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Collaborating to compete: lessons from top US research labs and commercial innovators

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This article was published on 18 April 2019

New Zealand companies looking to compete on a global scale need to commit to greater research collaboration and focus on getting the best out of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence

A group of New Zealand science-sector leaders have returned from a visit to top US research labs and innovative companies with some critical insights to share – and strong validation for multidisciplinary, mission-driven research.

Chief executives representing several of the country’s Crown Research Institutes and Science New Zealand’s Chief Executive Anthony Scott, were joined by Callaghan Innovation Chief Executive, Vic Crone and Heather Deacon, General Manager of Research and Technical Services, for the April visit to San Francisco.

The group’s aim was to learn from examples of best practice in research and development and science and tech transfer and commercialisation, which the Bay Area region’s innovation ecosystem leads the world in.

That saw them set out to visit companies like AutoDesk, Trimble and autonomous car start-up Nuro as well as Stanford University, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the iconic NASA Ames Research Centre in Mountain View.

There was one rule in effect when the group’s itinerary was drawn up. The chief executives were not to take the group to their equivalent research institution in the US. Instead, they would visit labs and companies far removed from their own business to, as Anthony Scott puts it, push themselves to “think beyond the current margins”.

Collaboration at scale

Very quickly, the vast scale of federal research underway in the US became obvious. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which has a broad research portfolio ranging from nuclear physics to nanotechnology and lasers, employs 5,800 people and has a US$1.5 billion annual budget.

“One lab, in terms of resources, would almost represent all of our CRIs put together,” says Deacon.

Despite their size, representatives of these pre-eminent research labs told the group that collaboration with other organisations and research groups was integral to them achieving their goals.

“The big take away for me was that we need to get better at that here,” Deacon says.

“New Zealand's just not that big. We need to collaborate more if we are going to compete in a world where you have national labs the size they do have in the US.”

That openness to collaboration on research extended to the commercialisation of science. NASA had created a website NASA Spinoff, allowing the aerospace agency to showcase its technology and intellectual property portfolio. Companies could apply through the website to licence the agency’s technology.

“We need that type of platform for NZ,” says Deacon.

“It can make the IP that is available within our organisations far more visible and accessible to a wider audience to utilise to New Zealand's benefit.”

A similar idea underpins Scale Up NZ, a new platform launched by Callaghan Innovation to strengthen collaboration across New Zealand’s innovation ecosystem and which already features around 500 New Zealand companies and numerous categories of innovation.

For Anthony Scott, the culture of collaboration created a highly integrated ecosystem where ideas developed at Stanford University had a clear pathway to application and commercialisation.

“They've got a lot of top-class students coming through and an environment where if they do come up with great ideas, there are opportunities to develop them,” says Scott, whose organisation represents the CRIs and features Callaghan Innovation as an associate member.

“The question is, how do we improve New Zealand's ecosystem in that regard? We've got to be more mature in some of our discussions about how we advance innovation, particularly through private companies.”

AI as an enabler, everywhere

Among the innovative uses of technologies on show, was artificial intelligence, which Deacon says was being applied “virtually everywhere”.

At biotech company Zymergen, the group heard how AI and advanced computing had been applied to speed up the process of engineering tiny molecules for creating new materials and industrial processes.

“Zymergen just completed their C-round of funding with US$400 million raised after starting out only 7 years ago,” says Deacon.

“Here is a company using biotech and AI together to accelerate their product success. We need our own young companies to be applying AI to their own environments to accelerate their growth.”

Scott says AI is already speeding up processes at CRIs, for example in testing of lab samples and data analysis. At the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution he also heard that AI won’t be the answer to everything.

“We got the message from a few people that it is ‘AI plus HI’, you need the human intelligence,” explains Scott.

“AI is great in very well-defined spaces, such as the autopilot on a plane or playing chess. But you need human intelligence to make decisions that are beyond the logic of the AI technology.”

There were lessons then for our innovation sector to develop the skills to best harness AI. But developing the social licence to operate AI is also essential with one key issue being privacy as AI utilised ever-expanding sets of data.

“We were told privacy was particularly an issue when it came to applications of AI in the medical field,” says Deacon.

“You don't necessarily want Google and Facebook having access to all of your data. But there are genuine and beneficial uses of AI that rely on access to substantial volumes of data to generate novel solutions,” she adds.

The same issue of balancing privacy concerns and the access to data that would spur innovation, would have to be tackled here too.

Kiwi ex-pats flourishing

Along the way, the group met up with Kiwis who are thriving in the US innovation ecosystem. Nuro co-founder Dr Dave Ferguson, a former autonomous vehicle developer at Google subsidiary Waymo and University of Otago graduate, showed the delegation R1, Nuro’s self-driving delivery vehicle which is already dropping off groceries to customers in Arizona.

Roz Buick, Senior Vice President at Trimble and former Landcare Research scientist, flew in from Denver to show the group her company’s new software using the HoloLens augmented reality glasses, which have been designed for customers in the construction industry.

At “future food” start-up incubator IndieBio, the group met with former Aucklander Matt Gibson, whose company New Culture is developing animal-free mozzarella cheese.

Make the boat go faster

Scott says the CRI leaders were already formulating plans as they travelled back from Palo Alto. He was pleased to see validation of the CRIs’ multidisciplinary approach to research and mission-led focus.

“The federal research labs are very mission-driven. In New Zealand terms it is that Sir Peter Blake question - is this going to make the boat go faster?”

Representing between them a significant share of the Government’s annual investment in science and innovation, the CRI leaders will use the insights gained as a catalyst to strengthen collaboration across the public and private sectors, especially where emergent technologies and multidisciplinary approaches can accelerate the benefits from New Zealand’s applied science and research capability.

For Deacon, the trip yielded strong ideas for how Callaghan Innovation, as a “super-connector” in the innovation sector, could better facilitate the collaboration that has been so integral to research breakthroughs and science commercialisation in the US.

She said, “Science New Zealand is a forum where the Members share knowledge and practice around drivers of innovation, such as emergent technologies and collaboration.  Callaghan Innovation adds different perspectives to help stimulate even more benefit from this sharing.”

The New Zealand Research Institutes Delegation April 1 - 5 2019, included Dr Keith McLea, ESR, Dr Richard Gordon, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Barry Biggs,  NIWA, David Hughes, Plant & Food Research, Anthony Scott, Science New Zealand, Vic Crone, Callaghan Innovation and Heather Deacon, Callaghan Innovation.