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By the look of things, maybe we should accept, now, that the Advanced Technology Institute won’t be up and running by 1 Feb 2012.

This was a two-month postponement from the original 1 November 2012 date – but the way things appear to be slowly happening, pushing out the date again would be a sensible outcome on a complex issue that the ATI’s establishment board and the overall project are attempting to solve.

It reflects some or all of the challenges of setting up a body with the original purpose to boost NZ’s high value manufacturing, with food and forestry also thrown in for good measure.

One point to note is, compared to the extensive consultation and discussion that preceded the reformation of the then DSIR and MAFTech into the Crown Research Institutes 20 years ago, the ATI Establishment Board and Establishment Unit (the fulltime ‘doers’) are virtually operating in stealth mode.

There are a number of issues the ATI EB and EU are grappling with.

  • What business model should it put in place, what should its role be?
  • How should it collaborate with existing capability sets – R&D, commercialisation, consultancy? (This point was one made by a number of submissions to the recent select committee considering legislation to establish the ATI, see here) (which in itself leads to the next point)
  • How does it avoid cannibalising existing relationships in the science and innovation sector?
  • How does it define what success looks like?
  • (A few of these questions were generically posed in the ATI EB’s terms of reference – see here – which again goes to show it is easier to state a challenge than propose an answer)

The Sue Suckling chaired ATI establishment board has these and many other challenges to address – and, with all due respect to the people in the ATI establishment unit, it could be considered slightly underdone on that side of things.

A major issue there is that none of the people in this establishment unit have experience at running their own businesses, or having their own money on the line in a business venture.

When talking to captains of industry, business owners and science and commercialisation practitioners, this represents a severe credibility gap.

This is even more so when you consider that the big boys of NZ industry, think Fonterra, Fisher & Paykel, Norske, already know where the science and R&D expertise exists for their industries, and/or already have it in-house.

What role should the ATI have for these sorts of people?

Of course, the ATI could act as a gateway for the small medium enterprise business owners looking to ratchet up a degree or two – but what role should it have in that case? It could be a kind of one-stop-shop, act as a type of research translator, reform possible individual research projects into wider project. But again, the cannibalisation issue.

There’s a political risk too, that in order to be seen to be successful, the ATI does set itself up in in competition to existing CRI’s, research associations and universities.

This wouldn’t help NZ business development in any form whatsoever, but might briefly make the ATI look good; have its place in the sun, but with no gain for the country.

Apparently too the wheels have been put in motion to search for an ATI chief executive. You’d have to be nervous putting your name forward for the role well before it has any definition of what it is meant to do!

Again, we come back to what is the ATI’s business model meant to be?

Which is perhaps why (yet another) NZ delegation made up of some establishment board and unit members is going to tootle off to Denmark, and have another look at the Danish Technology Institute.

This is in spite of the many reports and talks and discussions which have taken place with and about the DTI. It should be noted too that the DTI itself realises it needs to change from what was more of a consultancy model, into one that carries out fundamental and applied R&D.

All in all, the suspicion is that the ATI ‘birth’ may’ve been better brought to life by evolving the IRL proposal – which kicked off much of the improving innovation/commercialisation debate in the first place.

Which, of course, is all too late now.

But, given that it is a complex issue, with Christmas and summer holidays just around the corner, let’s remove February 1, 2013 from our minds as the date the ATI will kick into life.

After all, we’re talking about spending $166 million over four years on improving innovation.

Better late and logical, than sooner and suspect