Posts Tagged Science policy

A picture’s worth a thousand words…or not in our case Peter Kerr Dec 16

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I’m a sucker for a good diagram – a picture’s worth a thousand words and all that jazz.

So I thought I’d see what, if anything, came up in a search about New Zealand’s science and innovation system; diagram-wise.

The image below, taken as a screenshot, is what Google came up with when I searched under ‘science and innovation system, New Zealand’ (selecting the Google images icon as well)

S & I system NZ, Google images

Google screenshot, science and innovation system, New Zealand

To state the obvious – nothing terribly much here to explain what goes on in godzone, not a hint of a plan you’d have to say.

Well, what about a comparison with other countries?

So, I did the same for Denmark, a country that we like to compare ourselves to, frequently.

This is it here.

Google screenshot, science and innovation system, Denmark

Google screenshot, science and innovation system, Denmark

Again, to state the obvious – much more illustrative, many more models and examples of how Denmark’s ideas to products continuum hangs together.

What the heck, decided to do the same for Fiji (a near neighbour we’d possibly like to think we have a bit of a science and innovation lead over).

Here’s their Google search result.

Google screenshot, science and innovation system, Fiji

Google screenshot, science and innovation system, Fiji

Now, there may be some peculiarity in Google algorithm for my searches. (Though I had some of my non-sciencey colleagues search too, and they came up with something very similar).

And, it could be an unfair search term for NZ Inc

Or, it could be that there is no plan.

It could be that we’re doing lots of science, lots of innovation, lots of commercialisation – but it is all adhoc and uncoordinated, relying on luck and synchronicity and who the heck knows what.

I’m also hoping I’m wrong.

If anyone’s seen a plan, please point it out.

It would be a kind of relief to see one.

The Kiwi innovation space is starting to look awfully crowded Peter Kerr Apr 16


Is it just me, or is the innovation/commercialisation space looking awfully crowded and confused these days?

Sure, we like to think we’re (NZ Inc) inventive and entrepreneurial.

But there seem to be more entities out there offering innovation (and I shudder to use the term) advice, funding and connections than there are companies with good ideas.

Wearing my taxpayer’s hat, I have no problem when private money puts their proverbial on the line and takes a punt on a startup or early stage company being the next big market success.

Therefore the angel investor community, private equity companies and even family, friends and fools are to be admired and encouraged.

But the plethora of government, university and regionally financed organisations servicing our entrepreneurs is started to look very overlapping, rather uncoordinated; and the lack of transactions by some players needs to be questioned.

A cursory list includes (I’m not sure if I should apologise for accidentally missing some!):


Callaghan Innovation

MBIE (well, parts of it)

KiwiNet (and the individual university commercialisation units that are part of it)







In fact this blog was inspired by the recent announcement that there is to be a merger between Wellington-based Kerasi Ltd, and powerHouse – though Kerasi’s website states it is a powerHouse partner so decide for yourself who the kingpin.

powerHouse has also recently announced a merger with Dunedin incubator Upstart.

Then there’s a new body I’d never heard of – Innovation Council NZ.

Again, one of its main sponsors is government via Callaghan Innovation.

All in all, I’m afraid it means that there is quite a bit of overhead costs to be paid for by someone (us) as all and sundry scramble around looking for something to invest in.

In other words, there’s lots of pedaling by a lot of people, but without the sense of urgency that having your own money invested brings to the game.

There will be a lot of meetings though, and any number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through to make sure that ‘value’ is being delivered to the taxpayer.

And then, by the time that someone higher up that government food chain ponders the question of whether flinging a whole lot of money at innovation, and seeing what sticks, actually does work, it’ll be time for another change of policy.

But by then minister of everything Steven Joyce will probably have ditched the science and innovation part of his portfolio!

Re-arranging science funding’s deck chairs Peter Kerr Apr 09


Well, I guess you can’t have too many science funding bodies…

An alert colleague pointed out a GETS call for applications for – Capability in Independent Research Organisations Funding. (GETS Reference: 41196)

This fund is aimed at non-Crown Research Institutes,

“which hold significant research capabilities supporting national outcomes in areas of government priority.”

