained its population in Finnish universities, that then went on to work for Nokia, which reinvested its R&D budget in Finland. Hence, the universities were focused on fundamental research while transformational research (or more specifically, development) could be done by the multinationals. The same could be said for Pharmaceutical Multinational’s in Singapore. NZ’s private sector investment remains woefully low, and so perhaps in NZ the focus has fallen on public sector R&D to make up for the shortcomings of its supposedly bigger brother. Federated Farmers CEO, Connor English (brother of Finance Minister Bill), has recently questioned the absence of multinational agri-companies like Rabobank, GSK, Syngenta and Bayer Cropscience in New Zealand - I couldn't agree more.

Scientists will continue to beat the drum for the importance of their work and they will cleverly figure out how to get the most out of the miserly amounts of funding they are given. We do need some scientists with an entrepreneurial spirit of course (just as we need IT professionals, designers and engineers with entrepreneurial spirits also), but at some point somebody must also step up and play a part too.

But hey, that’s fine. Us scientists will just add it to the long list of other things required of us – scientist, problem solver, government lobbyist, environmental protectionist, PR and media guru, crystal ball gazer and now businessman and entrepreneur...

October 5, 2009

Lack of Logical Career Paths...and PostDocs

Sciblogs was launched last Wednesday by the NZ Science Media Centre. It's the largest science blog network in NZ and puts in one place all NZ’s science blogs. The Scientist NZ is honoured to be a part of it. It’s a fantastic effort, and hopefully will go a long way to encouraging discussion about science in NZ.

Through Sciblogs I was made aware of this post and this article in the ODT about Otago University future-proofing itself against an increasing shortage of academic staff.

In my opinion, what could be part of the blame is the lack of a logical career progression in NZ science once you have finished your PhD. This has been written about before by the Gen Y Scientist here, but in light of this article and comments from the Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman about the lack of career paths in NZ science, I think it should be mentioned again.

It would be impossible to get a job as an academic as soon as you finish your PhD (unless you were Einstein), so when one finishes a PhD and wants to become an academic they usually take up a postdoc position in a research lab in order to gain further experience in academia. After this they look to make the transition to lecturer.

The problem in NZ is that postdocs are not funded by the university system (like PhD students), and as a result overheads must be paid to their host university from the grant they are working on. As they are more qualified they demand a higher salary, and so combined with overheads, a postdoc will cost $150,000 per year, while a PhD student will cost $30,000 - you can get 5 PhD students for every 1 postdoc! This means that the number of postdocs that get written into grant applications is incredibly low compared to PhD students, and so many recent PhD graduates looking for a career in academia go overseas.

Once overseas, where they are exposed to better funding regimes, higher salaries and a lifestyle that isn’t actually that bad (in some ways I agree with Dr. Andrew Wilson in the 'Big Science' article), why would they come back?

Perhaps one solution is that the NZ government could in some way subsidise more postdoc positions so that they can conduct post-PhD research in NZ. That way they can gain valuable experience and perhaps go some way to filling the supposed shortage of academic staff.

October 2, 2009

The Rutherford Innovation Fund

I saw this article today in the NZ Herald about a new fund called the 'Rutherford Innovation Fund' which seeks to invest $50 Million into CleanTech in New Zealand. Like the article points out, this is one of a number of new funds that have been announced this year, including one at Endeavour Capital whom I also work for.

CleanTech is a broad definition for products and technologies that improve performance, productivity and efficiency, while at the same time reducing costs, energy input, pollution or waste. These technologies have an incredibly broad range of application in Energy Generation (wind, solar, biofuel, wave), Energy Storage (advanced batteries, fuel cells), Agriculture (organic pesticides, land management), Energy Efficiency (building, lighting), Waste Treatment, and Water and Air Purification. The list is extensive.


As I've pointed out before, there are some excellent CleanTech companies already operating in NZ, but we could and should be doing more in this area, as it will be of huge significance in the near future. Hopefully this fund will encourage that.

September 25, 2009

The Blurred Boundary Between Science and Business

The second point from Sir Peter’s talk ‘Can Transforming Science Transform NZ?’ revolved around the blurred boundaries between science and business. The two are very different. Things cannot be easily measured in science that are valued and required by business, for example, profit forecasts, return on investment and other milestones. Science just doesn’t work that way – it is often hard to predict what will happen.

Simon Upton points out in the Dominion Post that “Politicians and managers just don't know enough about the essentially creative drivers of research to try to manage them.”

Sir Peter stated that the importance of business planning in grant applications has increased over the last decade. And so it should I believe, because scientists should not just get ‘money for jam’ - they must be accountable to taxpayers like everyone else. But because NZ Business investment in RST is so low, this has meant that the role of this business planning has fallen largely with the scientists, and as pointed out above, scientists really have no idea about business and vice versa.

