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As agriculture’s orphan child, laden with centuries of tradition and structure, coarse wool has recently exhibited a refreshing turn of mind to attempt to spin a new future.

The realisation that wool industry participants weren’t interested in co-investing in generic projects if individual companies didn’t end up owning their own piece of intellectual property has been a major catalyst for change.

Just before the Ministry and Foundation for Research, Science and Technology morphed into the Ministry of Science & Innovation, Wool Industry Research Ltd (a JV of the Wool Research Organisation and MoRST) was formed to manage a five year, $15 million research programme.

This has two components.

1. Industry good investment — essentially doing what’s done today, better. The consortium itself retains/owns the IP
2. Company specific investment — ideas are co-invested/funded, and out of this leveraged funding, the project sponsor owns the IP

WIRL general manager Ian Cuthbertson says the second form of investment, being a new path for collaboration in R&D, has taken participants a while to come onboard.

‘For the first six months, we didn’t have any co-funded (30-50%) projects,’ he says.

‘Now, moving into our second year, we have over $900,000 of industry cofunding committed.’

However, despite the sponsoring or co-funding company having the rights to any IP generated out of new wool research, it does come with a couple of caveats.

WIRL retains a lien on the IP. Once the outcome of the research is confirmed, a sensible commercialisation target is negotiated to be delivered within an agreed period of time – typically a couple of years.

Cuthbertson says that’s fair, as both taxpayer and wider industry money is being spent on the research, which ultimately benefits the individual company.

‘We have to ensure that value is created for NZ from the investment,’ he says. ‘The company could go belly up, or not commit the resources to commercialise properly, or simply change its commercial strategy.’

‘We retain the caveat that the R&D needs to be exploited to a reasonable commercial value.’

He says that a couple of these co-invested projects will probably be made public by the industry partners over the next couple of months, and that ‘there will be real value to the wider industry resulting from most.’

The change to a co-investment, with companies keeping the IP model is a total change in the way that wool related R&D funding had been carried out in the past.

Previously, funding capability and project selection had more been aimed at researchers — who would often, because of the system, be carrying out science in isolation from commercial reality.

‘Now we have truely commercially driven R&D, though there is still a core responsibility within the consortium’s investment for fundamental research,’ says Cuthbertson.

Such industry good research is driven by a wool industry advisory group from across the sector’s total value chain.

‘However, most of the research is more applied, and we’re saying to companies, if you have a good idea, we’ll help you with the science to create the opportunity, you own the IP as long as you take it to market,’ he says.