This will appeal to organisations such as the Cawthron Institute, HERA (Heavy Engineering Research Association), Opus Research and other independent researchers. (You can see a full list here at IRANZ, the Independent Research Associations of NZ).

The major surprise is that this fund is to be administered by the Health Research Council (HRC).

In a way it all makes perfectly logical sense given the way that science, innovation and commercialisation ‘policy’ (used in the very loosest terminology) has gone over the past few years

We had science policy and funding being separated – a Ministry and a Foundation for R,S & T.

Then these two were brought together to have a Ministry of Science and Innovation.

That lasted about five minutes, and MBIE was set up, with much of its funding allocation removed when Callaghan Innovation came, and is coming into, being.

Oh, there’s also the Primary Research Growth Partnership administered by the Ministry of Primary Industry as another entity entirely.

And now this.

The HRC does make funding allocations to researchers in health – which presumably they have a fair degree of expertise to do so.

Now they’ve got to become experts in a wide range of research fields, completely unrelated to their core knowledge.

Instead of the fund being under MBIE, and aligned to its overarching goals which seeing as it helped write them it should understand, a completely different body gets to do the choosing.

I guess, when as a country, we have no clear idea of what we should be concentrating our limited scientific endeavours on, then spreading the resource ever more thinly and hoping something, anything, serendipitously happens to happen is as good as any other approach.

But it takes us ever further away from the exemplar countries such as Denmark and Singapore – countries that have a plan, stick to it for a bit, and then modify what they do to achieve the clear goals that they have.

Talk about re-arranging the deck chairs!

Driver of Callaghan accelerator services to put pedal to the metal? Peter Kerr Mar 04

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We’ll make the assumption that Callaghan Innovation’s new GM of Accelerator Services isn’t there for the money.

Chris Somogyi’s come relatively unannounced to the crown entity whose role is to accelerate the commercialisation of innovation by NZ firms.

Chris Somogyi

Softly, softly is possibly how the American, recently from Seattle may do things – lie low, get a feeling for the place before making yourself known.

He’s been a venture capitalist, developed concepts into ready-made products and has a strong record in business development. He’s already been to NZ a number of times, so presumably isn’t too rose-tinted glasses about our place.

Given his interesting credentials, and presumably backstory as a biomedical engineer by training, Somogyi hopefully brings some deep connections and contacts into some of the business areas CI’s targeting.

Having been well over a year in the development, CI needs a few runs on the board, needs the accelerator pressed to the floor.

Investing in companies, having an umbrella view of industries and sectors will undoubtedly be a completely different gig to being down and dirty with would-be up-and-coming businesses within the same, and trying to help them scale quickly to significant size.

In other words, fighting in the trenches is completely different to attempting to direct from above.

Which Somogyi will undoubtedly be aware of, and hopefully up for the challenge of being part of.

From Callaghan Innovation’s point of view, they probably have little to lose.

An outsider (of NZ candidates) solves a few of those political/business bias challenges that can arise in such a pivotal, potentially game-changing position.

CI may’ve thrown a double six just found the exact person they need.

Or not.

He’s only been in the GM accelerator services role for a month or so, and Somogyi is probably doing a lot of listening while trying to make sense of the disjointed research, development, commercialisation and funding and investment scene in this country.

Welcome to New Zealand Chris.

Callaghan Innovation’s evolution gets curiouser and curiouser Peter Kerr Dec 17


The analogy of Alice in Wonderland, and curiouser and curiouser comes to mind with Callaghan Innovation.

That and a type of ennui as the 14-months-in-existence Crown Agent struggles to come into life.

Firstly, rumour has it (from a number of well-informed people) that minister of everything Steven Joyce is sitting on CI’s business plan.

Such a business plan was meant to be delivered not long after (but never really defined) CI’s Statement of Intent which came out in early July.