Scientists have confused themselves between technology transfer and fundamental research, essentially trying to fit a mould while being micromanaged via the strict government grant process, which in Sir Peter's view creates a cynicism that leads to second-rate science.

Second-rate science achieves nothing, and to quote Simon Upton again, "attention would be better expended ensuring that those with the necessary business skills can access and commercialise the opportunities that arise in the ordinary course of research". In short: in R&D, the scientists should be left to the 'R' and the business/technology transfer experts should be left to the 'D'

I’m not so sure our research is second rate and in my experience traveling to conferences worldwide, I know that we can definitely hold our own. Do we simply not have the volume of basic research to drive innovation? Or is it that we lack the business skills to take great ideas to scale?

Potential solutions mooted here were:
  • Better assistance schemes for matching up science and business
  • Academics on company boards
  • Business Development/Technology Transfer skills as part of career development
  • Cheaper access to university research facilities

I agree with Sir Peter and I think he is creating a much-needed stir in his new role. The onus now lies with Prime Minister John Key and the National Government to make good on claims like "science should be at the heart of Government”, and "RST will be expected to play a bigger part in improving our economic performance". The recent announcements by Minister Mapp, indicate that things may at last be moving in the right direction.

September 23, 2009

Collaboration vs. Competition

The first point for improvement from Sir Peter Gluckman’s seminar “Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?” is a case of collaboration vs. competition. NZ has the most competitive science funding system in the world via too many funding avenues and far too many institutions.

Basically too many people are competing over not enough money, which has reduced scientists to begging and caused the destruction of logical career progressions in science in NZ (and the departure of top scientists overseas). In a country as small as ours, there will always be competition over funding, and so we must look for ways to maximise benefit from what we’ve got.

Sir Peter believes one answer lies in collaboration. He argues that it is hard to share knowledge in a system with so much individual and institutional competition. Individual competition comes about largely because of PBRF funding, while there are over 20 Institutions in NZ in which "RST is a matter of survival not a matter of national interest." Surely collaborating more, both domestically and internationally would give rise to more innovation. We need a new approach – we need to become an exporter of ideas, similar to countries of our size like Singapore, Denmark, Finland, and Israel who are capable of taking ideas to scale through collaboration.

NZ is in an excellent place to do this for a number of reasons:

  • We have a good reputation
  • A good education system
  • A practical economic base
  • Strength in other sectors (like the Trade, Manufacturing and Service sectors)
  • We are close to a growing Asia
  • And we are small (which is an asset contrary to popular belief)

I believe the problem NZ will have is that we will struggle to let our ideas go: we like the idea of Kiwi people in Kiwi jobs (blogged about here). NZ has made excuses in the past about being too far away from its markets. The biggest market is becoming closer by the day, and I believe the growth of and collaboration with Asia could have a huge impact on NZ – if we choose to grasp it. The old adage of 50% of something large vs. 100% of something small certainly rings true in this instance.

September 21, 2009

Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?

Sir Peter Gluckman is the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of NZ. His appointment in early 2008 was a good signal that the NZ government wishes to re-examine the role of science in NZ's political decision making - something that has been lacking for quite sometime now.

On Monday I saw Sir Peter speak on "Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?" He said that in NZ we have missed the boat on the valuation of science research. We were a lucky country until the 70's, with our commodity exports (meat, dairy, wood, wool etc.) earning us prosperity (until recently), and because of that we've valued science only as a nice to have not a must have.

Consequently, we now have a cultural barrier to substantial Research, Science and Technology (RST) commitment, whereas other countries that invested in RS&T in the early days see it as a must have. Sir Peter has pointed out before that we seem to have forgotten the important role science played in making our primary sectors as strong as they once were.

In essence Finance Minister English wants to know what “bang-for-buck” he is getting. Sir Peter rephrased this as a question to the audience: “is science relevant to NZ’s economic growth?” [the answer is yes!], and so how can we shift the attitude from science being a nice to have, to science being a must have.

Changing this view will be incredibly challenging, but Sir Peter is the right man for the job, because he is well respected in scientific, business and media circles, and is not afraid to speak his mind!

Two main areas (of many) he highlighted for improvement are:

  • collaboration vs. competition; and
  • the blurred boundary between science and business

In the next couple of posts I’ll explain what I think he means by these points and add a few of my own.

Stay tuned…

September 18, 2009

Rapid Diagnostics

One of the big areas of growth in medical research around the world at the moment ($US30 Billion and growing) is rapid diagnostics. Basically this means that diseases, viruses, conditions etc., can be diagnosed in a simple, cheap and fast manner anywhere on earth. The prescribed treatment can then be administered, saving time and money on expensive lab analysis.

