Accelerate - September 2014

The University of Auckland gets global high-five

open this image in new window: Accelerate Sep 14 - Auckland University

After global recognition for the outstanding results that The University of Auckland and UniServices achieve, we asked Geoff Whitcher and Andy Shenk to share their insights into the future of innovation in New Zealand.

The University of Auckland, together with its commercialisation arm, UniServices, was recently named as one of the five best emerging university-based entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released the results of a two-year study to find the world’s best university-based entrepreneurial ecosystems outside the technology-driven innovation hubs of MIT, Stanford University and the University of Cambridge.

The report, which says the University of Auckland offers an exciting blueprint for other universities operating in similar circumstances across the world, has been written to offer insights into how universities can transform their institutions toward a more entrepreneurial model, particularly in environments that may not be naturally conducive to entrepreneurship and innovation.

The combination of commercially-focused activities undertaken by UniServices in Auckland, and the community-focused and institutional activities led by the Business School, were clearly identified as the main factors driving its international recognition.

Andy Shenk, CEO of UniServices, and Geoff Whitcher, Commercial Director, Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Auckland University’s Business School, answered some questions about the challenges and opportunities that arise from combining science and entrepreneurship in New Zealand.

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What would you say is the biggest challenge for universities and research institutes in New Zealand to produce IP entrepreneurs that will grow our economy?

We can’t really speak for the whole of the sector but, from our perspective, we are confident that our University produces world-class intellectual property and world-class talent to support the growth of the New Zealand economy. We could always use more investment, more connectivity to the business community, more engagement with the market, and so forth. Our focus on educating and encouraging entrepreneurs through the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Business School, including initiatives like Spark and other initiatives in other disciplines, is front and centre for us, as is our deep and broad relationship with industry in New Zealand through Auckland UniServices.

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How do you ensure that there is a healthy balance between research and business needs?

There is a lot of emphasis these days on the commercial relevance and the impacts of R&D on our economy and our society, which has led to a lot of thinking about the “implementation” end of the innovation spectrum; things like translational research, new product development and commercialisation. While all three of these implementation activities are quite important, there is nothing to “translate” without a strong base of discovery research. The commercialisation and entrepreneurship activities at The University of Auckland Business School and at Auckland UniServices succeed because there is such a rich vein of knowledge, intellectual property and expertise for us to draw upon.

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Do you think New Zealand can become the next high-tech innovation hub? What are the biggest obstacles we have to overcome?

Our selection as a case study by MIT Skoltech shows that we have the potential to be a high-tech innovation hub, and that all the elements are coming together in an exciting way. New Zealand has the benefits of a highly inventive national culture, a high-quality university system producing bright, creative thinkers, a developing ecosystem of investors and business people who understand innovation, start-ups and growing companies. The University of Auckland gives momentum to the New Zealand innovation system. We have over 25 years of commercial research and IP development through UniServices along with more than 10 years of experience with Spark.

A wider contributing factor is the New Zealand Government’s goal to encourage and create the right environment and incentives to encourage New Zealand business sectors to double their expenditure on R&D to more than 1% of GDP. Also important is the goal of Auckland city to become an innovation hub of the Asia Pacific rim and the fact that Auckland rates highly in a number of international surveys on “quality of life” and “being a desirable city to live in” etc. This enhances the ability of New Zealand to keep and attract the types of people required to become a high-tech hub.

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The report mentions that Kiwis have a mindset that success is a “boat, a bach and a BMW” and that this easy lifestyle hampers our appetite for entrepreneurship and risk taking. Do you see that mindset still prevailing?

For some businesses and some entrepreneurs, the 3Bs are a perfectly valid target and those who have achieved personal success of that type are key contributors to our economy; we salute them. Perhaps a more important question is whether we are seeing new entrepreneurs with bigger dreams and aspirations than we might have seen in the past? The good news is the answer is a resounding YES. This is now occurring in many of our established SMEs and larger corporates and, in addition, every day we see big, new ideas being developed by new teams of people whose vision is to take their place on the world stage. As long as our entrepreneurs are prepared to pursue big dreams, then we will continue to grow a vibrant, exciting future for New Zealand.

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Business degrees

Some would say that entrepreneurship cannot be taught and the most successful businessmen were college dropouts. What value does a business degree add to prospective entrepreneurs/businesses who want to recruit entrepreneurial individuals?

It may be true that the inner drive, passion and determination of an entrepreneur cannot be taught. However, internationally the debate has moved on from the question of whether entrepreneurship can be taught to how best to teach it. It is certainly possible to add important skills and knowledge to those who are already entrepreneurial AND it is possible – some would say essential – to educate the broader business and technology communities in the benefits of innovation and entrepreneurship. Also, it is important to realise that, in addition to inspiring, educating and motivating our students to become innovative and entrepreneurial, one of the critical contributions of our Business School to the whole ecosystem lies in educating scientists, engineers and technologists in the language and principles of business so that they can succeed commercially where they have already succeeded scientifically. The whole environment is one of creatively mixing of people from many different traditions and academic disciplines and that stimulates big ideas, to everyone’s benefit.

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What areas of research and innovation that you think can impact the world as we know it should we be focusing on?

There are almost too many to list. One of the first winners of Spark became PowerbyProxi, which was built on some ground-breaking research in inductive power transfer by Professors John Boys and Grant Covic, with investment by Auckland UniServices. Given the massive and growing place that small, rechargeable digital devices have in all of our lives, PowerbyProxi’s products and those of its partners could literally be in the hands of billions of people around the world. It’s a bit hard to think of a broader impact than that.

There are many, many other examples in health, science, engineering, design – you name it. We are only really constrained by the time and energy of our inventors and by the boldness of their imaginations.

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The report also highlights the discord between UniServices’ mission of creating revenue for the University and the business community’s perception that it should grow the New Zealand ecosystem by spinning out more companies and not selling IP to foreign buyers – any comments?

At UniServices we’re quite clear about our mission and we’re not aware of any discord in the community about that. We’re happy to make our contribution where we can and to help others achieve their goals for the good of all of us. With the support of MBIE, we make our Return on Science commercialisation process available to any New Zealand organisations that wish to use it, and 14 universities and Crown research institutes, as well as two private companies have used it so far. The fact that more than 70 projects from outside The University of Auckland have been supported by this process indicates to us that we are adding value to the New Zealand ecosystem.

Updated: 4 September 2015