So six months later all we still have is a generic SOI of what Callaghan Innovation will do.

How, (the hard part) is still to be revealed through this business plan. Which, by inference means Steven’s just a bit wary (and one suspects weary) of it.

But wait, there’s more.

In the meantime, there’s been an announcement of a new stakeholder advisory board for CI.

As the press release says:

“This panel of experts will support the Callaghan Innovation Governance Board to deliver fresh thinking, and offer a diversity of perspective and experience that will help grow New Zealand’s economy through science and innovation.”


The Callaghan Innovation board was announced in January.

Just what has it, and more particularly its chair Sue Suckling been up to since then?

And, with the advisory board on-board as well, who is going to be responsible for what?

sticK always argued that the cart was in front of the horse in effectively scrapping the old IRL without defining what the new entity would do, or how it would do it.

While building the plane while you fly it may be OK for bootstrapping startups, doing the same with 400 or so scientists and engineers already employed is a much less validated process.

You have to suspect that Steven Joyce wishes he’d backed the well-planned potential morphing of IRL into an Advanced Technology Institute model, similar to say Taiwan’s ITRI.

The other exemplar that has been touted is the Danish Technology Institute. Callaghan representatives (and dozens of other NZ science people have visited this over the past decade).

Both ITRI and DTI are applied science/engineering-heavy entities that work hand-in-glove with industry and academia to turn prototypes and concepts into sellable commercial products.

Both have a well-defined mandate; they know their role.

Which, for all the commercialisation-speak of the embryonic Callaghan Innovation; it is still a long way off defining.

Quite where and how the new CI stakeholder advisory board will ‘advise’ Callaghan Innovation will be fascinating.

But, if the advisory board chairman Andrew Coy (magnetic resonance equipment-maker Magritek chief executive) wanted to help the country and his own company’s growth, he could do much worse than suggest dusting off the ATI model.

It could be just the thing to bring to a Mad Tea Party.

Non-success gets a deserved recognition Peter Kerr Sep 24

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A thumbs up to Lightning Lab and Wellington’s Creative HQ for celebrating non-success.

That, quite deliberately, is different from describing the five of the nine companies which went through LL’s 12 week accelerator programme as failures.

Earlier in the year, the Lightning Lab encouraged, cajoled, questioned and prodded nine good ideas into creating a distinct entity and business plan that may be attractive to potential investors.

(I commented in an earlier blog of my envy of those doing the LL – they learned so much, so quickly).

At a Demo Day in May, these nine pitched their products, and four achieved investment – LearnKo (oversubscribed with $700k), Wipster ($600k), Expander ($500k) and Publons ($350k).

That’s great, and these businesses are busy ramping up and gaining customers as quickly as they can.

Equally as good though is:
1. Lightning Lab is back again in March 2014 for a second run
2. Many people involved in the so-called non-successes will be back

But such non-success also needs a bit of explanation. For example, KidsGoMobile’s team are still all onboard, developing their product, hope to secure investment by the end of the year and will look to launch a Kickstarter campaign.

Teamisto opted not to take up New Zealand-offered investment, but have decamped to Chile, and see South America as being a more scaleable market for their product to help amateur sports teams obtain business funding/sponsorship.

Adeez, Promoki and Questo teams have moved to other ventures, though their founders rate the whole LL experience very highly.

Which is all good stuff. They’re learned, they’ll have other good ideas, they’ll have the nuclei of team members should they have another go at LL, they’ll know most of the hoops that need to be jumped through launching any type of new business.

Lightning Lab 2014 will begin accepting applications from November from around New Zealand for the $18,000 of seed investment for each startup team.

And, in a further feather in LL’s cap, it is the exclusive New Zealand member of the Global Accelerator Network (GAN), which comprises 51 of the world’s top accelerators.

So…fantastic. Celebrating success and celebrating non-success – a sign of a maturing Kiwi attitude to things not necessarily working out the way you’d expected.

