Innovate at the Point of Pain

I get a lot of ideas across my desk and I’ve learnt the hard way that you need to question everything before offering to back someone else’s idea with your own reputation. One of the first questions I ask aspiring technology entrepreneurs is – what is the problem you are trying to solve?

This may seem like an obvious question but you would be surprised how many projects are launched on the basis of a good idea rather than upon a soundly researched market. It pays to question the market data as well because, after spending hundreds of hours on development, an enthusiastic technologist will do just about anything to justify their emotional investment in a product.

Many great ventures began as a personal point of pain for the founder. But the ones that survived were those that actually identified a mass market and then went on to execute well. A good idea on its own is not enough and the fact that there is “no competition” is not a selling point either. You need competitors for benchmarking and to validate that a market really exists.

For example at ideegeo we made a conscious decision to build a domain registrar site that rejected traditional norms of presentation because we observed that a lot of people really disliked having to grapple with poor navigation and invasive advertising found on other sites. Although the product caters for a design-centric niche user base, it turned out to be a winner because other companies approached us to help them improve their own offering.

Before you write a line of code or partition off your first protein molecule, ask yourself – where is the point of pain? What is the problem that you are trying to solve and are there a million other consumers out there who are suffering the same pain? If you can answer that question objectively and in the affirmative, you might just have a successful product on your hands.

The Digital Innovation Terminator

With the squashing of the R&D tax credit, the biffing of BIF and the annihilation of the Digital Development Council one could be forgiven for thinking the incoming government is auditioning for a role in the forthcoming Terminator movie. Of even more concern is a blatant lack of understanding about where the Internet is taking us, as witnessed by their trashing of the Digital Forum.

Don’t they get that distributed problem-solving by communities and networks is the way forward now? When the Minister states that the government will now consult individually with the parties concerned, what he really means is that he will open the door to the best corporate lobbyists around town. Joe public, small business and the creative sector won’t get a look see. The Digital Forum wasn’t perfect, but at least it gave voice to a wide range of users and producers of digital innovation and creative content.

The axing of the government shared network represents yet another another milestone in the government’s ideological war being waged on every last programme or initiative that had Labour’s brand on it. This leads one to the disturbing conclusion that the KAREN research network might be the next target on the chopping block. Established as a Crown entity, the network was supposed to turn a profit whilst delivering high bandwidth capability to the already under-funded research agencies and universities. But poor demand modelling and underinvestment in marketing new services left the network underutilised.

Given the already woeful levels of research, science and technology investment by government, it would be a disaster to let KAREN go. In fact the government should be fully funding its owner REANNZ as a matter of course, as part of a wider commitment to building up RS&T capability. The potential in terms of research and science outcomes from a properly wired and (socially) networked science and technology community has yet to be fully tapped.

Why ICT Underpins Innovation

GITRA recent global report on information technology places New Zealand about the middle of the pack in terms of “network readiness”. But the index only accounts for part of the story about why the country is struggling to remain competitive through innovation.

The information technology report from INSEAD university and the World Economic Forum offers some very clear indications around what New Zealand has to achieve in order to boost innovation and raise competitiveness. The annual report ranks all countries in terms of ICT readiness by assessing a basket of factors that influence business, government and individuals. Quality of phone, broadband and server infrastructure, regulatory environment, quality of science education, R&D spend by firms and availability of venture capital are amongst the variables assessed to establish a “network readiness index” (NRI).

High network readiness alone does not guarantee success however. In fact highly competitive nations such as Finland, Israel and Taiwan rank slightly below New Zealand on the network readiness index. But if we consider a bunch of other factors that allude to innovative capacity, it paints a much different picture. Innovation factors (IF) include quality of scientific institutions, extent of university-industry collaboration, availability of scientists and engineers, number of patents issued per capita. These factors tell us whether or not a nation has the capacity to innovate through novel research, which is a far stronger value proposition than simple imitation. The fact that New Zealand ranks about the same as Zimbabwe is probably reason for some concern.

What we do know is that countries which rank highly on both counts, tend to be innovation powerhouses with rapidly improving GDP per capita. By this we mean nations such as Denmark, South Korea, India, Singapore and Malaysia. Unsurprisingly, all of these countries embarked some time ago on aggressive improvements to their ICT infrastructure. So exactly why does ICT appear to underpin innovation?

There are at least five good reasons why a sound ICT environment supports innovation processes:

  • Knowledge identification eg. market research, locating human resources, accessing science research, knowledge sharing platforms.
  • Developing creative capacity eg. computer aided design and 3D graphics.
  • Enhancing exploration eg. simulation and prototyping.
  • Shortening the design-test cycle eg. making failure inexpensive.
  • Improving capacity for commercialisation management eg. knowledge management, Web 2.0 e-marketing, virtual collaboration.
  • Empowering customer feedback into the design process.