Innovations in rapid diagnostics are set to change the face of health care as we know it - they reduce the number of tests required, their associated charges, and limit casual antibiotic use and improper prescription of drugs. They allow community surveillance by informing physicians quickly about what agents are in the community, and furthermore, their simplicity and speed allow high throughput screening which can be done using nurses or trained individuals instead of doctors - freeing up the best medical professionals to do what they do best - solve complex medical problems.

An example from the last decade is pregnancy test kits which can now predict whether or not a woman is pregnant to a good level of accuracy, without the need to go to a doctor. With the level of chronic diseases such as diabetes (usually confined to developed countries) on a dramatic rise in underdeveloped nations and global pandemics such as the recent Swine Flu, the need for results straight away is becoming more crucial.

There are a few NZ companies that are leading the way in this area - Veritide Ltd, a start up in Christchurch who make detectors for anthrax spores, and Izon who make patented nano pore's for the detection of specific viruses. Check them out - they're doing some incredible work.

This year the NZ Venture Investment Fund announced they are looking to invest $10 million into new medical technologies. Hopefully the result of this is a few more companies in this area that NZ could benefit from.

September 15, 2009

Project West Wind

Project West Wind is Meridian Energy's new wind farm at Makara, near Wellington, New Zealand. Last week I had the pleasure of taking a guided tour with the Institute of Professional Engineers of NZ.

It was great to witness how a big project like that can all come together despite the many challenges faced. The biggest of these challenges was how to actually get the components to the site - if you are unfamiliar with the terrain it is incredible steep and rocky in places. This was done by barging the components across from Picton in the South Island, to a custom built wharf, moving them onto trucks, who transported them up 33 km of custom built roads to their respective sites. As the towers are 70 m tall, each blade 40 m long and each housing the size of a small truck, this was no mean feat, and the roads were carefully constructed for the correct gradients and turning arcs.



The turbines were produced in Denmark by Siemens, who sent out 50 engineers to install them. Meridian has a number of other proposals in for more wind farms which will no doubt equate to incredibly large sums of money that will provide great opportunity for NZ’s leading engineering firms.

September 10, 2009

PowerbyProxi - Wireless Electricity?

PowerbyProxi are a spinout company of Auckland University who are developing wireless electricity solutions. I saw this talk and demonstration on www.ted.com about wireless electricity the other night, and I was reminded of PowerbyProxi. While the details (and possibly target markets) of the two technologies may be subtly different and are probably tied up in hoards of patent speak, I imagine the fundamentals are very similar.



This technology was in fact demonstrated by Nikola Tesla in the late 1890's before the FBI pulled the plug (pardon the pun) on it. Although explained in the video rather nicely, the basics of the technology revolve around the principle of electromagnetic induction - an electric current moving in a closed loop will generate a magnetic field, and vice versa. Hence if two coils are present one inside the other, the second coil can turn the magnetic field back into electricity. This is the basis of transformers. The key to making this work over long distances, however, is to make the respective coils oscillate at the same frequencies and 'couple' so that power can be transferred.

As pointed out in the comments section of the video, there will be some issues around who pays for the power (ie. can anyone tap into it?), but imagine a world where battery powered devices never go dead!

*PowerbyProxi was spun out of the University of Auckland in 2006.

September 3, 2009

The Bayer Innovator Awards

I was going to post about my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jim Johnston, winning a Bayer Innovator of the Year award, but was pipped at the post by the Gold Innovations Blog here! As the post points out, this was largely for his work on the innovative use of gold and silver nanoparticles as colourants for wool textiles.

As I've recently become involved in this research (along with current PhD students Fern Kelly and Kerstin Burridge), it may be a perfect time to explain a little bit more about it and what we're trying to achieve here.

As I've said before, when we shrink the constituent particles of a material down to the nano scale, we start to see new and interesting properties. This is because the particles can be considered closer to the size of atoms than to bulk materials - thus we see "quantum effects". One effect we see with gold or silver particles at this scale is a phenomenon called "surface plasmon resonance" which alters the way light interacts with the particles. Hence, instead of seeing the lustrous yellow colour we are all familiar with when we think of gold, we see a range of colours - red through blue. We then use these particles of different colour to "dye" wool (and a number of other materials too!).


The aim here is to link the high quality of NZ wool with the prestige of precious metals like gold and silver and sell into high value markets. Silver has the added benefit of being antimicrobial and so the resultant textiles are capable of killing bugs, making them ideal for medical textiles.

The work was funded by the World Gold Council's GROW Program (which I made a comment about here), and we are now progressing it towards commercialisation with a number of interested parties both in NZ and internationally. If you have any questions please leave a comment!