You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs – or, how to spot a good idea Peter Kerr Sep 17


Engineer, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and raconteur Neville Jordan reckons he needs to kiss about 99 frogs before he’ll find an idea worth investing in.

Speaking as the IPENZ 2013 William Pickering Fellow at a Wellington lecture (part of the body’s national tour), Jordan told about 300 people it takes much research, talking to overseas people, and being introduced to a lot of ideas to find one business/startup that will potentially turn into a handsome prince (to extend the analogy; though he didn’t use this term himself).

Neville Jordan

The Sept. 12 presentation by Jordan, executive chairman of private equity investor Endeavour Capital, was on the topic, ‘How an engineer spots new technology and creates a billion dollar business.’

From his Petone beginnings, including trying to make an atomic bomb (but, as a 13 year old, wasn’t able to source uranium at his local pharmacy!), Jordan briefly outlined how the pharmacist later skewed his interest towards electronics.

Years later he pioneered the use of microwave technologies in New Zealand, floated MAS Tech on the NASDAQ, came away from a subsequent buyout of that company by larger American interests, and with a war chest of funds set up vehicles to invest in other good Kiwi ideas.

Hence the kissing many frogs correlation.

Having been successful with some investments, and less so with others (“it’s not failure, it’s a lack of success” he said in reply to a question), Jordan pondered where some of the next ‘Big Things’ may be coming from.

As an investor, he’s mindful that some technologies can pull society apart.

“How do we impact on the social fabric so we create better societies, and not cripple it in the process,” he posited?

Without giving specific answers, Jordan speculated that advances will be made in:

A fusion of electronics and healthcare (including and around)

  • Chronic pain relief
  • Hearing
  •  Blindness

A rise of new computational abilities

  • Nano-level circuits
  • Neural/cognitive systems

3D printing at home

He also gave huge credence to new education entities which are set to greatly disrupt university (including New Zealand) and other providers’ offerings.

These include Laureate Universities (which have just received $200m in funding from the World Bank, and the Khan Academy (which has over 3,500 courses on offer).

Many people have heard of MOOCs (massive online open course) which currently have three million students in 220 courses.

Jordan says education that is accessible through and because of the internet will profoundly change society – though he, like others cannot possibly envisage what that will be.

Callaghan Innovation’s own goal? Peter Kerr Aug 30

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Let’s call it an own goal eh.

How else can we describe Callaghan Innovation Research Ltd’s (CIRL), effectively the old Industrial Research as subsumed into the new-ish entity, failure to obtain millions of dollars’ worth of research funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment?

Now, CI announced in its high level Statement of Intent in early July (not a business plan note) as a key feature of its operational framework, that it will

“no longer participate in the government’s contestable funding process after the current round”.

(note, emphasis is by me)

But, prior to this announcement, in the early New Year its various science teams put the usual huge efforts into attempting to secure some of the $297 million for up to seven years research. Proposals are asked for across the biological industries, high-value manufacturing and services, energy and minerals, environmental, and health and society sectors. The successful bidders were announced on August 28.

In the end, only CIRL’s High Temperature Superconducting team were successful – $7.46 million over four years. (Given this dowry of sorts, that’ll make them reasonably attractive for a university to bring under its arm).

But it means that many of the other teams – the internationally regarded carbohydrate chemistry and energy and power services for example – missed out completely on being one of the 51 successful research programmes out of 229 proposals.

Apparently CI will ensure funding for these teams by taking money from its Accelerator Services budget and keep them ticking over.

Perhaps it is indicative of a disjoint between MBIE and Callaghan Innovation.

Perhaps it is MBIE and its Science Board feeling that CI has plenty of its own money to splash around.

Perhaps it is The Treasury indicating a degree of discomfort with what is being created (and destroyed).

Perhaps it is their joint minister Steven Joyce failing to make sure that the carry over to whatever CI becomes is tidy and seamless and politically non-headlining.

But, it is not a good look, and hence the own goal comparison.

