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Posted: 19 September 2017
Could a digital revolution break down barriers to medical innovation?

GapSummit is Global Biotech Revolution’s (GBR) international and intergenerational leadership summit in biotechnology. Callaghan Innovation’s Max Thompson attended as one of 100 young leaders of tomorrow selected from 40+ countries to engage with more than 30 international speakers and leaders in the life sciences industry on the most pressing challenges and gaps in the bioeconomy. 

Part two of his blog series explores how technologies and regulators are working together to bring biotech solutions to market.

Leveraging digital platforms emerged as a key solution for addressing many of the issues of rising costs, access to patients, real-time monitoring, and dealing with ridiculously large datasets.

Precision Medicine and Diagnostics

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. 

Dr Vik Bajaj, GRAIL

Precision medicine has been a hot topic for some time. Now digital and medical technology advances, massive investment by the big players (Amazon, Google, etc), and a willingness to trust these solutions by both regulators and patients, mean very exciting advances.

Dr Vik Bajaj’s keynote address outlined future perspectives on cancer immunotherapy, analysing entire genomes to diagnose early and predict effective treatments. Noting that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” he reinforced the need to plan and maintain rigorous scientific evidence and clinical validation to maintain trust in new approaches that claim to "detect cancer early, when it can be cured." 

Dr Bajaj emphasised the future needs related to personalised medicine: powerful tech platforms, large clinical trials capacity, and rigorous data science. 

The panel discussion which followed canvassed the next steps in the evolution of genomic medicine - next generation sequencing, autologous cell and gene therapy and much more. 

Key questions included how to prove and interpret genomic information at provider level, how to enforce regulation for products made from autologous patient tissue when the protocols for ‘living drugs’ are being written in real-time, and price. 

It became very apparent that personalised healthcare not only redefines the way we treat patients, but fundamentally disrupts how we develop, regulate, and deliver medicine. Within this there is plenty of opportunity for startups. The key message for those venturing in to this space? Make sure your evidence supports the claims you are making, or risk losing trust. 

Science Policy and Regulation

Maybe we aren’t as regulated as we pretend to be.

Dr Bahija Jallal, Head of MedImmune

Are regulators actually working with us to enable biotech?

Regulators have had to consistently adapt current regulatory models to accommodate breakthroughs such as personalised medicine, digital health, and gene therapies. 

Speeding the journey for innovations to go from ‘bench to bedside’ through reducing regulatory hurdles and improving the regulatory regime were a hot discussion topic. The advice? It’s important to act early and engage directly with regulators to limit surprises. MedImmune chief Dr Bahija Jallal challenged the dogma of the regulations hurdle, however, saying  “maybe we aren’t as regulated as we pretend to be.”

For New Zealand biotech startups – don’t let the regulatory environment scare you away. The FDA and other regulators are more flexible than many believe, and continue to demonstrate this. You need to think about your regulatory strategy early and approach the appropriate agencies to get feedback and guidance as you develop it.

Of course, with the conference being hosted Washington DC, there was plenty of discussion around the political landscape and how changes there might affect science policy.

Some New Zealand technology companies also made an unsolicited appearance at this conference – both LanzaTech and Adherium were namechecked by various speakers – demonstrating the world class research and commercialisation capability we have here. What will the next New Zealand technology successes be?

The Technology Gap Keynotes 

This is a time for a digital revolution in healthcare through cognitive computing that understands, reasons, learns and interacts.

Dr Philip Nelson, Google Accelerated Sciences

This session examined the process of innovation and the partnerships necessary to launch successful products. GapSummit 2017 Leaders of Tomorrow had an opportunity to engage with different players in the field including tech startups, accelerators and incubators, VCs and pharmaceutical partners. 

The speakers were optimistic about the gathering momentum towards a digital health future, and soaring investment in digital health care. 

The technology keynote addresses were presented by Dr Philip Nelson, Director of Engineering, Google Accelerated Sciences and Michael S. Weiner, Chief Medical Information Officer, IBM Healthcare. Both highlighted the vast amounts of data being generated by high tech devices, and the challenge of how to apply this information to improve healthcare. “This is a time for a digital revolution in healthcare through cognitive computing that understands, reasons, learns and interacts," Dr Nelson said.

He noted, however, that “it’s very easy to do machine learning wrong. Doing the right experiments is critical...machines fail in unusual ways – but there is a lack of understanding about what the failure modes are, and how to update the models. Ultimately [machine learning] is the detection and understanding of deep correlation structures. The challenge can be finding out exactly what that correlation is.”