The human genome project is a good example of a piece of innovation work that, a decade ago, could not have even been imagined anywhere in the world. Could such a project be done in New Zealand today? Although we now have a high speed research network and at least one homegrown firm offering suitable enabling software technology, it hasn’t happened because we are still struggling with a number of the innovation factors mentioned above. R&D spend is low, collaboration seems problematic rather the accepted norm and the education system is failing to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers.

This shows that, as an enabler of innovation, we cannot consider ICT in isolation. There has been much debate over the need to rollout better broadband across New Zealand. But the economic case for substantial publicly funded investment in the project has yet to be properly made. Most people grasp that more and better ICT would be a good thing, but few are clear on exactly why. We need to benchmark ourselves more fully in order to better articulate the need.

Fast Forward Fry-Up

The government’s announcement of a $700 million “Fast Forward” fund for the food and pastoral industries is a long awaited boost to the research sector, but does it signal a strategic withdrawal from other technological arenas?

Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) are naturally ecstatic at news of the investment because it provides much greater certainty for their businesses going forward. The CRIs have been struggling with recruitment, retention and planning issues in the face of historically low levels of investment in a demoralised agricultural research sector.

But the Prime Minister Helen Clark, speaking on National Radio, emphasised that without recharging the investment in food and pastoral research, New Zealand was at great risk of falling ever further behind on the global stage. With agriculture still comprising almost half our national export income, it was imperative to invest in areas where we had a sustainable competitive advantage.

Clark then poured cold water on Opposition Leader John Key’s comments that the Fast Forward Fund was a grandiose overstatement of the government’s committment. Industry heavy hitters like Fonterra have reportedly already signed up to contribute matching funding and the plan is to draw down on both the interest and capital over a 10 to 15 year period. This would release up to $30 million in the first year, eventually climbing to over $100 million, said agriculture minister Jim Anderton.

Perhaps the only real downside from the deal is that it confirms a mood swing away from stimulating other technology sectors. Prof. Jeff Tallon, who only last week headed up a group of concerned scientists that wrote to the government pleading for more research funding, said that even after this investment, New Zealand still only has about half the RS&T spend of its high tech competitors. Tallon says that although food and pastoral research is important, we need to continue to diversify away from our heavy reliance on agriculture.

I have to admit, Fast Forward does seem more like “Back to the Future” to a time before the government was championing ICT, biotechnology and creative sector as the three planks for high tech based economic growth. However, on the up side it does show that government is listening; and by using a public-private partnership model it also focuses industry to engage fully in the project. One hopes that this will not be the only research funding announcement come Budget time.

Manipulating DNA to Unlock Bio-Energy

A few months ago I wrote about the global ocean sampling project of the Venter Institute and explained how the expedition circumnavigated the world’s oceans discovering many new microbial life-forms as well as previously undiscovered proteins. By using technology developed through mapping the human genome, the institute now intends to manipulate bacterial DNA to create an organism that might one day be able to convert sunlight and ocean nutrients directly into biofuel. But Venter’s critics say it is dangerous to meddle with the building blocks of life and such work could lead to unimaginable consequences if it results in a virulent new form of bacteria.

In a recent lecture (44 mins video) at the BBC, Venter outlines his philosophy on using genomics to help satisfy the food and energy needs of humankind. The written text of his talk is also available. In my opinion genomics will be the defining technology of this century for a number of reasons. Firstly the logarithmic growth in the populations of the developing world has exceeded the carrying capacity of those regions. There is a stark choice between allowing wide scale starvation or employing technology to expand the supply of food and energy. Secondly, the genetic engineering “genie” is out of the bag already. It is far better to have this initial research being performed openly and with strict controls than by a corporation where there are conflicts of commercial risk versus ethical philosophy. Venter welcomes peer review and oversight. Finally, whether or not you agree with them, Venter and his colleagues are doing a great job of selling genomics as a safe, green and sustainable option for aiding humankind.

So is Venter a monster or a magician? And will New Zealand be able to participate in the genomics wave? As a maritime nation and with a proud record in biological research shouldn’t we be getting on board with this? It sounds like the kind of niche area New Zealand researchers could excel in. Venter is looking more and more likely to be the next Bill Gates. If our research institutions are not investing heavily in this area right now with partnerships and research projects, then we are destined to play catch-up downstream. This calls for proper public funding of the research and meaningful environmental protocols that protect whilst steamlining research project approval.

Callaghan Questions Biotech Focus

Renowned science commentator, author and physics researcher Prof. Paul Callaghan this month embarks on a nationwide speaking tour, sponsored by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Winner of numerous awards and prizes during his career, Callaghan has a simple message for his audience – we need to build on our investment in research, science and technology if we are to grow a prosperous society.

Callaghan is one of a rare species of boundary spanning scientists both willing and able to communicate to those outside of his field. He understands the importance of encouraging the next generation of scientists as well as connecting researchers to entrepreneurs and investors who can help commercialise new scientific knowledge for economic benefit. He is also part of a growing chorus demanding more science funding and a better process for allocating resources within the national innovation system.

