Optimising Our Knowledge Networks

Instructing the Super Fund to channel $300 million of investment into emerging tech firms, as well as a recent call for delivery of a “deep tech” incubator to assist commercialisation of public funded research in New Zealand, illustrates that the government has been listening to the concerns of the high tech business community around the need for greater support in the commercialisation of knowledge. Health, environment, food production, robotics and AI – there are many problem areas in which we can excel.  But whilst a broadening of activity in the innovation ecosystem must be seen in a positive light, new entrants may face an uphill battle.

Some say that government involvement in the sector is long overdue. Not a month goes by without the media reporting the departure of a promising high growth, high tech firm such as Rocket Lab, for example. The paucity of follow on capital and expertise available locally is often quoted as the culprit. Successive previous governments failed to address the problem due to being ideologically opposed to what has sometimes been unfairly branded as corporate welfare. But interestingly the most vocal critics of incubation and government directed investment funding tend to be wealthy and well-connected individuals who have no problem sourcing capital for their own ventures.

Since the public purse is already funding universities and research organisations in one form or another anyway, is it really such a stretch for government to facilitate obtaining an economic return on those investments? Those who mutter in their beards about “level playing fields” should take a look around. We are losing the battle with our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region with whom we compete for capital and talent. Australia, Singapore and Korea all provide substantial support for startups and the commercialisation of publicly funded research.

So where does that leave New Zealand with its newly rediscovered enthusiasm for investing in science and technology commercialisation? Well there was an additional most welcome announcement this week of new funding for an existing body that has already made considerable inroads into surfacing promising research and turning it into businesses. That seems to foreshadow where government thinking might be heading in terms of who is now best equipped to develop a formal incubation programme.

But research commercialisation is actually a network optimisation problem involving many and diverse stakeholders. A post graduate study that I conducted on this topic a few years ago is still relevant. The most creative ideas and opportunities are found at the boundaries where disparate networks overlap. Hence the direction we are heading with, GeniusNet. It is therefore absolutely essential that we have an open innovation based ecosystem and a diversity of players in the incubation and commercialisation marketplace, if we are to lift our economy up the value chain.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest and principal at GeniusNet Research. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

Creating An Education Nation

This week I gave my young son a tearful hug and watched him cross through airport security to join the first leg of a long journey to Europe. I found myself, reviewing the previous eighteen years and wondering whether or not I had done enough for him. His mother and I have a solid friendship now, but we separated when he was just two. So co-parenting presented numerous challenges for us for many years. Not the least of those was that (despite his intelligence) my son sometimes struggled within the school system. At times it broke my heart and I often felt like I badly let him down. But what I have found out since we began researching our new project Creative Forest is that the education system is simply not serving our kids well enough in the 21st Century.

Let me state that this article is not about shifting blame or spotlighting shortcomings in  education, it’s about acknowledging that kids have different learning styles, society is changing rapidly and that we are not addressing this fast enough. Our current “modern” form of Western education has origins that date back two centuries. That system arose in the wake of the Industrial Revolution as economies transitioned away from being agrarian and when there was a need for a more literate workforce. Teachers stood at the front of the class imparting knowledge to students lined up in rows. Little has changed.

I don’t mind admitting that this old system served me well personally, because I actually enjoy absorbing facts and was good at sitting exams (one of my few talents). I ended up with three degrees including a post-graduate qualification and was the first person on my father’s side of the family to complete a university education. But now it’s becoming clear that many bright children are not suited to this model, yet there are so few alternatives. It’s time we became an education nation where teaching is properly resourced and we provide alternate pathways that motivate learners. Our future viability in the world depends on it!

Today we are faced with vastly different economic structures, increasing disparities in wealth and exponentially accelerating technological change. How do we equip our children with the skills to navigate these enormous problems? With Creative Forest we take some of the emergent thinking on project based learning and personalised learning and bring them together with a design based ecosystem approach that supports both students and teachers. The open source Creative Forest system delivers success in STEAM subjects, on the basis of personal inquiry, guided by teachers and external mentors. So we use a hybrid setup with the online platform supporting the classroom environment.