He also pointed to acceptance issues. “With a magic black box, it’s a little disturbing.” 

Michael Weiner summarised a healthcare system accounting for 20 percent of world GDP, yet lacking providers and funding for challenges including ageing populations. 

So how do we take technology and improve healthcare across the globe?

Plugging in new technology to old healthcare business models has increased costs, not reduced them. Quality of care remains poor despite best efforts and intentions, and diagnosis and treatment rates are low. Between clinical, genomic, and exogenous data, there is also data overload. On top of this scientific publications keep coming at a rate which makes staying up-to-date nearly impossible. 

The future of health and biotech is intertwined with digital technologies that will help address these issues. Successfully integrating them will require collaboration at all levels of the value chain. Ultimately, we will require a new paradigm with new models of care that optimise new technologies to deliver better patient care and better population health at a lower per capita cost.

It's a great opportunity for New Zealand, with our scientific and digital capability. 

I left GAPSummit ‘17 absolutely inspired by the connections I made with people from many countries, all working towards making the world a healthier, safer, and more sustainable place in their lifetimes. 

Let’s change the world through biotech!


GAPSummit 2018 is currently searching for 100 Leaders of Tomorrow to be hosted at University of Cambridge, UK, in April next year. Individuals with a passion for biotechnology and who are on their way towards impactful careers and would like to attend may find more information here.

Max Thompson is Callaghan Innovation’s Strategic Partnerships Advisor, Startup Team. Contact Max on Twitter @maxdougal

Read Part 1 of this blog series: Leading tomorrow's bioeconomy

Posted: 13 September 2017
What are the most pressing challenges and gaps in the bioeconomy? Callaghan Innovation’s Max Thompson found out when he attended GapSummit as one of 100 young leaders of tomorrow

GapSummit is Global Biotech Revolution’s (GBR) international and intergenerational leadership summit in biotechnology. Callaghan Innovation’s Max Thompson attended as one of 100 young leaders of tomorrow selected from 40+ countries to engage with more than 30 international speakers and leaders in the life sciences industry on the most pressing challenges and gaps in the bioeconomy. 

Part one of his two-part blog series will explore the capability challenges facing biotech today.

Biotechnology is one of the game-changing technology platforms that will be central to addressing many of the world’s current and future problems – in health, medicine, agriculture and environment. Already biomedical advances are responsible for half of all economic growth since 1960, and will continue to be a driving force in global economic growth. In New Zealand, Biotechnology (alongside Digital) is the largest grouping in the next wave of high-technology startup companies emerging from Callaghan Innovation’s technology incubator programme. (See Kimberlee Jordan’s recent blog series for more).

GapSummit 2017, hosted over three days at the historic Georgetown University in the McDonough School of Business in Washington DC, was about identifying some of the challenges to global competitiveness. 

It was an extremely well-organised conference, offering an incredible experience for all who attended and highlighting the number of players – researchers, large and small companies, regulators, thought leaders, institutions – whose co-operation is critical to biotech success.

GAP: Beyond Education: Success in the 21st century Life Science Industry

On top of technical chops in a rapidly shifting scientific landscape, a remarkable set of transferrable skills and experiences are required for success in today’s bioeconomy.

Commercialisation of lifescience technologies faces a complex set of challenges which are unique to this industry, including long development time-frames, significant regulatory challenges and incredible cash burn rates. This means both that business education is critical for people starting careers in the lifescience industry, and that the business and legal sectors must recognise the unique challenges. It’s critical that we expose business and law students to the distinct challenges in the life sciences (and vice-versa), to develop realistic expectations for ground-breaking discoveries, to recognise the hurdles of existing healthcare systems and the limits and assumptions embedded within cutting-edge technologies.  

One thing that struck me was an extremely high prevalence of entrepreneurship among attendees –  led by those from the East Coast USA. Nearly everyone I met was starting or involved with a biotech startup! 

Think Big Be Brave Deliver

This level of entrepreneurship in life sciences was bolstered by the support that Universities and Institutes in this region have managed to deliver – growing a vibrant deep-tech startup environment for long-time-to-market innovation. They have achieved this by valuing and encouraging entrepreneurship and exploration as part of the curriculum in scientific and technical pathways. It was awesome to see the impact and momentum created when real fluency in multi-disciplinary thinking is combined with institutional support for risk taking.

