The Long, Winding Road that is Commercialisation
It’s long been a given that New Zealand needs to pay close attention to the commercialisation of research in order to build successful, innovative companies that can take resulting products and services to the world. However, it’s a lot easier to say that, than to do it.
Looking back over the past 10 years of MacDiarmid Institute projects, Deputy Director Commercialisation and Engagement Dr Simon Brown says that there have been some great successes. Certainly, some researchers have been involved with highly successful niche spin-offs – Magritek and Anzode come to mind – and Brown intends to see that these become the rule, rather than the exception. In the past 12 months, he’s seen better processes and more resources developed to achieve this. “We’re now investing more consistently in commercialisation,” he says.
Traditionally, academically focused research in New Zealand has tended to remain just that, academic. Occasionally, an entrepreneurially minded researcher may see the commercial potential in their line of work but, until recently, the hurdles from blackboard to prototype to final product have been too high for many to even consider heading down that route.
The commercial operations of New Zealand universities have been expensive to run, and generating a stream of projects to keep such facilities operating full-time has not been easy. A more diffuse, but intensely collaborative process – very much like the MacDiarmid Institute collaborative research model – may be the answer. It’s early days yet, but those involved are enthusiastic about the new focus.
Getting Greater Engagement
Brown’s brief is to encourage direct academic and industry engagement, building the commercialisation potential into research at a much earlier stage than has previously been common. Brown is aided in this by a range of support staff, from enthusiastic commercialisation coordinators to helpful tech transfer offices, inspiring academic mentors for students, and experienced entrepreneurial advisors in business incubators and seed investors.
Commercialisation workshops draw from the broad range of contacts and collaborations fostered by the MacDiarmid Institute. Postgrad fellowships encourage students to start thinking early on in their career about the potential for research applications.
“Getting people involved has got to be done on all levels,” says Brown. That ranges from Principal Investigators to postgraduate students, building a buzz and reducing perceived barriers. He points to the example of Silicon Valley, where one successful group would typically spin off into further successes.
That means being prepared to enable a variety of approaches in managing the tensions between the traditionally open, publication-focused academic environment and the more IP-protective commercial arena.
“There are different ways of doing these things, and licensing is an option that is often forgotten. Some technologies will be right for development in a small company, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a start-up with a major investment – there are other ways of progressing these things. Some ideas would be completely stifled in an incubator environment; others would thrive. “One of the things we have to do is to be flexible, to try to pick the right approach for each new technology, and to keep a close eye on what things are and aren’t working.”
The new focus is already producing results. Of around ten research projects being vetted for commercial potential, Brown says three to fourare progressing on to PSAF applications.
The programme has had a good start and there are plenty more projects in the pipeline. All of MacDiarmid Institute’s partner institutions have scoping projects on the way. As the new generation of switched-on students comes through, that is likely to become a standard feature of research projects.
Brown acknowledges many MacDiarmid Institute projects are at a very early-stage commercially , so an early assessment for commercial potential and, in particular, identifying a market for any likely resulting products or services, is vital. In the past, this has been something of a random walk, with initial investment focusing on the research and likely applications coming late to the party.
“Previously there hasn’t been sufficient clarity in identifying what market there could be. People often have had some ideas of what the final product might be, but when there’s a lot of technical uncertainty, it’s difficult to nail down the final prospect. The further down the track, the easier it is to be certain but by getting a better idea of the potential at early stages we think we can gently push projects in the right directions.”
Brown notes that even with the best possible support many projects will not be commercially successful. He’s conscious that the New Zealand environment needs to get past its intolerance for failure. He’s also keen to see a broader awareness of alternative routes to success, citing the value of having sustainability assessments alongside commercial assessments.
“There’s a real role for innovation in driving sustainability as well. It becomes clear that if you can build sustainability into your business strategy, it does give you a commercial advantage.”
Brown expects to introduce the first scoping projects along these lines later this year, and believes the MacDiarmid Institute now has firmer foundations on which to build such an aspiration.
Collaborations Breed Success
Broader connections throughout the scientific and business worlds have smoothed the MacDiarmid Institute’s path to commercial success. The traditional links with the country’s universities and Crown Research Institutes have been boosted by greater collaboration with regional incubators and recruitment of researchers with commercialisation experience.
“There’s a genuine understanding…among the researchers that there’s a lot of benefit in collaboration.”
Sharing equipment, cross-working theoretical and experimental research, and exchanging ideas over a cup of coffee all help to build ties and reduce some of the uncertainties that can arise from questions of intellectual property restrictions and commercial sensitivities. Brown notes that the MacDiarmid Institute’s natural process of working is in collaborative mode, and that this has helped in establishing links with the likes of the tech transfer offices. “Fundamentally everyone wants the same thing – to boost the economy to make more use of science and technology to drive growth.”