NIWA Wellington Science Fair

Last week Victoria University's School of Chemical and Physical Sciences hosted the NIWA Wellington Regional Science Fair. Last year I was honoured to be asked to judge the chemistry prize for this competition and it was inspiring to see so many young people interested in talking about science and in particular what they had done in their projects. It certainly took me back to the days of making lemon batteries or erupting volcanoes in my primary school days!


The top prizewinners this year were:
  • Zofia Arthur, for her work researching the most effective windbreaks (in which she found trees and shrubs were the most effective in comparison to perforated metal and solid walls);
  • Thang Tran, for his meticulous analysis in finding that juice stored at temperatures too high and too low will have lower levels of vitamin C, and;
  • Nika Thomson, who found that exercise does significantly improve the blood sugar levels of type 1 Diabetics.
Most of these students will be entering university in the next few years, and so the challenge now is making sure these young minds continue their scientific careers. How that can be done effectively with the mulitude of career options open to students at this stage, I do not know. One thing I do think we need to do though, is celebrate and publicize great scientific work, just as the NIWA Science Fair does. Who know's? Perhaps one of these students could be the next MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year, Bayer Innovator of the Year, or even a Nobel Prizewinner. Only by celebrating and talking about these achievements (and science in general) will young students become aware of the many wonderful career options open to them in science.

August 31, 2009

A123 Systems and the KillaCycle

I read an article on Stuff.co.nz recently about an electric motorcycle (KillaCycle), that can accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 1 sec, and has a top speed of 274 km/h. Pretty phenomenal performance!

The technology that makes this possible is provided by a company in the USA called A123 Systems, who I've been aware of for some time now. They were spun out of MIT in Boston in 2001 to commercialise their research on nanophosphates for lithium ion batteries.

The fundamental properties of a material differ substantially when we shrink its constituent particles down to the nano scale (1 billionth of a metre), and in the case of A123 Systems and their materials, they see an improvement in both the charge and discharge rates, and the power density (power to weight ratio) when they do this. This is important, because it means that batteries can be used for applications that demand large amounts of power rapidly (like the KillaCycle for its acceleration), but also need very light materials. Previously this type of power could have only been provided using large, heavy batteries, which has until this point ruled out the practical use of batteries in transport. The ultimate goal is to have a battery that can discharge rapidly for acceleration and charge again very quickly, so that covering large distances in an electric vehicle is no longer a problem.


To bring this back to a NZ perspective, this is just the kind of clean technology we should be researching and developing. In a low carbon world, when the rising curve of oil prices crosses the falling curve of battery prices, there will be a mass market for electric vehicles that companies like A123 Systems will be in an excellent position to capitalise on.

PS. The KillaCycle is apparently coming to NZ, for all you...errr petrol (battery) heads.

August 28, 2009

Hot Competition

There have been some really cool competitions around at the moment involving science problem solving and entrepreneurship.

Two that spring to mind are IRL's "What's your problem New Zealand?" Competition, where companies from industry pitched a research problem to IRL in order to win $1 Million of research funding at IRL, and the Auckland University Business School "Entrepreneurs Challenge" which is funded by ex Auckland Business School graduate, Charles Bidwill, to the tune of around $3 Million.


The winner of the IRL "What's your problem New Zealand?" Competition was Resene paints, who came up with a proposal to develop paints from sustainable sources. Most of the ingredients in current paint products are derived from petroleum feedstocks, and so this research will help to break the long term dependance on such raw materials. Entries for the "Entrepreneurs Challenge" closed only last week, but are sure to produce some incredible ideas.

Competitions like these are a great way to not only solve problems, provide funding for start-up companies and teach new skills, but also to highlight the amazing talent we have in NZ in problem solving and developing high growth businesses. One can only wonder what things could be like if there was more money available so all the ideas could get funded! Then we may be well on the way to creating a knowledge-based economy!

Whats your problem?

August 26, 2009

AngelLink

Angel investing is a term that is used to describe very early stage investment in start-up companies. Typically, the "Angel" or "Business Angel" will provide their own capital, as opposed to a Venture Capitalist, who calls on capital from a managed fund others have contributed to. It is an incredibly risky but vital part in the venture financing structure, as it often helps bridge the so-called "Valley of Death" between lab research and a commercial opportunity by providing funding for prototype development, market research, etc. As there is a trend both worldwide and in NZ for Venture Capitalist's to move more towards funding companies with established revenue streams, this type of financing is becoming increasingly important. I have witnessed myself the difficulties in crossing this "Valley of Death", and it is often where many a good idea falls down.