The New Zealand startup environment has come a long way over the last decade to understand near-to-market innovation very well. The next step to maturity will be greater comfort with high impact, and long-to-market technology companies. What’s great is that we are seeing the beginnings of this activity in New Zealand.

The next GAP I attended explored an emerging organisation-level capability failure and illustrated that, particularly in the pharma industry, the traditional R&D model is completely unsustainable. The number of new approvals is low, failure at clinical stage trial is all too common, R&D spend is high, and time to market is prolonged (30 years is not uncommon). 

GAP: Research and Innovation

The pharmaceutical R&D model is broken, with an exponentially increasing R&D spend resulting in a flat-line rate of innovation. 

There is a disconnect of R&D spend to commercial output in pharma, coupled to increasing complexity of stakeholders and diseases – we need a new collaborative model to see accelerated therapeutic development.

Anthony Coyle, Senior Vice President / Chief Scientific Officer, Centres for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI)

Anthony Coyle, Senior Vice President / Chief Scientific Officer, Centres for Therapeutic Innovation delivered a strong indictment. “There is a disconnect of R&D spend to commercial output in pharma, coupled with increasing complexity of stakeholders and diseases – we need a new collaborative model to see accelerated therapeutic development.” 

The focus has to shift to innovation and how R&D dollars are deployed in a collaborative and strategic way, rather than how much money is tipped into the R&D pit.

An effective innovation strategy harnessing the best of the collaboration between Industry, academia, and research institutions is key – we need to build a sustainable ecosystem leveraging collaboration to fulfil the current needs of patients.

There are some really interesting tech solutions coming through that will help – my favourite was the ‘body on a chip’ approach. This uses breakthroughs in cell culture to allow testing on human cells in early clinical trials (Phase 1/Phase 2) that will better reflect how a small molecule or biologic will respond in a human context.

Body on a chip

But first we can take some simple behavioural learnings from the experiences of big pharma. These include ensuring that pre-clinical teams are speaking to clinical teams (i.e. removing silos), and changing the incentive structure to encourage sharing failures rather than allowing them to be repeated multiple times by separate groups. (This is in both academic and industry contexts.)

Biotech is yet to be disrupted in the way many other industries have been, and it takes too long to get a medicine to market. In her inspiring keynote address, Dr Bahija Jallal (Head of MedImmune) challenged us to think about how we ethically iterate in biomedicine to maintain robust scientific and clinical evidence, ensure safety, and do it all much faster! She says the first step is “to allow experimentation and out of the box thinking, encourage disruption, measured risk, and behaviours that don’t squash innovation.”

“We need to allow experimentation and out of the box thinking, encourage disruption, measured risk, and behaviours that don’t squash innovation.” 

Dr Bahija Jallal, Head of MedImmune

To meet this capability challenge, leaders need to embrace diversity of thought and collaboration and respond to failure to encourage learning behaviour.

Thanks for reading! Part two of this series will explore how technologies and regulators are working together to bring biotech solutions to market.

Let’s change the world through Biotech!

GapSummit group

GAPSummit 2018 is currently searching for 100 Leaders of Tomorrow to be hosted at University of Cambridge, UK, in April next year. Individuals with a passion for biotechnology and who are on their way towards impactful careers and would like to attend may find more information here.

Max Thompson is Callaghan Innovation’s Strategic Partnerships Advisor, Startup Team. Contact Max on Twitter @maxdougal

Read Part 2 of this blog series: Bringing biotech solutions to market

Posted: 06 September 2017
News, events and announcements from New Zealand's startup sector

Welcome to the next instalment of the Startup Team's newsletter. As usual, it’s been non-stop activity, launches, and energy – including for us a whole host of ‘new’ and ‘firsts’, not least of which was our marketing campaign (more below) following the announcement of our new partners.

We are extremely proud to be working with our partners for incubator and accelerator services to July 2019. In case you missed it, the press release is here and you can find out more about our partners here.

The procurement process brought out the best in everyone, with creative new approaches seen across the board. We are excited to be working with partners old and new, and looking forward to collaborating with others in the ecosystem.

There has been plenty going on out there, so...

Here is the Startup Team’s newsletter of updates, recent events and upcoming activities to keep you sprightly!