At the same time, you have to feel sorry for the scientists and engineers at CIRL who missed out on research funding. They must be in an uncomfortable place, twiddling their thumbs while waiting for the supposed deluge of interest and co-investment from New Zealand industry.

Remember, this is what predicated the creation of Callaghan Innovation instead of the Advanced Technology Institute model as proposed by the former IRL. The ATI model was intended to be more of a problem-solver for industry, while CI’s statutory objective is:

“to support science and technology-based innovation and its commercialisation by businesses.”

Now, we’re still to see how CI intends to do this.

Apparently a scientist at the Wednesday 28 August Gracefield announcement that CIRL had missed out on considerable chunks of research funding, asked when the business plan could be expected – to which the reply was “it is being worked on”.

Having not appointed the interim Chief Financial Officer (James Corrigan) nor the interim GM, People and Capability (Peter Stipkovitz) to the actual roles, while their replacements get their feet under their seats, there will be another disruption which will no doubt further delay the plan.

Continuing the sporting theme, we’ll just call that an injury break, and bring on the untrained reserves eh.

Who is accountable for this mess? Peter Kerr Aug 14

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If there was even half a thought that Callaghan Innovation’s actions had a modicum of common sense, then there would be no worry.

But, as has to be the case when a year-long-in-the-making strategy is being made up on the fly, CI’s recently announced decision to get rid of KiwiStar Optics smacks of stupidity.

Now, this was a quietly developing business unit of the former IRL that has gradually built a 40 year expertise which as recently as last April saw the University of Hawaii’s Prof John Tonry describing it as one of the best in the world.

Late last year the IRL board made the decision to keep developing KiwiStar (and remember, it had potentially over $5 million of orders on its books) and eventually find a private investor for the business. The initiative to find an investor was well underway when in January, without any discussion or reasoning, CI called a halt to the process and then made the decision to close down the operation.

It is always easier to offload something of value when it has contracts and contacts and its capability is kept intact for someone who is interested in developing it further.

Now, CI has said it doesn’t want to be in business under its own name; but exiting KiwiStar by simply shutting it down is plain crazy.

What is happening is abandonment – along with the attendant costs of redundancy and loss of expertise and fracturing of connections into other industries.

At the same time it also takes away a customer of CI’s Measurements Unit – the group that ensures that weights and lengths and volumes are actually what people say they are.

Working on complex areas such as making extremely accurate astronomical optical equipment helps keep this Measurement Unit match fit.

If CI’s mandate is to create and maintain capability around high value manufacturing, simply getting rid of KiwiStar is the polar opposite.

At the same time, CI has made the decision to keep GlycoSyn, what is essentially a scaled-up and contained laboratory to manufacture complex chemicals. Now, almost 100% of its revenues come from offshore too; and it has an extremely close relationship with CI’s carbohydrate chemistry team – which itself is in a stoush as to whether it becomes part of some university’s faculty.

Talk about a lack of consistency in thinking whether CI is or isn’t in business, there is no logic to these two decisions when you put them back-to-back.

And while we’re on the general topic of all things restructuring, the old IRL engineering workshop is being reorganised; though to what, yet again nobody knows.

This engineering workshop, which acts as a type of halfback between the intellectual forward(thinking) grunt of scientists and the backs/finishing/put it into action expertise of engineers was an important part of IRL’s offer to New Zealand.

It was in this workshop for example that IRL created a prototype roebel cable winding machine – this roebel cable being the heart of High Temperature Superconductors.

Restructuring this workshop in the absence of a strategy is plainly silly.

It was a pity that the Labour’s associate science and innovation spokesperson Megan Woods didn’t take more of an opportunity to rip into CI’s KiwiStar decision and dig deeper into CI’s performance or lack of over the past 12 months. Its press release was underwhelming.

In fact, and as an aside, given such a wealth of ‘what are these guys up to’ stories coming out of the amorphous monster that is Callaghan Innovation, Labour’s missed a number of opportunities.

