A Culture of Commercialisation

In general, I see my role as being to facilitate commercialization activity in the Institute, and to build a culture of commercialisation.  I’m not going to be doing the commercialisation in the sense of starting companies and writing business plans but, hopefully, I can help put structures and networks in place to support people who want to do these things.

There is a huge amount of commercialisation experience in the Institute already; Principal Investigators like David Williams and Simon Hall, and Board Members like Bob Buckley, know much more than I do. And we are already heavily involved in commercialisation; Simon Hall (Anzode) and Richard Tilley (Boutiq) are in the process of spinning out new companies right now. Geoff Willmott works closely with Izon and there are many other great stories within the Institute. But I’d like to see even more success stories and make sure that these stories are told well.

No one can do or know everything, but one of our strengths is that we are a Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), which to me means that we are more than the sum of our parts.  I’d like to see those parts engaging even more effectively and productively, and to try to be the oil that smooths and facilitates interactions. I’d like to make sure we have programs that ensure that new students hear our success stories, meet the people who were involved, see the excitement that can be generated, and are enthused and motivated to give it a go themselves.

Entrepreneurship is a lot about being prepared to take risks; not crazy, jumping off tall building risks, but calculated, well thought out, abseiling-type risks.  And of course abseiling isn’t really that risky; there’s a strong school of thought that successful entrepreneurs are very good at assessing and ameliorating risk. What we want as an Institute is to foster this kind of risk taking as much as possible, and to provide the ropes and harnesses and support crew where we can.

Does this mean everyone in the Institute should be an entrepreneur? Of course not. We are a Centre of Research Excellence, not a development company or an engineering workshop, and many members of the Institute may never be interested in starting their own company, or even in just filing a patent. But a culture of commercialisation means that there is a buzz around the Institute, a sense that commercialization is valuable and worthwhile, and that there is support available to foster the ideas that do come up, and to ease past some of the barriers that people often encounter in the early stages of thinking about a commercialisation project.  It would also mean that some of those people who think that they aren’t interested in commercialisation start to get interested.

The Institute is running a commercialisation workshop (working with MacDiarmid Emerging Scientists Association and Juliet Gerrard’s Biomolecular Interactions Centre (BIC)) that will allow participants to hear from, and meet, successful entrepreneurs; surveys of Principal Investigators and graduate students to find out what raw material we have to work with right now and a series of meetings with those who are interested in commercialisation to find out what they need most.  I think there might be opportunities to leverage IP generated by Institute researchers. I’m pretty sure it would also be useful toset up links with people who can do market research and write business plans, to test whether new ideas are viable or not, and to support new entrepreneurs who haven’t done this before.  But over the next few months the main project is really just to listen and find out what ideas other people have.

Some people may question the Institute getting involved in commercialisation.  I think there are many answers to that question, but I’ll focus on just three.

Firstly, anyone who has heard Paul Callaghan speak has heard the argument that New Zealand desperately needs new companies and new commercial ideas to build a new sector of the economy that generates new wealth and jobs.  As Paul has argued, this is essential if New Zealand is to close the economic gap (is it already a chasm?) with Australia, and to maintain a tax base that will allow us to keep paying for the things that make us a developed country: things like superannuation, social welfare, education and health care.

The second is that we are a Centre of Research Excellence, and that means continuously striving to be as good as we possibly can be.  Excellent science is a given; a CoRE needs to do much more than excellent science.  While the Institute already does a lot more – public talks, the nanocamp, outreach to schools, spin-off companies, etc. – I believe excellence means seeking out even more opportunities to contribute to the economy.

Finally, the Government has signalled very strongly that it wants to see commercial outcomes from its investment in R&D.  As an Institute, we would take a great risk in ignoring these signals, and in fact there is much to gain in terms of potential for new research contracts, collaborations, and the kudos that our successful ventures attract.

Some other people – who have heard me arguing that some nanotech products should not be on our shelves (let alone on our skin) – will be wondering whether I’m schizophrenic.  I’m not! I just believe that we (as a society) need to make intelligent choices – to at least try to balance benefits (often interpreted narrowly as economic ones) and downsides (often interpreted equally narrowly as environmental ones).

I don’t think we should commercialise every idea, I don’t think every new technology or product is good. Equally, I don’t believe that all new technologies are going to lead to the end of life on Earth. That said, anyone who needs convincing that the current globalised economy leads to insanely unsustainable activities could do worse than spend an afternoon reading Juliet Schor’s Plenitude.

Put simply, I think we need commercialisation and sustainability; I think we need to take an ethical approach. I have some ideas about how the Institute can build these ideas into its culture more strongly too, but that is another topic, for another time.