Callaghan Innovation taxis to the start(up) of the commercialisation runway

By Peter Kerr 11/07/2013

At last we have something concrete on what Callaghan Innovation may look like.

Here it is folks, CI’s Statement of Intent.

It’s been a long time coming, but, moving forward, what’s the vehicle to be created?

CI has a mission that’s clear, if generic, in its intent (which I much prefer to see described as a purpose as this article describes, but that’s nit-picking).

“To accelerate the commercialisation of innovation by firms in New Zealand”

CI paints a picture of what it wants to look like by the end of 2016 (the vision thing), through providing a list of Top Ten outcomes. (Having attempted to write such forward-looking documents in the past, and discovered the trickiness of mixing past, present and future tenses, I commend this approach).

Under these CI sees its primary roles to be to: Motivate, Connect and Deliver.

‘Motivate’ is a ra, ra to promote an innovation culture, ‘Deliver’ is mostly a realignment of the old IRL to provide research and technical services to support near-to-market innovation by firms.

‘Connect’ is where CI is putting its money on the table – literally and figuratively – designing and implementing a portfolio of tools and programmes under the umbrella of Accelerator Services.

There are four main components (the new stuff) to these Accelerator Services.

  • National Technology Networks – with seven ‘initial thinking’ groups. Part of NTN’s role is to pull together the SETD (science, engineering, technology, design) capability across the NZ Inc system. These initial networks are:
  1. Applied chemistry and biotechnology
  2. Advanced materials
  3. Robotics and automation
  4. Imaging and sensing
  5. Photonics
  6. Digital technologies and software
  7. Data processing and modelling
  • Innovation Agents
  • “Avatar” project – a big new initiative and IT project incorporating social media and cloud-based search techniques , which ‘will enable a dynamic virtual community of firms and service providers to connect with each other and share information and ideas’
  • “Big Projects” – CI “will build, support or adopt strategic consortia of New Zealand firms to pursue these opportunity-driven, mission-focused “Big Projects”

CI recognises its new focus has implications. The more fundamental science and research programmes (of the old IRL) will transit over the next year or so to universities and other CRIs. In turn, CI will not pursue contestable funding which is primarily intended for scientific research.

The old IRL Gracefield site is to become an ‘innovation precinct’, with others in Auckland and Christchurch, though this requires a detailed business case and (more) consultation.

There are 14 HVMS (high value manufacturing sector) businesses that already have tenancies on the Gracefield site, and CI will seek out one to three well-regarded successful high value firms who may be willing to relocate parts of their business there as anchor tenants.

An interesting aside of this innovation precinct initiative is that some of what will become CI’s Research and Technical Services specialists are expected to hold joint appointments between CI and their new employer (which also includes universities and CRIs). It already happens a bit nowadays, but making the American model (academia-government-industry), with its ability to swap and change roles and locales as an explicit desire is a good idea.

Earlier on in the 57 page Statement of Intent CI states that it

‘will have to establish itself as a well-informed “honest broker” in the eyes of both firms and SETD providers nationwide’.

That honest broker role, in a nutshell, is the crux.

To state the obvious, time will tell whether it achieves this objective. CI has been almost a year in gestation and undermined some of the goodwill in however you define innovation, so probably has a bit of ground to make up on this front.

The quality of what CI calls Innovation Agents will also be crucial. These are the go-between/hand-holders for innovating firms, R,S & T providers and funding.

Finding the hard and soft mix in a person with the gravitas, been-there-done-that experience, technical knowledge, willingness to go into bat for an innovating company and non-bureaucraticness (nope, not a word) will be extremely challenging.

CI will also have to live up to one guiding principle (page 9):

  • Do more of what works and “call failure fast” on what doesn’t work

and two particular sentences (on page 24):

“Whenever a marketing initiative is tried, but fails to get much response it will quickly be discontinued, consistent with our “call failure fast” principle. It will be important to analyse why a particular approach did not work so that learning can be applied to alternative strategies.”

Now, government departments in general, and the people within them in particular don’t like to admit failure. Who does?

Whether, because it is a Crown Agent, this fail fast feature of startups can be inculcated in CI, and is publicly revealed,  will be extremely interesting.

But, at least the intention’s there!


This Statement of Intent document screams for a diagram or two.

Understanding the relationships between National Technology Networks, Innovation Agents, CI’s Research and Technology Services, Avatar, Big Projects and the rest of its fingers in many pies would be wonderful, and help form a picture of what Callaghan Innovation intends to become.

I look forward to it.