Hence, I was pleased to read in the NZ Herald the other day about a new initiative called AngelLink. AngelLink aims to bring together active angel investors and the constant stream of high quality IP generated from NZ universities and Crown Research Institutes, to provide early stage funding for new technology companies. AngelLink has partnered with the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund (which was set up through the NZ Government to establish a Venture Capital industry in NZ), who will match AngelLink's contributions dollar-for-dollar, giving a total value of $8 million.



Overseas, many Angels organise themselves in networks. The attractiveness of an arrangement like this is that investors can pool their experience, networks and research to co-invest, creating a more nationwide approach to their investing. This creates greater deal flow, and a quicker time to market, which is critical for a country as small as NZ.

Although $8 million is just a start, I applaud these efforts - I just wish more could be done to help fill this "Valley of Death", as the amounts of money we're talking about for most of these investments are often relatively small. Although high net worth individuals make valuable contributions, personally I don't think we should have to rely on them to provide this type of funding. Perhaps the Government could take more of a leading role in this area and help bridge the gap even further.

August 24, 2009

Technology Transfer at Univeristy of Virginia

In a post last week, I talked about the Minister's views on RS&T policy, and mentioned that it is not just about "making it easier for business to be in touch with universities", it is ultimately how the two interact that will be important. I have recently been informed about the University of Virgina Patent Foundation (UVAPF). Their role is to see research conducted at the university commercialised - something they are very successful at doing.


They have specialists in science, business, and patent law to help protect the inventions of their researchers. They then get these inventions out into the world by licensing the technologies to industry and start-up companies. Their philosophy here is simple: maximizing deal flow. They do this largely by having realistic expectations from industry and short transaction times. As a result their technologies are out there - they have over 350 active licenses, assess approximately 200 inventions per year, and have generated about US$85 Million in license revenue for the U.Va.

While NZ universities are a lot smaller, and don't generate nearly as many inventions as the U.Va might, I think the modus operandi of the UVAPF is something we can learn from here in NZ. I have myself witnessed some brilliant technologies falling by the wayside, in part due to unrealistic expectations of industry by universities, essentially a lack of adherence to the principles so central to the way the UVAPF operates.

The goal of most researchers I think is for their research to ultimately be used for public good. Being open, fair and fast are conducive to making this happen. After all, surely it is better to have something out in the world being used, than something sitting on a scrapheap with nobody seeing any gain.

August 21, 2009

ViNES

When I first started The Scientist NZ, one of my first posts was about a group of us who were keen to advance both our careers in science in NZ, and in a wider sense the knowledge-based economy in NZ.

Well, things are progressing nicely, and we now have a name, ViNES.
We decided on the very first day that we are a group of young and emerging scientists that are interested in making opportunities for ourselves and contributing to a knowledge-based economy in NZ. This may take the form of entrepreneurship, employment in industry, doing a post-doc, or even switching outside of science altogether.

To get where we wanted to go we decided that we need to:
  • raise our profile
  • build our networks
  • upskill
  • build a track record
Five of us met today and really made some progress toward making the ViNES concept work for us. It is now more clear than ever that what we want in the near term is exposure. This alone will help guide us towards our ambitions. Unfortunately, the ViNES blog was taken (but not used) by someone else. We are ViNES-NZ in the blog world, which is probably a good thing since NZ is who we are representing. Feel free to comment if you have other suggetions.

So there you have it. If you have anyone knows of any interesting events coming up we should be at, or any business that would like to brainstorm with us, please get in touch.

August 19, 2009

Big Science

There was an excellent article in the Listener last month about the role of science and technology companies growing the NZ economy. It features a number of comments from my employers at Endeavour Capital, and their portfolio companies, Veritide (who manufacture devices to detect anthrax spores) and Photonic Innovations Limited (who are developing gas detection equipment using lasers).

One of the comments by Dr. Andrew Wilson of PIL, was that his PBRF score had suffered because of time spent conducting commercially sensitive research for PIL, instead of publishing journal articles. For those that don't know, the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) is a way of allocating funding by ranking research performance (publishing) in the tertiary education sector. As pointed out in the Listener article, how can this be conducive to academics putting more time into research of commercial potential when they are more concerned with publishing their research in peer-reviewed journals in order to maintain their PBRF ranking?

While publishing and peer review are essential parts of academia and the scientific method (that will never, and should never change), perhaps more recognition in the PBRF system needs to be given to those that choose to patent their work instead of publish. As pointed out so eloquently by the Generation Y Scientist, universities are complicated beasts, and companies shy away from universities for a number of reasons. Perhaps the PBRF contributes to some of these reasons. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one.

