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.

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