The decisions being made by the CI board clearly reveal that it doesn’t understand the commercial necessity of growing New Zealand’s international innovation footprint.

It begs the question whether CI is being held accountable by its owners; the government (and by proxy, us) for its questionable decision making and lack of performance.

Without doubt its Minister Steven Joyce needs to take a more hands-on approach to this agency, since to call what is happening a mess is to do an injustice to the word.

As an aside, one point of interest has been that the demise of KiwiStar has spurred the NZ Association of Scientists to action.

Its press release on KiwiStar actually reflects an even bigger question and its headline is one of the more pertinent ones I’ve read.

KiwiStar abandoned – for what?


We’re no closer to a national SETD plan, strategy, attack – call it what you will Peter Kerr Jul 30

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Taking a further opportunity to look at Callaghan Innovation’s Statement of Intent, it begs further questions relating to our country’s overall Research, Science and Technology spend. (Or, to further broaden it, our Science, Engineering, Technology and Design [SETD led innovation]).

  1. What are we actually trying to do?
  2. Who’s doing what?
  3. How efficient (or what’s the efficacy of) our total spend? (In fact, this is a blog on its own – if anyone has any data on how much of the allocated science spend ends up in science rather than government bureaucracy and science organisation/university administration costs, I’d love to know)

Now, CI is meant to be more at the end of converting good science and engineering oriented ideas into commercial reality and money-makers.

And, as it says itself, while CI isn’t going to be bidding for any of the funding areas in R, S & T, it is certainly still in the overall mix.

However, what is still totally unclear, in fact non-existent, is an overall national SETD plan. There is no STRATEGY.

The only mention in the CI SoI is in passing on page 19 which talks about setting up National Technology Networks.

“These Networks could become a framework for a national science and innovation strategy which can help define a more strategic approach to funding rather than making one-off decisions on individual proposals.”

If that’s the case, yet again we’re going to have a national plan as an after-thought.

It’s a bit like retrospectively figuring what we’re doing after we’ve assembled all the pieces, rather than figuring out WHAT we want to do, and THEN assembling the pieces.

Sure, having industry input into what the future might hold is important; but they’re more interested in the here and now, meaning say a two year future-view.

It is an underwhelming way to approach things – a middling method that the likes of Taiwan, Singapore, Finland et al abandoned long ago. It is, yet again, putting the cart in front of the horse.

It also flies in the face of Recommendation #13 from the ‘Powering Innovation’ document of June 2011, which, presumably, formed much of the basis for Callaghan Innovation.

Oversight and Leadership

Recommendation 13

Form a Science and Innovation Council, led from a very senior ministerial level in Government, with representatives from the university, public and private research organisations and from industry. Members should represent a wide range of science and technology themes, including the social sciences. The role of the Science and Innovation Council should be to establish a national innovation strategy and advise on science and
innovation policy and priorities.

Now, perhaps there’s a cunning plan to set up such a council.

On page 10 of CI’s SoI, under the third bullet point sits the sentence.

“The [Callaghan Innovation Act 2012] Act provides for the Responsible Minister to appoint a stakeholder advisory group to support Callaghan Innovation’s work.”

Might I suggest, strongly, Mr Joyce, that this be set up post haste.

Our country desperately needs a simple and clear view of what we’re going to concentrate on for high-value and other value-added manufacturing (especially around some of our biological resources).

I appreciate it is a brave political statement to say; ‘right, we’re heading here, by doing this’, but it is what is lacking at our highest level.

Shuffling such a responsibility down to where it won’t see the light of day within Callaghan Innovation will simply mean more deck-chair arranging for our SETD.

All of the exemplar countries that our bureaucracy and ministers are fond of saying we should be like, lead from the top, based on a Science and Innovation Council.

Even if such a council gets it wrong, at least it is a direction….and you can change direction.

At the moment we have nothing.

To focus our own SETD efforts, we need to do the same as other countries have done and lay our cards on the table for all to see and understand.

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