Take a moment, grab a cuppa and enjoy :)

-The Callaghan Innovation Startup Team
 

Startup Marketing Campaign

Alongside the procurement, we recently launched a digital marketing campaign promoted across Facebook, LinkedIn, Google and other programmatic channels. We also have a print ad in the latest Idealog!

With a goal of generating awareness of Callaghan Innovation’s startup services, we generated over 3 million impressions, and received 31 new leads that have been directly referred to the ecosystem.

A number of (applicants to our programme) remarked that they'd seen your adverts on social media for accelerators and incubators, and from there have applied to our programme.  Really pleased to see Callaghan Innovation taking such a positive step to promote the industry, and help more ventures find support across the ecosystem in programmes like ours.

This was a first for us, and we have taken a ton of learnings from the experience. Thanks to all of our partners who helped make this possible.
 

FLUX Demo Day

Fantastic outcomes following Flux Demo day on 29 June 2017

FLUX and The IceAngels were thrilled to host nearly 500 guests for their largest event to date, held at the MOTAT Aviation Hall, in Auckland. It was a spectacular evening, with each of the 11 FLUX and guest companies presenting extremely professional and well-prepared pitches.

All 11 startups attracted the interest they were seeking and are well positioned to attract the support they need: Genoapay, Mastaplex, Tectonus, and Osnova are closing in on their funding targets, or are nearly oversubscribed; Regen, Melodics, Lifeonics, VidApp, Blinder, Lumaten, and Armadillo have all generated good interest and are undergoing due diligence and securing further commitments. Read about Genoapay attracting a record accelerator investment here.

It’s great to see so many innovative startups are already actively managed Callaghan Innovation customers. With some seriously impressive startups coming through FLUX, the startup team is excited to be able to give these companies access to our staff and services – a unique and unfair advantage for competing on the world stage.
 

Lightning Lab Electric

If you plant a light bulb in your garden, does it grow into a power plant?

Lightning Lab Electric (LLE) has spent the last three months finding solutions to some important challenges facing the electricity sector.

Callaghan Innovation has powered Lightning Lab Electric with CreativeHQ because of the need for a sector specific accelerator programme addressing real and perceived issues relating to incumbency of market participants, complexity of regulations, access to data particularly end customer, uptake of new hardware (e.g. solar photovoltaic, energy storage and electric vehicles) and the significance of decisions to invest in new assets against a background of rapidly changing technology and consumer preferences.

James Muir, Callaghan Innovation Business Innovation Advisor - Energy and Environment

For some more on the journey the teams have been on, check out the LLE Blog .

We are charged up for Demo Day on Thursday 7 September, where the four teams will present. There will then be a series of breakout groups to discuss priority themes in the industry.

Callaghan Innovation will continue to liberate innovators in and around the energy sector. In addition to working with individual businesses, we will establish the Digital Energy Hub, a light touch initiative to encourage early adoption and commercialisation by the energy sector of the next wave of digital technologies which present a challenge and opportunity for many businesses in the energy sector – from start up to established – and for those in adjacent sectors such as Information Technology, transport and industry.  James Muir, Callaghan Innovation's Business Innovation Advisor for Energy and Environment, will provide a full blog soon on the outcomes – we are looking forward to it!
 

Vodafone XONE 2017 Launch

Congrats to the successful companies welcomed to the next Vodafone XONE

The ten companies in Vodafone xone are: Wine Grenade; Hectre; Thematic; 1Centre; EVNEX; Sonnar; Interactive; Emblim; Vensa Health; Tectonus and Parkable. Read more here!
 

Mahuki GLAM!

Mahuki is well under way with its current cohort of teams providing technology solutions to the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, museums).

The awesome teams are here.

Mahuki supports each team through:

  • financial support of $20,000 (in exchange for equity)
  • access to Te Papa's experts, collections and visitors
  • knowledge and understanding to better deliver to the cultural sector in NZ and globally
  • visits from international experts who are leaders in digital integration and innovation in the cultural/entertainment sector
  • the opportunity to visit global cultural leaders and meet international experts in the field.

All the best to everyone involved!
 

Zeropoint Ventures Launch #thenewway

Photocredit: bizEDGE
Photocredit: bizEDGE

Another new addition to the whānau, Zeropoint Ventures launched with two events in Auckland on 17 August and Wellington on 21 August.

With a virtual incubator and accelerator model, Zeropoint Ventures will provide coaching and funding for early-stage ventures to go from idea to their first $1million dollars in revenue.  There is a clear focus on revenue-first startups pushing for profitability and sustainability rather than investment as their first meaningful milestone.

