Throughout 2007 we heard from a number of scientists and business-people imploring the government for much greater assistance in funding research and commercialisation of technology in New Zealand. Universities and CRIs have demonstrated the economic potential through generating some modest additional revenue streams and investments from technology enterprises spun out of research projects over the last decade or so. There has been a modicum of job creation, some upskilling through technology transfer and even some export revenue as a result. All good news. But is it the stuff that “economic transformation” springs from? Perhaps not quite yet.
Mindful that resources are scarce, the “Trilateral Engagement Project” (TEP), a joint effort by FRST, NZTE and TEC, has been tasked with boot-strapping a handful of homegrown technology industries judged to have the potential to grow into high value, global enterprises. This inter-agency collaboration marks a departure from the silo mentality noted in a recent OECD report that criticised New Zealand’s innovation policy.
Having identified these key new industries, the TEP has produced an RFP seeking consultants to research the potential economic impact of each. That seems a little like putting the cart before the horse. What if the reports find that the industries concerned are untenable? Notwithstanding that point, I think it’s a great idea to focus where big economic gains are achievable and around which related industries can cluster. In the past there has been a tendency towards a shotgun approach to economic development in which it was assumed at least a few winning ideas would emerge and thrive if supported with public funds.
In fact, there is no shortage of good ideas. The real issue for the NZ tech sector is access to capital. Because global capital tends to gravitate towards the most bankable ideas, it is important to expose our intellectual property to offshore scrutiny in a sophisticated manner. There is simply insufficient seed capital in New Zealand prepared to wager on high risk technology propositions. You could literally count on one hand the number of early phase tech businesses that received substantial VC funding in NZ last year. Besides that, offshore investors tend to bring a useful network of well-connected deal-makers in their wake. Let’s address that fact openly and help our high tech businesses go global with a mix of local and foreign investment. But at the same time if public funds are to be invested in this process, we need to ensure that founders are fully committed to returning some of the economic gains back home rather than selling out for a low return.
It’s a very narrow tightrope to walk across.