August 17, 2009

Quantum Dot Inkjet Printing

Here's a radio interview my PhD supervisor Jim Johnston, PhD candidate Andi Zeller, and myself gave to Radio NZ about Quantum Dot Inkjet Printing and it's application in anticounterfeiting - one of the main topics of my PhD thesis.

video

There is also a post on the work here, and an article on page 5 of the Autum 2009 issue of Victoria University's 'Victorious' magazine, found here.

August 14, 2009

New RST Strategy?

On Wednesday I attended the presentation by MP Wayne Mapp (Research Science and Technology Minister) on his vision for RST Policy in New Zealand.

Although I am always amazed at how long politicians can speak for and not say anything, I was actually quite surprised at the initiatives proposed in his speech. A few useful things may come out of this:
  • Simplifying the whole system. This should hopefully mean less grant applications, and hence less time wasted. Talk to any academic and they will tell you that the amount of time they spend filling out grant applications, is hugely counterproductive. My supervisor once told me he could spend up to 1/5 of his time doing this! That is time wasted that could be spent on discovering the next big invention!
  • More long term funding - good things take time, and so this gives the researcher more stability and confidence in their role.
  • An examination of the funding balance of growth-oriented research (see here) and putting a bigger emphasis on the FRST to understand the value of their investments a bit better - this may mean that we find out exactly what things are worth putting money into, and as a result remain flexible to change investment policy further down the line if something isn't working.
Although one of the key things to the success of science contributing to the NZ economy (as highlighted in the speech) is "making it easier for business to be in touch with universities", it is ultimately how the two interact that will be important. But that is a post for another day.

We'll have to wait and see how this pans out - these changes will be made by the years end, and will be released in the Budget 2010.

* If you're interested you can listen to his speech via podcast over at the NZ Science Media Centre

August 12, 2009

The Clean Industrial Revolution

I have just finished reading the brilliant new book by Ben McNeil, called "The Clean Industrial Revolution." Ben is a climate scientist and economist at the University of New South Wales in Australia. As the subtitle suggests, his book is about how to grow prosperity in a greenhouse age.

Which was quite timely, considering cabinet announced on Monday their plans for a revised Emissions Trading Scheme. I was always a wee bit hesitant to wade into the whole carbon tax/emissions trading scheme debate because I had not made my mind up fully on the topic. After reading Ben's book and talking to my learned economist friend, goonix, I believe that it is essential for NZ to begin either a tax or trading scheme.

I think a lot of the debate centred around the question of how much is it going to cost our economy now, vs. how much will it cost to fall in line and adapt later? We are only 0.1% of the worlds emissions after all, so why spend all this money, lets just wait and see what the world does and adapt later.

Well, one of the key points I took out of Ben's book is that creating a 'carbon price' will be a massive incentive for innovative change. When (not if) the world moves to a low carbon future, any country that is researching, commercialising and exporting these new clean technologies will be in a great economic position. Surely it would be harder to do this if we chose to wait and adapt, giving the rest of the world a head start. (Note: Masdar City, in the UAE, which I have blogged about here).

Sure, some industries in NZ will be harder hit than others initially, (ie. the polluters, farmers and their farting animals) however, do we want to end up dependent on a costly carbon rich lifestyle? It would be like suffering the same fate as those countries that resisted imposing high taxes on oil. Japan and the EU set high taxes, and their vehicle industries were given incentive to develop more efficient engines, which they did (up to 30% more efficient in fact). The US, on the other hand chose to keep the price of petrol near the market value, and as a result are heavily dependent on oil. There was no incentive for GM to innovate, and as a result GM have given their market share up to Toyota, and pretty much gone bust. The same will happen with anyone still intensively using carbon.

The book is focused largely on an Australian context, however the whole way through reading it, I felt that I could have easily substituted "New Zealand" every time I read "Australia". Apart from the huge solar resource Australia have of course, we have a lot in common. Perhaps we are even in a better position than Australia, as we have a lot of hydro, more wind generated power, are less dependent on coal fired power stations, and already have less emissions per capita. Creating a highly innovative CleanTech economy will create new, high tech jobs that won't be able to be outsourced to China. It's about being at the forefront of change, and I believe we have the goods here in NZ to make it a reality.

You can preview the book here.

August 10, 2009

NZ: Feeding the World?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will probably be aware that I am an advocate for science underpinning the NZ economy and ultimately leading to the future prosperity of our nation. There is often the confusion that scientists like myself think that for this to happen, we need to abandon agriculture. Not true. Scientists are not stupid, and many of us realise the importance of farming in the economy of our small export nation.