The launch also announced a goal to co-create a new partnership model bringing innovators from New Zealand’s startup ecosystem and corporate representatives from across the country to a two-day retreat. This was the first steps to begin building the playbook for smarter, venture-led corporate innovation in New Zealand that leverages the local startup ecosystem. We are looking forward to the outcomes!

Zeropoint will take multiple cohorts throughout the year, with the first ventures starting soon!
 

@Kōkiribiz

Kōkiri, the Māori accelerator programme led by Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, launched at Matariki Xponential

Attempting to address the underrepresentation of Māori in tradition accelerator programmes, Kōkiri will inspire and grow Māori founders across the country through a tikanga-first design of the programme.

We are extremely pleased with the progress made toward finalising the business plan and delivery model, and look forward to the programme launch later this year!

Expressions of interest open this month www.kokiri.biz

Follow the team on Facebook and Instagram
 

GetFunded! Workshops

Preparing researchers from CRIs and Universities in communicating the impact of science ideas for investment – be that to Industry or MBIE – KiwiNet has just wrapped up the GetFunded! Series in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.

Partnered with CreativeHQ, GetFunded! provided mentorship, comradeship, market validation and opportunity assessment tools to allows for deeper insights when marshalling an idea into shape.

It was great to see so many researchers volunteering their real-world projects to be worked on, validated, and developed during the Startup Weekend style events.

Congratulations to all the participants, and we hope to see some of these teams carry the idea through to new ventures!

ecentre Sprint Launch!

Teams from the inaugural Sprint Launch cohort presented at EY Britomart on Thursday 31 August to an audience of investors and mentors, to get free and frank feedback. (Press release here.)

Sprint Launch is an intensive 12 week programme run by ecentre that takes startups from prototype to first customers by opening doors to mentorship, business development and capital.

The six startups in this Sprint were all B2B with a ready prototype preparing to take the businesses on the next phase of growth.  They are: The Curiat, Mimocare, Micromanager, Element, RoleQ, and HR Health and Safety.

Well done to all who pitched and put themselves on show to get real feedback - champions!

Upcoming Events

  • 7 September 2017 Lightning Lab Electric Demo Day
  • 8 September 2017 Innovate 2017 | Entries Close
  • 21 September 2017 Angel Investment Showcase, Auckland
  • September 2017 Kōkiri expressions of interest open
  • September 2017 The Cutting Edge Competition Entries Open
  • 2 October 2017 FLUX Accelerator 2018 APPLICATIONS OPEN
  • 2 October 2017 Kōkiri Accelerator 2018 APPLICATIONS OPEN
  • 9 November 2017 ASB Ambition Showcase “Ambitious entrepreneurs share their stories of building a fast-growing business through SODA’s incubation process.”
  • 25 November 2017 FLUX Accelerator 2018 APPLICATIONS CLOSE

Is your startup related event missing from the list? Email Startup Team to get it added in the next issue.

Posted: 01 September 2017
The third in a blog post series by National Technology Networks Manager Kimberlee Jordan, following her recent Biotech trip to the United States

I don’t think there was a single session I attended at BIO 2017 that didn’t mention Big Data. One fact that has stuck with me is that Craig Venter (who led the privately-funded version of the Human Genome Project and now leads the Human Longevity Project) is in the top one percent of users of Amazon servers – putting him up there with Netflix and Zynga. That is a LOT of data!!

The rate at which DNA sequencing technologies are increasing their data output is faster than the rate at which computation power is growing, which means that our ability to generate this type of data has outstripped our ability to store and analyse it.

Venter’s Human Longevity Project has sequenced over 45,000 genomes since they kicked off, and one of their rate limiting factors is computer storage and CPU usage. This costs them about $1 million a month.

In a beautiful piece of circularity, Microsoft announced earlier in 2017 that within the next year or two they plan to be able to store data on strands of DNA and expect to have an operational storage system up and running by 2020. This will be achieved through DNA synthesis and in fact is already possible as illustrated over five years ago when a Harvard geneticist encoded one of his text books on strands of DNA.  Currently it’s just a bit slow and expensive to be practical.

