NZBusiness interviews Victoria University Business School Management Professor Sally Davenport on the work and achievements of Science for Technological Innovation, and what it all means for New Zealand small and medium enterprises.
Victoria University Business School Management Professor, Sally Davenport, is a renowned science, innovation and entrepreneurship academic with a background in Chemistry.
On the strength of her research into sustainable collective productivity in New Zealand firms, Sally became a Productivity Commissioner in 2011.
Earlier this year Sally became the Director of the Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) National Science Challenge – one of 11 such Challenges set up over the last few years. Their aim is to take a more strategic approach to the government’s science investment by targeting goals which, if achieved, will have major and enduring benefits for New Zealand.
NZB: Our readership is made up of SMEs employing up to about 20 employees. How do you see the SfTI Challenge helping them?
Sally: Our aim is right up SMEs’ alley given that New Zealand’s SMEs carry out over three-quarters of our R&D spend – one of the highest in the OECD. SfTI is all about innovation through physical science and engineering, and growing New Zealand’s economy and through that our social well-being.
Interestingly we’re finding that New Zealand companies are asking to be part of our industry advisory groups so they can keep in touch with what new tech is coming down the pipeline.
In short, SfTI is focused on developing unique, potentially exportable kiwi technology. We see ourselves as the ‘technology for’ challenge, and are agnostic about what sector it might be for as long as it benefits New Zealand.
NZB: But there’re issues?
Sally: Yes. Collaboration with researchers or other companies on R&D is not so common as in-house R&D. Yet we know that those that do collaborate with external knowledge sources tend to get a bigger productivity hit from innovation.
Making it easier for SMEs to collaborate with public sector researchers and vice versa, can only be good both for our SMEs as well as our economy and societal well-being flow on.
NZB: So, what’s SfTI’s scope?
Sally: We’re literally the ‘tech’ challenge. And we’re all about New Zealand. Our four research themes are Sensors, Robotics and Automation; IT, Data Analytics and Modelling; Materials, Manufacturing and Design and Vision Mātauranga.
But there has to be a logic for developing the technology in New Zealand.
NZB: How do you go about that?
Sally: We look for ‘missions’ that make sense for a Kiwi approach. And we work closely with industry and Māori business leaders to indicate what missions we should be pursuing.
NZB: Any examples?
Sally: Yes, early in 2017 several ‘missions’ came out of a series of workshops we held including ‘Intelligent oceans’ – makes sense with our huge deep sea EEZ; ‘rugged/ flexible robots’ – great for our small scale, flexible, manufacturing and rugged outdoor work environments; and ‘Digital Marae’ – aimed at bringing the latest tech to our unique indigenous culture. We’re also scoping a new research concept called the Personalised Value Chain/the individual as a customer.
NZB: SfTI launched in 2015 with a research budget of $39.2 million. What have you achieved so far?
Sally: We currently fund nearly 200 engineers and physical scientists researching in a virtual network within multi-disciplinary teams across New Zealand. They’re some of New Zealand’s leading talent from public and independent research institutes and private organisations, and they’re involved in 35 projects across 25 local and four international organisations.
We’ve also been innovative in how we’ve formed these research teams: it’s a new approach to move from researchers proposing projects to developing best teams with complementary skills that have never worked together before.
NZB: Any big breakthroughs yet?
Sally: We’re about the ‘stretch’ technology New Zealand needs in 5-10 years, but we’ve already accomplished new things. There’s a lot on our menu, but current highlights include the clinical trials happening in Christchurch around home delivery of diabetic treatment. One team has developed a drug delivery system that can be stimulated in situ through UV which is now moving towards commercialisation. Another team is making progress with simple to use nitrate sensors essential to help clean up our waterways. We have innovation researchers studying our projects to develop unique NZ-based notions about how collaborative ventures can best work in New Zealand.
NZB: What’s the role of Vision Mātauranga in SfTI’s work?
Sally: A key thing about SfTI, and this is likely unique in the world, is that Vision Mātauranga (VM) – a New Zealand government science policy framework – is integrated into all Challenge activity, working and thinking. Our Māori name is Kia Kotahi Mai–Te Ao Pūtaiao me Te Ao Hangarau – to come together as one uniting the world of science with the world of innovation. The idea is to unlock the science and innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people to benefit all New Zealanders. Committing 20 percent of our SEED funding to Māori projects and partnering with the Federation of Māori Authorities are just two examples of SfTI’s support for VM so far.