Why Kiwi innovators never talk

Professor Shaun Hendy

Professor Shaun Hendy

OPINION: 

After Silicon Valley medic, engineer and entrepreneur Catherine Mohr visited New Zealand last month, she left with a few questions. 

Firstly, what have we done with our engineers? Mohr is Vice President of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, a high technology Silicon Valley based company that makes surgical robots. In her world, Mohr says, engineers are "seen as an essential element of making a successful business". 

In New Zealand, we do not steer our best and our brightest towards engineering. On a per capita basis, for instance, New Zealand graduates only a third the number of engineers as Finland's universities do. "It is telling that New Zealand exports its scientists and imports engineers," says Mohr, the Flying Kiwi and inductee into the Hi-Tech Hall of Fame for 2014.

She was also left wondering why Kiwis are so reluctant to talk about their ideas: "I wandered all around and gave people ideas and suggested groups they could work with, and pushed people to communicate with each other, and a bizarre barrier of IP [intellectual property] rested over all of the conversations." 

This is something that many people notice about Kiwis, and it is backed up by the data. "People are so reluctant to work together and so hyper-protective of IP," Mohr says.

Personally, I believe we lack the confidence to open up. Rather than fail fast by exposing our ideas to critique, we hide them behind a veil of secrecy. We tell ourselves that we'll share once we are ready, but by keeping our cards close to our chest, we miss the opportunity to find the fatal flaw and move on, or to marry our idea with someone else's to create something even better.

Mohr says that in Silicon Valley people are much more aware of the need to share. This doesn't mean they are naive about IP. Rather they deliberately prepare a disclosure strategy that enables them to talk to the right people and build the right partnerships before anyone has to sign an NDA.

She was also puzzled by lack of interaction between our university business schools and our science and engineering faculties. This is something that the University of Auckland is learning to do better, and one of the reasons I moved here from Wellington last year. 

While a few connections exist between individual researchers, many science and engineering students still graduate in New Zealand without a basic understanding of IP or of how to start a business. Many Kiwi business graduates won't have met a scientist or an engineer during their time at university. 

We need more organisations like Chiasma, a student-led organisation that works to bring science and business closer together.

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Mohr also noted the lack of support here for very early stage companies. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, will support early stage R&D in US startups to the tune of around US$5m over five years. 

These grants do not require matching funds, and this allows early stage companies to bootstrap to the point where they are ready for angel investment, Mohr says.

In New Zealand, all significant R&D grants for business require substantial matching funds, which means that our very early stage firms often aren't eligible. 

Even as we pat ourselves on the back for successes like Xero and Orion Healthcare, it seems there is still plenty of work to do to get our economy off the grass. 

 - Stuff

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