So, what can we do with all this data? One of the most fascinating talks I heard at BIO 2017 was given by Atul Butte – the Pricilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg Distinguished Professor at the University of California, San Francisco (along with a long list of other impressive appointments). He is a champion for the use of public data to promote science (he was recognised by former US president Barack Obama for this commitment), and his passion is obviously infectious. More than half of his students go on to create startups in this space, even those who go into academia.  My hands down favourite quote of the conference was his comment that “If we want to change the world, we can’t sit around writing papers about it.”

Atul shared a long list of startups born to create value and improve health outcomes using big public data. He started with Carmenta Bioscience, which he co-founded in 2013 with seed investment of US$2 million. Using data mining techniques and publicly-available data from women who had suffered preeclampsia to identify biomarkers associated with this life-threatening condition, Carmenta developed an extremely accurate diagnostic for preeclampsia and in less than two years sold for an undisclosed amount to Progenity. This is how you make money from science! And the best thing is, as Atule pointed out, data is totally reusable – it’s not like oil or water.

Unlike IT startups, one does not typically think of drug discovery companies starting up in garages or mothers’ basements. But NuMedii could have done exactly that. They are a four-person company using computational prediction and big public datasets to try and work out which currently-available drugs can be used to treat other diseases. And they aren’t the only ones doing this: 9 Computational Drug Discovery Startups Using AI.

Atule emphasised the importance of tools which can analyse and manage this data. Machine learning – a subset of artificial intelligence (AI) in particular has some interesting applications. It is great for non-linear things, like pictures and pattern recognition, which means it can be used on medical data like X-rays. For a great infographic on AI see the image below, or view the full PDF online.

Artificial Intelligence infographic

Interestingly, at a recent AI meet-up in Auckland, a surgeon from Auckland Hospital noted that he spends a lot of time looking at x-rays as part of the triage process – he was keen to know if this is something that could be done by AI. The first question the crowd asked is “how much data do you have?” i.e. how many x-rays. “Heaps!” was the response…and spontaneously individuals in the room with the right expertise started mapping out potential solutions to this problem. I can’t help but wonder what goldmines of data might be lying around in our district health boards?

The convergence of AI and biotechnology offers an exciting opportunity for New Zealand – we have a wealth of the life science expertise which is essential for these types of companies, an increasing number of data scientists, and investors who love IT startups. This could be a match made in heaven.

At the end of the day, we have the data, we have the tools, in some ways the hardest part is still figuring out what question you want to ask - what is the unmet need? The answer to this question is where the opportunity lies. 

Contact Kimberlee Jordan on Twitter @kimberlee_j

Callaghan Innovation is a New Zealand government innovation agency that works with Kiwi companies to accelerate commercialisation of their new technology ideas. Our National Technology Networks team supports businesses via our four technology platforms – Advanced Manufacturing, Advanced Materials, Biotechnology and Data & IoT, with the aim of helping companies rapidly connect to new and advanced technologies. 

Posted: 30 August 2017
Sinead O’ Sullivan, aerospace engineer, entrepreneur and innovator reflects on her recent visit to New Zealand

Sinead O’ Sullivan is an aerospace engineer, entrepreneur and innovator, with experience in fields as diverse as machine learning, asteroid capture and underwater robotics. As an Entrepreneurship Fellow at the Harvard Business School, she’s been examining the landscape facing start-ups in the space sector, and the changing nature of open data.

Sinead is CEO of Fusion Space Technologies, where she leads a team of engineers who are integrating data from satellites and drones, and applying them to solve global problems. She’s an ardent proponent for innovation, and has been interested in New Zealand’s growing tech sector for several years. When she was offered the opportunity to visit New Zealand she leapt at the chance. We caught up with her towards the end of her trip, to find out if the land of the long white cloud lived up to her expectations.

Sinead, can you tell us a bit about your background?

Sure. I did my undergrad in aerospace engineering at Queens University Belfast before working in finance for two years. While I really enjoyed the technical challenges of the analysis, it wasn't hands-on enough for me, so I went back to engineering. I attended the International Space University for three months, which kind of dropped me into the middle of the space industry, and I worked on projects with the European and Brazilian space agencies.

After that, I went to the Aerospace Systems Design Lab at Georgia Tech. They deal with next generation tech – anything from supersonic aircraft to swarm drones – and I got to work on a huge range of projects. I worked on two fairly well-known NASA missions and did a project with the Federal Aviation Administration on drone regulatory issues.