Critics of these new methodologies worriedly cite the dangers of eliminating knowledge from the curriculum, but this is a red herring. Learning is not a zero sum game and introducing new approaches does not need to be at the expense of curricula. Indeed bringing forward some new thinking has the potential to enhance how knowledge is passed on. It also opens doorways for kids that were previously excluded and conveys soft skills such as collaboration that they will need in the real world. Thankfully some teachers are already beginning to embrace these ideas and Creative Forest is making progress working with these early adopters.

Meanwhile, thirty hours later we receive a cheerful FaceTime call from my son. He has negotiated several major international airports, landed in Tokyo, Japan, found his hotel then flown on to Osaka the next day, where he interprets online maps to find his way safely across a huge, unfamiliar non-English speaking city, via trains and buses, to a tiny apartment where his buddy is staying. We also hear that he has a job offer awaiting his return to New Zealand. I guess I didn’t fail him entirely in his education.

Paul Spence is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Creative Forest and a mentor with Startup Weekends and Lightning Lab. You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

March For Science Matters

Last weekend’s March For Science may have been largely symbolic, but it was important. When a government appoints a rabid climate change denier to perform a hatchet job on its own environmental agency, you know that somebody has seriously lost the plot and voices need to be heard.

Interestingly even China is now becoming increasingly concerned around problems created by climate change and has committed to refactoring the economy towards green energy. It’s a bit like trying to turn around a super-tanker, but I suppose you have to start somewhere. But it is very difficult to reconcile that technologically adept nations such as the United States are going in the opposite direction to almost everyone else on the globe.

The role of science in economic growth and development has long been established. Science driven technological innovation has been a key contributor to our advancement as a species over the last few hundred years. From health to computing to space exploration, science has been at the base of almost every step forward. We live longer and more fulfilling lives, largely due to scientific discoveries.

Conversely, science has arguably also been responsible for some of our backward steps. Industrialisation, internal combustion engines and nuclear weapons are also products of the science lab. Science therefore is no panacea. The philosophical and morale context around science is ever-changing and what seemed like a good idea 50 years ago might be framed very differently by future generations. Scientific theories also evolve over time as new ideas emerge and get tested and old ideas are discarded.

What we do know is that the scientific method provides a solid basis for exploring and understanding our world. Discarding rational thought in favour of rumour and outright lies may be a successful political strategy, but it will certainly not help us to address the pressing social, health and environmental issues in the world.

Paul Spence originally completed a B.Sc. degree in Applied Geophysics and was previously employed as a support meteorologist in the aviation industry. He is a commentator and serial entrepreneur, a co-founder of Wellington, New Zealand based technology ventures iwantmyname and Polanyio and a mentor with Startup Weekends and Lightning Lab. GeniusNet is working to support global environmental projects through its portfolio companies.

You can follow Paul on Twitter @GeniusNet or sign up for a free weekly digest of startup, tech and innovation related events curated by him through New Zealand Startup Digest.

National Standards: The Great March To Mediocrity

The principal at my twelve year old son’s school wrote to parents this week illuminating her media reported comments in relation to the recently published “league tables” of school performance under the government’s misguided “National Standards” programme. Whilst generally supporting the inclusion of a standards based system within the school, the nationwide implementation of the programme has not been uniform, she explained. Consequently output data should not be regarded as reliable, because of differences in methodology across the country. That’s a diplomatic position to adopt, when you have a gun to your head.

Publishing “league tables” is a self-defeating exercise, I’m sure you will agree. But the media never lets facts get in the way of a good headline. There’s something about the way this whole issue has unfolded that makes me wonder what the real agenda is here. Even the title “national standards” is laced with threatening overtones, suggesting a march towards conformity and mindless mediocrity. But there is seemingly very little us concerned parents can do about it now. Typically, the media have chosen not to focus on the more important sociological questions around this issue. I guess teachers and principals just have to suck it up as well, even though many must find the foundational political ideology abhorrent.

The principal’s comments confirm what most intelligent observers already knew. National “standards” (or whatever variant is being used) are entirely subjective and can only possibly give a very approximate indication of where a child sits in relation to his peers. Who dreams this stuff up? Furthermore, because the focus seems to be on “meeting the standard”, rather than excelling, the entire exercise can only ever lead to academic mediocrity. This seems entirely contrary to fulfilling aspirations for better outcomes in key areas such as mathematics and sciences, which will underpin New Zealand’s economic development in the future.

