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For something that has the extremely important job of kicking along (on an NZ Inc basis) the never simple endeavour of turning of an idea into income, the Advanced Technology Institute’s Establishment Board has so far operated very below the radar.

What the ATI EB is being asked to do, extremely quickly, is much more than the body tasked with creating the Crown Research Institute structure(s) over 20 years ago from what was then the DSIR and MAF Tech.

Perhaps part of its challenge is that some people think it is going to be about a new building or two – and that hasn’t been helped with the announcement that the institute will be named after the late Sir Paul Callaghan. That strikes me as being ‘institute’ as a noun.

But, if you have a look at the ATI EB’s Terms of Reference it is clear its seven person team has an extremely wide mandate. This is ‘institute’ as a verb.

This is seen in the ToR’s Purpose:

The purpose of the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) is to support firms in the manufacturing and services sectors to improve competitiveness and growth through science and technology-based innovation and its commercialisation.
 
It will achieve this through being:

  • an intermediary to improve connectivity and capability in the innovation system; and
  • a service provider working closely with business clients and collaboratively with other service providers and research organisations

It is no wonder that the date for establishing the ATI has been put back two months (at this stage) to Feb 1 2013 – and even that is an extremely ambitious timeframe considering what is being asked of it.

Indeed, reading between the lines, what the ATI EB is being asked to come back with are suggestions around broader issues such as routes to market, funding/capital options and partnering.

As well as the morphing of Industrial Research Ltd into a new Crown Agency structure (being developed/consulted on as we speak), The ATI EB is being asked to work closely with the NZ Food Innovation Network, and NZTE and MBIE and ….. well everyone really. This includes figuring out how to work with and alongside the CRI and university technology transfer offices and commercialisation units – most of which are biologically-oriented.

That makes sense – one aspect of our economy that could really do with improving is adding value to the raw materials our country produces. Think milk, meat, trees, horticultural produce, fish. And not only adding value, retaining the value for NZ Inc as we get much closer to the market.

There’s some excellent science around these areas, as reasonably favourably commented on in a ‘Supply Side Report’ in some of the background policy work on the ATI in June this year.  

But, turning what are good ideas, processes and products into sustainable new businesses (or new areas within older businesses) is something we’ve found hard to do.

There’s a suspicion that super minister Steven Joyce recognises that as a country we need a circuit-breaking change/adaptation/boot-up-the-rear in the innovation area.

Asking the ATI EB to propose what this institute (as a verb) should be is either:

  • a recognition he’s not quite sure what to do
  • a hope it comes up with some more than useful suggestions, or, and more likely
  • a bit of both

Now all this is a roundabout way of saying, all power to the ATI EB seven charged with the task setting the strategic direction of the new entity (whatever it looks like).

The discussions it is having, and path it is plotting will be uniquely New Zealand in its structure – no one else has our mix of biology, skills, distance to market and investment-adverse capital markets.

Rumour has it that (original ATI proposer) IRL is fully onboard in its desire to move and act as the foundation of the new Crown Agency – which makes a damn good start.

Now, if the EB’s super seven can ‘simply’ come up with some clever solutions for those route to market questions….we’ll be singing their praises for a long time to come.