I believe there is room for both. We should capitalise on the wealth of knowledge in this area, as well as add a few 'bolt-on' solutions. For example, Finland, a forestry nation, now has Nokia, and Denmark, a small dairying nation like ours, is now home to a $10B export business in wind turbines. Both countries have many more smaller high tech companies, and there is no reason why we can't do the same here. We just have to be a little bit smarter about it.

I read an article on stuff.co.nz the other day by Prof. Paul Monaghan of Massey University, about how NZ is not putting to good use its excellent ability to produce food, in order to capitalise on the growing market for the next generation of value added agrifood products. The rest of the world is already catching on to new products that involve new science and technology (nanotechnology for example), to revolutionise the food and drink industry in terms of better food processing safety, improved product shelf life and more healthy products. In fact, the use of nanotechnology has already been introduced into the food and drink industry with successful applications in a number of areas including stay fresh packaging, butters and slim-line milkshakes.

In a world that is becoming more populous, short on energy and water, this could be an ideal area for NZ to apply some of its excellent food production knowledge, couple it with our brilliant image on the world stage, and NZ could feed the world with high value, high margin products.

And so back to the getting smarter bit. I believe in order to do both, we need a tweak in our science and technology research policy to a more balanced approach. Currently the government invests the majority of our science and technology research budget in the primary industry (36%). Yet if you look at the TIN100 (the top 100 technology companies in NZ), there are only 11 primary sector technology companies, comprising only 12% of revenue. Interestingly, the top 5 companies (nothing to do with agriculture) produce about $3 Billion revenue - not too bad for 5 companies I thought. As you can see, the results are not reflective of the investment made by area.

The rest of the world maintains a balanced approach and so should we. That way we can continue to add value to our primary sector through science and technology, in areas like high value foods where there are big gains to be made, but also remain flexible enough to 'bolt-on' a Nokia or Vestas should the opportunity arise.

August 7, 2009

Resistance is useless...

Superconductivity is the phenomenon whereby a material can conduct an electric current with no resistance. For some of you that might seem rather dull, but the implications of this are actually fairly significant. Because they can conduct an electric current with no resistance, there is no heat loss as a result. This, coupled with the fact they can transmit high current loads, makes them ideal as power transmission cables, replacing those that are currently quite inefficient over long distances.

Superconductors can also be used to create powerful magnets for better MRI instruments, magnetically levitated trains (like the Maglev train in Shanghai, China that can reach speeds of up to 430 km/h), and particle accelerators (like the LHC in Switzerland) that allow physicists to conduct ground breaking fundamental research about the world we live in.

As a result, superconductors have been "the next big thing" for a fair few many years now, but their application has been hamstrung by the fact they require bulky, complicated, and expensive cooling systems to get the superconducting effect - they only work below about -135 C and so need to be cooled by liquid nitrogen (-197 C). The obvious goal is to get them to work at ambient temperatures of around 0-30 C, but for this to happen, scientists still need to understand the fundamentals of these materials.

For a long time, scientists only thought there was one family of superconducting materials, which made it difficult for them to understand their fundamentals. Recently a Japanese group has discovered (by accident) a new family. Although operating at only -217 C, well below the current benchmark of -135 C, it is nonetheless exciting because now with two families to compare and contrast hopefully scientists can finally solve this problem and we might see some of these incredible applications become more widespread.


Endeavour Capital, who I work for, is an investor in HTS-110, a spin out company from fundamental research conducted at Industrial Research Limited (IRL) in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Researchers at IRL were one of the first groups in the world to develop a process for the production of superconducting wire from 1st and 2nd generation superconducting materials. As a result, they formed a partnership with American Superconductors Inc., one of the biggest companies in the world active in this area. HTS-110 use this wire to produce superconducting magnets. This is yet another example of how kiwi ingenuity can be a world beater - in some areas that probably not too many kiwi's suspect either.

I think their story, coupled with the exciting new discovery by the Japanese group, illustrates the vital role of fundamental research in the progression of any ground breaking new technology towards commercialisation.

August 5, 2009

Fuel from Algae

The other day I saw this article in Scientific American. Exxon Mobil, one of the largest petrochemical companies in the world, have recently announced they are putting US$600 million into research on new biofuels from algae.

For those that don't know, biofuels are renewable fuels that are derived from natural sources such as plant biomass or, in this case, algae. They are made by fermenting sugar rich crops to produce bioethanol, or by chemically converting vegetable oils into biodiesel.

They fall into several categories. 1st generation biofuels, made from sugar, starch, or vegetable oil, have come under a lot of criticism because they are made from food crops, diverting food away from the human food chain which is quite controversial given the growth of the world’s population.

2nd generation biofuels, made from waste biomass, the stalks of wheat, corn, wood, and jatropha (the biofuel Air NZ used for its trial biofuel flight was made from jatropha) promise a more politically acceptable solution, because they are non-food crops and often grow successfully in infertile areas.

