What Industry Wants

What Industry Wants

Part of a series of stories from the 2014 Public Annual Report. The following comes from the Advancement of New Zealand section. At certain times of year, usually when a grant round has been announced, academics will pick up the phone and ring people in industry to drum up support for their applications. “Industrial people get really fed up. They just get bombarded with stuff,” says Professor David Williams, Deputy Director Commercialisation and Industry Engagement at the MacDiarmid Institute. So to increase contact, awareness and attitudes towards industry, and to create a proper relationship, the MacDiarmid Institute established the Industry Advisory Group (IAG) in 2014. The group consists of six key industrialists, Michael McIlroy, Managing Director of Rakon; Lewis Gradon, Senior Vice-President Products and Technology, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare; Greg Shanahan, Managing Director, TIN100; Barbara Webster, General Manager, Business Development and Innovation, Scott Technology; Paul Adams, CEO EverEdge IP; and Simon Arnold, CEO, Arnold Consulting; plus MacDiarmid Institute Director Kate McGrath; Jeff Tallon and Williams. “To actually be able to get a couple of hours time with these people is enormously valuable,” says Williams. The idea too is to keep the group reasonably small, but working with the TIN100 is one way to generalise the discussion, he says. In the past year the IAG has had two meetings in Auckland. “They’ve been really useful,” says Williams. “There needs to be a path from basic science through into industry, and industrial problems often throw out really good basic science problems.” Some of the questions asked at the meetings have been about initiating and growing functioning relationships between industry and research, and what The MacDiarmid Institute can best offer industry. Williams says that as a national centre of research excellence, The MacDiarmid Institute can have a different type of discussion in this context. “We’re not pushing a particular barrow,” he says. “We don’t have assumptions or baggage that comes with particular labels. We’re offering very positive things.” From these discussions, specific initiatives have already resulted. For example, a programme of industry internships has been established for PhD students to take three to six months out from their studies and work in industry. “For the students, it’s almost like a three month extended job interview, and they’ve loved it. The ones who have done it have found it enormously valuable,” says Williams. “Indeed, one student got offered two jobs!” Since the vast majority of PhD students don’t go into academia, the internships allow students to realise that they have a whole set of skills that are enormously valuable to industry. Last year, five students did internships, but the next challenge will be to find more students who are amenable to the idea, because most are not. “They sort of worry about getting their PhD finished,” says Williams. Another challenge is that some institutions have regulations framed in such a way that it makes it difficult to work around things like visas and tax, although other Universities are seeing the initiative as a way to trail blaze similar programmes currently being set up. Another initiative for students is tiki tours of industry sites like Fisher & Paykel, Rakon, Adept Scientific and Aeroqual. “One of the things you notice in New Zealand, is that there’s an awful lot of really interesting industry that students don’t know about,” says Williams. The tiki tours are a way to demonstrate to students that: “industry is doing stuff and it is a significant contributor to the economy. It can grow and you can be a part of it,” says Williams. Discussions are not just centred on students though. Another idea is to develop an industry sabbatical for academics. Other jurisdictions like the UK have Royal Society Industry Research Fellowships and Williams himself received one to spend half his time in a company for three years. “They take people from industry and put them in academia, they take people from academia and put them in industry and everybody agrees that they’re enormously valuable,” says Williams. These sabbaticals give people a new perspective, access to different types of problems, as well as building relationships, which allows for technology transfer from academia into applied research. The IAG is also discussing intellectual property, particularly the cost and how to ensure adequate protection for ideas at an early stage. “It’s difficult in New Zealand, you’re a long way from major jurisdictions and patenting is actually very expensive,” says Williams. And while Universities do patent, there is a lot more research that isn’t IP protected. “How does industry know about all this stuff that’s bubbling around?,” says Williams. This is another thing the IAG is looking at. An agenda for the next IAG meeting has yet to be set, but questions will be framed around what is being done right or wrong, and what can be improved. “We’ll continue exploring ideas that we’ve already started off which will take quite a bit of work to bring to fruition,” says Williams. The group will also work on building relationships with industry. “As opposed to people just ringing out of the blue when MBIE announce a grant round,” he says. Read the full 2014 Annual Report