Archive April 2011

High-value manufacturing R&D review sure to cause some ripples Peter Kerr Apr 19

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The review and report about how R&D can better support NZ’s high-value manufacturing and services sector should be made public pretty soon.

It should be interesting reading – especially given that its authors had less than a month to carry out the interviews and writing. (See original sticK story here)

Therefore, much of the thinking in it must’ve already been pre-determined.

All in all, the report will undoubtedly continue on the more focused, more industry-assistance tone (without calling it picking winners) that recent noises out of Wellington has been heralding. A recent thought piece by MED economist Roger Procter is but one of the changes in thinking (see sticK story here).

Partly too it is a recognition that the competitive research funding model of the past 20 odd years is not a good defacto means of deriving a national research and innovation strategy (in the absence of actually developing one)

Given that similar sized countries as New Zealand have actively kept research and industry in the same room (so to speak), we can expect the report by Prof John Raine, Prof Mina Teicher and Phil O’Reilly to provide high level directions while being non-prescriptive (as its terms of reference said).

The ever-so-slowly merging Ministry of Science and Innovation (from the combined Foundation and Ministry of Research, Science and Technology) officials are more than likely already developing policy based on the report’s findings.

How the report handles the recent flown suggestions that there should be more CRI mergers will be interesting. While much of the pure high-tech manufacturing R&D capability resides with IRL, the review team was also to examine biotech, agritechnologies and meat and wool related agritech activities.

So, while the nation’s not waiting with baited breath for the report – its impact will, without doubt, ripple across the R&D and the innovation ecosystem.

(Uumm, I wonder too if they’ll be brave enough to recommend a national innovation strategy!)

Cool science makes itself fashionable Peter Kerr Apr 12

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Up till now dyeing a pattern on wool fabric has been a relative no-goer because bleeding of the dyes into each other ruined whatever picture you were trying to create.

So, keep an eye out for some new dyed wool products coming to a store near you soon – a result of some pretty cool science and research that no one else around the world has managed to crack.

Wellington and Christchurch based BGI Developments has won the right to commercialise AgResearch’s new process, which apparently is a quite simple addition to a fabric manufacturers set up.

The process, developed at AgResearch’s Lincoln campus and led by Dr Stewart Collie, means the colouring and patterns and graphics aren’t just printed on top of the fabric (as in your T-shirt type pictures). In an 18 month project, they’ve figure out how to stop those bleeding dyes.

BGI Developments (Bloody Good Ideas……no really) Wellington director Robyn George-Neich has already had extensive overseas clothing sales success with her baby and children’s clothing label Maselme – most notably in Switzerland and the U.S.A.

She’s teamed up with Christchurch’s Brent Gregory who has been in the apparel industry most of his life, and are taking the process to clothing and fabric manufacturers around the globe.

George-Neich says the dyed fabric looks and feels better than standard printed fabric as it doesn’t have a plastic graphic on it. The print also doesn’t deteriorate over time and feels nicer and looks better for longer.

One beauty of the process is that manufacturers and fashion designers can choose colours and designs just before entering the market. Naturally such flexibility of production reduces the risk for manufacturers and retailer alike.

AgResearch has done the right thing in handing over to someone else the challenge and risks of taking the technology to the world. It can expect significant royalties, which can be ploughed back into more research.

BGI has an opportunity to make a significant play, effectively creating a market position where none has existed before.

New Zealand Inc is in the hot seat of adding significant value to wool fabrics – again re-inventing the fibre and lifting its perceived worth.

All in all, this is a neat development of cool science that the general public can immediately see – literally. Of course, the buyers of the product may not recognise it as being science, but that’s exactly what it is.

Imagine what some of those well-known NZ merino clothing brands are now thinking they might be able to do with the process.

As long as it is not a variation of black on black, the outcomes should be colourful.

We won’t call it picking winners, we’ll call it focused effort — the next agenda for our science and innovation? Peter Kerr Apr 08

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There’s a very interesting ‘occasional paper’ that’s just gone up on the MED website.

By its name ‘Enhancing Productivity: Towards an Updated Action Agenda’ you wouldn’t pick it to be a slightly subversive document (see it here).

But, along with hints coming out of the general science and innovation agenda, this thought piece by MED economist Roger Procter (‘not necessarily reflecting the views of the Ministry of Economic Development’) lays out some logic for picking winners.

That’s my term, and in fairness to Roger, he never uses it. Perhaps focused effort would be a better short hand, and go down better across the road at The Treasury.

