Accelerate - November 2013

Kiwi innovation gains momentum

There’s a real sense of momentum behind innovation in New Zealand, according to UniServices Chief Executive Dr Andy Shenk. The ex-pat American has been an academic, venture capitalist and commercial scientist in former lives and, as head of The University of Auckland’s $130 million per year ‘innovation broker’ business, is well-placed to comment on the Kiwi scene.

“You’re seeing and hearing about successes every day – companies doing well, individuals doing great things,” says Shenk.

“That building of momentum changes attitudes and encourages new entrants among many who haven’t necessarily thought of themselves as innovators before. They understand what innovation’s about and what they can do. This multiplying effect is an example to others.”

One wish he has is that more effort is put into science and tech-type people becoming more business savvy, and the other way round.

“We need to add commercial perspectives to knowledge, so academics have a greater understanding of the wider world,” says Shenk.

“There’s also the need for commercial people to have more insight into science and engineering.”

Comprehensive expertise, together with knowledge that crosses boundaries, adds a great deal of value to innovating companies at all levels, from the entrepreneur, scientist, and inventor to the investor, he says.

“Waving a magic wand, the other thing we need is more capital – of the right kind,” Shenk says. “There is money available in New Zealand, but we also want it to come with advice, connections, new ideas. It is that added value, additional to the dollars, that’s really important.”

More openness to the commercialisation of IP will also add to a Kiwi culture of inventiveness, he says.

“A lot of Kiwis say we’re inventive, and are proud of it,” Shenk says. “But when someone’s spectacularly successful, culturally at the moment we’re a bit ambivalent. We cut them down instead of going wow, how great it is that they were so inventive.”

Equally, we need to develop a more sophisticated view of failure, he says. “If you fail for the right reasons, there should be no stigma. If you’ve found out what doesn’t work, that’s great. If we learn something collectively, we’re all better for them having tried, and failed, for the right reasons. It demonstrates a person you can back.”

New Zealand also has plenty of ways it can improve as a nation – particularly around the sophistication and market readiness of a so-called innovation and being aware of international competition from day one.

Shenk is sometimes surprised that entrepreneurs are unaware of, or haven’t scoped, the competition for their product or service.

“Too often I hear and see innovators saying what can be achieved, without any explanation of whether it should be,” he says.

It’s far better to explain what the real need is for a particular innovation – in other words, tell me why I should believe in the commercial future of this idea.

Updated: 7 September 2015