Prof. Callaghan’s passion for science is obvious when he speaks in public and I look forward to attending his Wellington event. He discussed at length the importance of science to the economy in an interview on National Radio’s Sunday morning “Ideas” slot recently and reminded us how improvements in our quality of life have come about through advances in technology. He also said that similar sized nations such as Israel, Finland and Ireland are now enjoying bouyant economic times in part due to substantial past investments in research.

He also alluded to some concerns about where the focus lies in terms of New Zealand’s national innovation framework. Citing a strong track record of commercialisation in the physical sciences and engineering technologies, he suggested there was an unwarranted emphasis on biotechnology, despite its promising global outlook. He says New Zealand has struggled to gain traction in biotech because of the huge capital requirements and long lead times that sometimes overwhelm small firms seeking product accreditation and then sales in distant markets.

Callaghan suggested that we need to keep an open mind about where we invest in research, science and technology because good ideas sometimes spring up from unexpected places. He quoted the example of Peter Jackson and the film and graphics industries that grew around his business. Encumbent government Minister Pete Hodgson stated that he was listening to the views of the science community and he was mindful that New Zealand’s investment, although improving, was still below par. He said that forthcoming changes to the tax treatment of R&D from next year should be of assistance to the sector.

Prof. Paul Callaghan tours the main centres from 13th November.

Research Funding Equity Sought by CRIs

Outspoken AgResearch CEO Andy West has this week raised the volume level over the ongoing debate on the issue of funding uncertainty for Crown Research Institutes (CRIs).

University based research organisations receive public funding based on periodic review of their output performance and through the Marsden Fund. The current arrangements mean that a university PhD project on “Bogan Westies” can theoretically get funding whilst a three year CRI study on bee mites or biofuel feedstock crops might not. The CRIs argue that this is unjust.

The sometimes humourous and occasionally “ACRI-monious” shouting match between Universities and CRIs spills into the public domain periodically. But the debate has a more serious side. It’s bad enough that universities are competing with each other for funding and students but it beggars belief that our national innovation system pits talented researchers against each other in Darwinian fashion. Inevitably some worthy research projects will miss out on resources.

For several reasons I’m entirely in favour of blue skies research that explores social issues or esoteric science which may have no immediate obvious commercial return. Firstly we need to cultivate a pool of intellectual talent across the entire research spectrum and not just in the physical and biological sciences. Secondly, non-commercial research sometimes has unexpected commercial applications and frequently involves building international linkages with agencies and researchers abroad, which can lead to profitable collaborations downstream. Finally supporting a diversity of research is the responsibility of any open and inclusive society.

But as AgResearch point out in their 2020 blueprint for agricultural sciences research in New Zealand, over half of our national income is derived from exporting agricultural produce. Is it fair then that agricultural research organisations feel so hard pressed obtaining secure and long term funding for research that underpins the growth and especially the sustainability of this enterprise?

Genomics: The Next Technological Frontier?

When J.C. Venter and his team of genomic researchers completed the sequencing and analysis of the human genome in 2001, the scientific world was turned on its head. Dr Venter went on to found a research institute  to support putting the gene mapping technology to work for the benefit of humankind. The Global Ocean Sampling expedition is a recently completed study by the same organisation, conceived for the purpose of evaluating the microbial diversity in the world’s oceans using the tools and techniques developed to sequence the human and other genomes. In the spirit of Darwin the researchers circumnavigated the oceans of the globe sampling a vast diversity of water-borne microbacteria. The project turned up millions of previously unknown genes and thousands of proteins. That the research was part funded by the U.S. Department of Energy gives some indication as to where this work is heading.

Microbial life forms were largely responsible for the deposition and decomposition of much of the materials that now form the basis of the global supply of oil. So it stands to reason that energy researchers should become more interested in the biogenic pathways that led there. In fact a small New Zealand company has recently received a boost for its gas-to-ethanol technology that employs bacteria to break down carbon monoxide to form ethanol. Influential Silicon Valley investor Khosla Ventures even saw fit to make a substantial investment in the company.

These developments underline the fact that there is a niche market for a range of technologies that arise from research into molecular biology and New Zealand is well placed to contribute because we have a highly regarded research community including the Bioinformatics Research Institute at Auckland University.

Biomatters is another New Zealand company that has identified the potential of this market. The company has recently moved its R&D headquarters inside the Bioinformatics Institute where it collaborates closely at the cutting edge of research. The firm has developed bioinformatics software for molecular biologists and biochemists. Their research software application provides protein and molecular visualisation, literature search help and data storage tools.

The institute is a great example of a public-private partnership that has the potential to spin off some world class research and more projects with commercialisation potential in the future. In fact there has been a shift in the landscape favouring “centres of excellence” as the preferred vehicle for high end innovation. There is a wealth of talent available around the country in applied technologies such as biotech, software, digital media and design. It would be great to see some more of these initiatives spring up outside of Auckland.