I’m confident my child will succeed in spite of the vast amount of resources being wasted on this folly, so I’m not particularly concerned by what position the school takes. To be quite honest, I think we should instead be paying more attention to nurturing our childrens’ broader social, physical and intellectual development at this age, rather than trying to create a socially divisive and wholly artificial benchmark.

Yes, we parents are sitting up in class and paying attention. Will it make any difference now? Probably not. Even if there is a change of government next year, I doubt that National Standards will be entirely rolled back. Mandarins within the Ministry will see to that. Perhaps we should instead focus our energies on the really big battle looming, as foreshadowed by the merger plans outlined for schools in Christchurch. My child is the third generation in our family to proudly attend an intermediate school. I hope he won’t be the last.

Entrepreneur Bedtime Stories

“It was a dark and stormy night”. That’s how my Grandad used to begin his bedtime stories when I was a little lad. He was both a technology innovator and an entrepreneur, so hopefully some of it rubbed off on me. There’s certainly a lot to be said in favour of story-telling and narrative as a means of passing on knowledge.

Tuesday this week the Bright Ideas Challenge team from Grow Wellington are putting on Entrepreneur Storytime, an evening of anecdotes and stories from a diverse and successful group of local entrepreneurs. Speakers include Mark Clare – investment banker and web entrepreneur, Rachel Taulelei – founder of City Market and chairperson Wellington On A Plate, also Geoff Todd – CEO of both Trinity Bioactives and Viclink and CreativeHQ chairperson. Other speakers include Trent Mankelow who is a highly successful graduate of the CreativeHQ business incubator and Derelee Potroz-Smith, a finalist from last year’s Bright Ideas Challenge.

I’m particularly interested to hear Geoff’s story since he is a man with a foot in the camps of both academia and business, a rare and important breed of individual that New Zealand urgently needs at present. But it looks like an inspirational lineup overall and everybody is welcome to attend this free event. Registration essential.

 

 

W2W Strengthens Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Recently Unlimited Potential ran Wellington to the World (W2W), New Zealand’s leading showcase event for early stage web and software ventures. W2W is about building bridges, so we invite technology innovators, entrepreneurs and tech investors to network over beer and pizza and encourage young companies to share what they are working on through either talks or at the demo zone. This was the third year that we have run the event and  I’m personally very proud of what has been achieved so far.

Much of the progress that is being made in promoting technology entrepreneurship in New Zealand is underpinned by communities of interest that are flourishing right now. I shared some remarks about this at the opening of W2W in my capacity as Chairperson at Unlimited Potential. We think it’s important to support developer communities and start-up groups because they nurture the seeds of future ventures and provide a deep pool of knowledge for new entrepreneurs.

If you didn’t make it to the event this year, check out the W2W entrepreneur videos. There is also some images and an event review available.

Thank-you once again Wellington City Council, Grow Wellington, Viclink and Summer of Tech for helping make this event possible.

Research Week Brings Science Leaders Together

A winter retreat for scientists interested in medical research and biotechnology is bringing some of the world’s finest science researchers together for a week long convocation.

Queenstown has for many years played host to a number of research meetings across a diverse range of topics from molecular biology to neuroscience. Now these meetings are being clustered into a knowledge fest being labelled as Queenstown Research Week. It’s an opportunity for local researchers to mingle with and learn from some of the world’s leading minds from within the medical and biotech arenas.

It is also an opportunity for investors to hear about opportunities within biotech and to promote science commercialisation in general. No doubt there will also be some quiet analysis during the coffee breaks on whether or not there is any substance to Craig Venter’s recent pronouncement that life had been created in a test-tube.

Irrespective of one’s position on that particular topic, one thing is certain. Medical and biotechnological science is advancing at a rapid rate and such fields create wonderful opportunities to improve human quality of life, address environmental problems and deliver economic gains – provided these technologies are viewed with a robust ethical overlay.

More CRI Babies Needed

The government’s recent report examining funding and strategic governance of New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes (CRI) echoes what has been known for years by most participants in the nation’s technology innovation system. The existing funding model is broken and there are too many stakeholders, resulting in inefficiencies. But restructuring the bureaucracy alone will not be sufficient to ensure better returns from State investment in science.

The CRIs are tasked with a variety of social and economic objectives that range from enhancing and protecting the value of our primary sector through to identifying and managing environmental risks. A profit based model and traditional business metrics clearly does not work. The convoluted bidding process for funding of limited duration also does not ensure good science gets done; in some cases it actually impedes the process.