Sinead O’Sullivan
Sinead O’Sullivan

I joined the Harvard Business School to do my MBA and now I'm looking at various routes to commercialisation of space technology. Most large, private companies in the US aerospace sector experience very slow innovation because a lot of their contracts are government-facing. So, among other things, I’m exploring how these companies can keep their competitive advantage over other countries who are innovating very quickly such as Russia, China, and India.

Last year, I founded a company called Fusion Space Technologies, which is still kind of operating in stealth mode. Our work is based on two hypotheses:

1. Satellite data is quickly becoming irrelevant for developing an understanding of microeconomic events, because it can only offer a snapshot.

2. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), we’re producing lots of hardware that collects data in a specific format, which then doesn’t align with any other format.

We’re attempting to aggregate data – open data, for now – into a universal platform in which it can speak to each other. And we’re using that to create live, visual and non-visual maps of urban areas.

What brought you to New Zealand?

It was all a bit serendipitous. A few months ago, I was having a chat with New Zealand tech entrepreneur Blyth Rees-Jones in New York who has multiple connections to New Zealand. He asked if I’d be interested in working with Groundswell to deliver a talk via weblink at their Innovation Awards. But New Zealand has long been on my travel wish list – like most Irish people. I have a lot of Kiwi friends and my sister lived here for several years so I thought, “how about I deliver it in person?”

It snowballed from there. Callaghan Innovation very kindly stepped in to organise and fund what’s turned into a two-week innovation tour around the country! It’s been busy, but I’m feeling incredibly inspired, and I can’t wait to formalise some of the links I’ve made here.

What did you expect to find before you arrived?

I had a sense that I’d find a lot of fun, creative, liberal people who were full of energy and good ideas. I’d looked into the tech scene here a bit, but I knew I’d find a lot more once I’d scratched the surface. I haven’t been disappointed on either front! I’ve met some incredibly friendly, smart and easy-going people who are creating truly innovative companies, while helping to drive growth in New Zealand.

The whole trip was a great introduction to the country’s innovation landscape; to see how it scales from small groups up to international organisations, and what that means for the challenges they face. It’s impossible for me to pick a single highlight. I loved the NASA Mission Patch workshop that we ran with the Groundswell YiA finalists and meeting the Machine Learning/AI communities across the North Island was very special. My visit to the AR/VR Garage in Auckland was mind-blowing!

How does what you’ve seen here compare to your experience in the US and Europe?

There are loads of tech innovators here, and the work they’re doing is great, but one thing I’d say is that the tech industry seems to be fairly siloed. So, while I saw a lot of innovation in the Bay of Plenty and across greater New Zealand, some of it was hidden beneath the surface and not very obvious. Also, it seems that people don't really talk about what they're doing, or advertise when they’re doing well. It’s a bit like Ireland, actually – people really don't want to be seen to be blowing their own trumpet. That approach just doesn’t work in the US!

With organisations like Rocket Lab, you’ve got New Zealand innovators making huge strides on a global stage. For the first time since SpaceX was born, Elon Musk is probably wondering if he's got a competitor, and it turns it’s an engineer from Invercargill! But there are loads of other very cool things happening here that even people in the local area have never heard of. So there’s a discrepancy between the work being done and the stories being told.

But there’s no doubt that future of New Zealand tech is bright. I’ve loved being here, giving talks to the public, meeting business owners – especially Māori entrepreneurs, university students, and the team at Callaghan Innovation and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, who have the desire and drive to push into other industries.

What’s next?

Well, the first thing I’m going to do once I get back to Harvard is start working on a paper that discusses New Zealand innovation. And I'm going to try to publish it in a media outlet with a readership in Silicon Valley, because I want it to reach the right audience. The tech start-up ecosystem here is good and growing, but from what I’ve seen, most of the support focuses on people who start companies. There are also lots of people who want to join high-tech companies, so we need to think differently, and that leads us to something called ‘talent arbitrage’.

I keep asking myself, why are organisations in Silicon Valley not looking to New Zealand for young, talented, innovative engineers? As I see it, with the rise of globalisation and the proliferation of high-speed internet, New Zealand should be considered a key R&D resource for high-tech companies on the west coast of the US. The cost of living there is so high that employing a single software engineer can put a start-up in financial difficulty. I’d like to see companies look to New Zealand, where frankly, they can get more bang for their buck. For the equivalent cost, they could hire two or three hugely talented engineers based here, growing the business and speeding up their development timeline in the process.

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@SineadOS1