3rd generation biofuels are made from algae. Algae are an extremely efficient producer of biofuel, producing many times more energy per acre than other alternatives. The hard part about algae production however, is growing the algae in a controlled way and harvesting it efficiently.

A NZ company, Aquaflow Bionomic is active in this area. They produce biodiesel in the Nelson/Marlborough area. As the article points out, Exxon Mobil’s investment goes a long way to validating their choice of technology.


Exxon Mobil is conducting this research in conjunction with a company called Synthetic Genomics in the USA. My question is, why not in NZ? I froth at the mouth with the prospect of US$600 million being pumped into a technology like this. Especially one that NZ’ers are already successfully involved in! With the right amount of money, NZ could really turn itself into a hotbed of biofuel/CleanTech innovation. I’m not sure of the duration of the EM/SG research program, but when you consider that the NZ Government’s TOTAL research spending last year was about NZ$900 million, you can see that our commitment to advancing this type of science and technology is really quite laughable. Aquaflow are rumored to be involved with Boeing and a number of other big multinationals. Lets hope so, because the money obviously isn't going to come from the NZ Government.

August 3, 2009

Science Communication

One of the key things I think scientists don't do well enough, is communicate. I know I am not alone in having this view.

The scientific method of systematic observation, analysis, and peer review, is one of the most robust methods of investigation going around (and has been so for centuries). This approach has an inherent honesty, and I think perhaps one area in which science communication breaks down is the portrayal of this honesty. In the public's eyes (I hope...) scientists are looked to for answers and advice but the inherent honesty in the scientific method often means we are not willing to make a concrete claim - something is only true until proven otherwise. And so this leads to mistrust, or confusion. Scientists seem to be content with laying the facts down for someone else to make a decision, and being done with it.

Communication is not something that everyone is good at, and poor communicators can be found in almost any profession. Communication by scientists has become ever so vital however, given the pressures facing mankind in climate change, energy, and food and water shortages, for example.

And so the only way to improve this is through practice. It would be nice if a communication paper was a mandatory part of any degree, but this is unlikely. Through the NZ Science Media Centre I have become aware of a really cool collaborative project starting at the University of New South Wales. It is called the New Science Journalism Project and it invites science and journalism students to submit articles which will be delivered through online media.



I think this is a great way for students to gain real world experience, and later on in their careers, when the time comes for them to communicate their science, perhaps in the hope of gaining research funding, or even influencing a policy change, they will be experts.

July 31, 2009

Science behind record breaking swims

Hi-tech textiles in sport are nothing new. In recent years we have seen the design of fabrics that can take moisture away from the body, patches on All Black jerseys so players can dry their hands for better grip, fabrics that can sense high impact stresses on players joints, and fabrics that can sense heart rate, temperature and other physiological data (see Zephyr Technologies).

All are performance enhancing to varying degrees, but perhaps not quite as much as the latest hi-tech swimsuits worn by competitors at this years World Championships in Rome. There is a lot of talk in the media at the moment in regard to these swimsuits, which have seen numerous records broken so far. And not just broken, smashed in some instances, by up to 6 seconds! The science behind these suits is quite interesting. There are two aspects to it - posture and drag.



The corset-like suits are made of an incredibly compressive material (apparently they take an age to squeeze into) that holds the swimmer in an optimal posture. Because the swimmer doesn't have to use any of their muscles to hold this posture (like usual), more of their energy can be directed to their propulsion through the water. The compressive nature of the suit also stops water becoming trapped in the suit, and reduces the amount of skin 'wobble', which both contribute to drag, the second aspect.

Drag refers to the forces that oppose the relative motion of an object through a fluid medium. It is wasted energy. In chemistry we call something that is attracted to water hydrophilic, and something that repels water hydrophobic. These hi-tech suits are hydrophobic - they actually repel water, like a bead of water on a lotus leaf, or like oil in water. This creates a water-repellent seal that adds buoyancy, lessens drag and creates record swim times.

Speedo's LZR suit did this by adding polyurethane panels over the parts of the body that contribute the most to drag. This suit saw a multitude of records fall in Beijing 2008, and 94% of gold medals were won by swimmers wearing LZR's. The obvious next step was to make an entire suit from the stuff, and this is what the current outcry is about. There is an excellent article about it all here.

So, at what level is science in sport too much? Where does the competition of man vs. man instead become a competition of who has the best equipment? Personally, I have no problem with it - I believe sport science (both physiologically and technologically) will continue to evolve because people will always strive to be fitter, faster and stronger. The question is, how can we level the playing field, so that good competition, the real essence of sport, is still the centerpiece of the show?
 

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