 There is certainly no shortage of excellent scientific research being done within these institutions right now and there remains potential to spin off more baby companies in the future. Here’s a few examples.

  • There are two existing spin-offs involved in high temperature semi-conductors and cable technology, an area that has huge economic returns and is largely untapped.
  • Last year’s New Zealand young scientist of the year (and W2W event  speaker) John Watt is working with CRI staff to look at the commercial applications of nano-particles in reducing motor vehicle emissions.
  • Government owned companies are sitting on huge amounts of seismic data that has the potential to attract oil and mineral prospecting, with comcomitant economic benefits.

But the CRIs encountered problems in the past through attempting to self fund the commercialisation of new science. Attracting smart money and building linkages offshore  must surely be the key to growing our knowledge based companies faster. The CRIs will have to find a new business model that reaches out globally, whilst balancing the need to retain some control of intellectual property and return value to NZ. They also need to make this process happen a lot quicker than in the past.

You can follow us on Twitter @GeniusNet

Science Funding Fix Obscures ICT Opportunity

It has taken almost a year, but the government is finally addressing the mechanisms and priorities around the funding of research, science and technology in New Zealand.

The government’s policy approach to funding science research hinges on maximising the economic and social benefits, building international linkages whilst protecting the natural environment. Better utilising the “scientific value chain” seems to be the chief driver behind the funding shake-up. Science leaders have long complained that they spend too much time doing paperwork and competing for funding, when their time is better spent doing actual science.

The draft policy document indicates that sectorial funding priorities will largely be governed by the interests of existing Crown Research Institutes (CRIs). That is not a bad thing, but it underlines what we have suspected for quite some time – ICT is no longer seen as a primary driver of value-added economic growth, despite its obvious importance as an enabler.

ICT is now bundled within “high technology industries”, although it is not clear what proportion of this funding will be dedicated to information technology. In fact “transformational manufacturing” seems rather to be the focus for this area. It seems odd that the government would allocate $1.5 billion to a broadband rollout without a simultaneous commitment to strengthening ICT research and commercialisation in order to capitalise on the opportunity.

You can read about and make submissions on the proposed policy here.

Cow-shit and Candyfloss Overcomes High Tech

In an interview for Unlimited Magazine, physicist and technology entrepreneur Paul Callaghan recounts meeting Prime Minister John Key at a business function. The PM had just stepped off the speaker’s podium where he had been talking up agriculture and tourism and expressing scepticism about the value of New Zealand’s technology sector to the economy. If that is the kind of leadership we are faced with, then I fear that the devaluation of our economic potential will continue unabated.

And before I’m accused over being overly harsh, let’s just look at this government’s track record since taking office well over six months ago:

  • Research & development tax credit reduced then cut altogether.
  • Fast Forward programme wiped and replaced with identical project with less funding.
  • I.T. worker redundancies from government agencies.
  • Negligible budget increase to RS&T vote.
  • Major cuts to tertiary education funding.
  • NZ Innovation Centre loses $15M in funding.
  • Reported $100M net loss to market development assistance programmes for exporters.

To be fair, we all knew that the Budget needed to be tough – even if Key and English can’t agree exactly why. Certainly borrowing to fund superannuation and tax cuts doesn’t make good fiscal sense; but neither does knee-capping your research, science and technology capability. To its credit, the government did provide additional resources to the Marsden Fund and a one-off operational grant to REANNZ the high speed research network. In the latter case, they obviously could not be seen to allow the research network to fail, whilst at the same time pouring billions into digging trenches for a brand new domestic network for which a proper economic business case has yet to be made.

Investing in and commercialising research will never be cheaper than today and you can be sure that our competitors in America and Europe are continuing to do it. I’ve said it before – when I look around town, it is the businesses that have invested in developing new technology that are still growing. It seems like the government is signalling it wishes to play less of a role in this arena. Dairy commodity prices are dropping again, so too are visitor numbers. The PM’s support for agriculture and tourism is no doubt uplifting for the cow-shit and candyfloss brigades, but it does little to bolster our GDP per capita output in the long term.

Wool to Weta by Paul Callaghan is available at all good bookstores and explains why research, science and technology is important to the New Zealand economy and why a unified vision is needed.