One thing you can be sure of, Roger’s thinking won’t be happening in isolation; and here’s some edited highlights from the 63 page documents. Naturally, there’s a high degree of economic-speak, but read between the lines.

“New Zealand has quite good framework policies. However, to catch up with the higher income OECD countries, New Zealand will need framework settings that are up with the best in the world, not just good, along all important dimensions.”

“Evidence from other countries suggest that facilitative policies will also likely be necessary to improve New Zealand’s trade performance and support the restructuring described above towards knowledge manufacturing and services. ‘Virtually every hub of cutting-edge entrepreneurial activity in the world today had its origins in proactive government intervention’ (Lerner 2009). Facilitative policies have a place across all tradable sectors, but are particularly relevant to knowledge intensive manufacturing and services.”

Procter says the NZ government has to decide where to focus its facilitative policies, and the country is much more likely to be successful if it can build off a group of knowledge intensive manufacturing and services businesses that are already in existence.

“The existence of such businesses is prima facie evidence that New Zealand has the capabilities to produce competitively products that are similar to the products these businesses produce, in the sense of the capabilities needed to produce them.”

“Fortunately, New Zealand does appear to have a significant number of such businesses. Facilitative policies should therefore focus on growing on these businesses. Facilitative policies should also focus on growing new businesses that build on the capabilities that these existing businesses use. The objective is to get the set of related businesses and capabilities to the point where the increasing returns that each business obtains from the development of related businesses and capabilities anchors them profitability in New Zealand.”

Now, there’s a high tech sector review that was to report back very quickly, about now (see sticK story here).

Now, to repeat, we won’t call it picking winners, we’ll call it focused effort.

What’s the bet that some of the ‘facilitative policies’ thinking in Roger Procter’s paper is reflected in what this review reports back with?

Letter to Hekia Peter Kerr Apr 06

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Dear Hekia,

I’m sure you and your government colleagues will be pretty annoyed about the early and unexpected release of the revised (but not) ‘New Zealand Energy Strategy‘.

But, as the acting Minister of Energy and Resources, it actually presents you with an opportunity to make a bit of a mark.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t explore for more oil and coal; but as we both know burning these very old plants simply adds to the carbon dioxide that’s slowly warming our planet. It’s not sustainable, even if dressed up around the notion that everyone else is doing it.

And I’m sure that following the dictum of ‘follow the money’, oil and coal exploration will have the majority of funds thrown its way.

Looking at the Energy Strategy’s areas of focus 2 & 3 (develop renewable energy resources, embrace new energy technologies), what about making sure a bit of that oil and coal money goes to New Zealand’s golden opportunity.

For the fact is, we’re talking about the wise use of resources. Well Minister, 20% of our forestry crop is literally thrown away, left to rot. Those branches and offcuts from the main log are something we wouldn’t have to explore for, wouldn’t have to drill to get, wouldn’t have to obtain resource consent to use.

Knowledgeable visitors to our country are blown away by our potential around bioenergy. We have a fantastic opportunity to hugely grow the potential of forestry and short rotation crops as both direct energy sources and as the feedstock for transport fuels.

Given our relatively low population and ability to directly harvest the sun through such crops we could easily provide at least 25% of our transport fuel needs through bioenergy by 2040. (See the Bioenergy Association of NZ strategy here). And that’s a conservative figure. Crown Research Institute Scion reckons we could actually achieve 100%.

And that’s just the potential of converting the lignin and cellulose into transport fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol.

Now one of the little secrets of the oil industry is that the most valuable component of crude is the high value feedstocks for plastics and chemicals.

Guess what. Those valuable ‘bits’ exist in living trees as well, and companies such as Taupo based Vertichem have developed ways to extract them, and are looking to scale up its production.

What it means is we, as in NZ Inc, have an opportunity to develop bioenergy and green chemistry industries.

And, if you really want to really want another selling point, some of the under-utilised Maori land would be perfect for growing such crops and providing an income base.

So, what about diverting just a small amount of the Energy Strategy money earmarked for oil and coal and put it into bioenergy.

There’s too many pluses not to look at it more closely, and lots of advantages for New Zealand, the world and our children in giving it a go.

NZTE is leading a delegation to Canada in May to look at how that country has put together a bioenergy strategy. If its good enough for Canadians to develop a major strategy around bioenergy, isn’t that a pretty good reason to have a closer look at in New Zealand?

I’m sure the the bioenergy industry and officials would love you to join the trip Minister.

The oil and coal industries wouldn’t even notice you’d used a bit of their allocated budget!

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