Mary Quin: The Innovator

MARIA SLADE
Last updated 05:00 20/06/2014
Mary Quin
Mary Quin

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It's hard to write about Dr Mary Quin at the moment without referring to the trial of the one-eyed, handless Muslim terrorist Abu Hamza al-Masri.

Of all the twists of fate, it was Palmertson North-born Quin's testimony about her kidnapping in Yemen in 1998 which helped to convict Abu Hamza last month on multiple terrorism charges. Never has the head of a government development agency had so much media attention - albeit that Quin has declined to speak publicly about the high profile US trial.

Still, the story can leave no doubt that Callaghan Innovation's inaugural boss has chutzpah. Quin later confronted Abu Hamza at a north London mosque and wrote a book about the ordeal which had seen her wrest an AK47 from her captors.

Abu Hamza had provided a satellite phone and advice to the group of Yemeni militants who kidnapped Quin and 15 other Western tourists.

Four of the tourists were killed.

Despite describing her first few months at the government innovation body as ''like drinking from a fire hose'', one might suspect that Quin has the cojones to stay the course.

Established 16 months ago, Callaghan Innovation's raison d'etre is to accelerate the conversion of Kiwi know-how into money-making enterprises.

The agency bills itself as the single front door for business to the country's innovation ecosystem, working in partnership with economic development agencies, business incubators, universities, venture capitalists, and everyone in between.

It isn't a startup, in that it was shaped around and incorporated pre-existing research organisations such as Industrial Research Limited (IRL). And yet it is. Quin has just celebrated her first year at the helm of the new structure.

The role is her first in New Zealand following 20 years abroad, working in senior executive positions at companies such as Xerox and Eastman Kodak.

Her most recent job was in Alaska, where she was president of the large support services company NANA Management Services.And now she's a public servant.

''Certainly I would say the transition from private to public is greater than from the US business world to the New Zealand business world,'' she says.

There has been a whole new set of jargon and procedures to learn, and government has a different set of goals than business.Quin has a solid scientific pedigree, however.

A physics graduate from the University of Canterbury, Quin did her PhD in materials science and engineering at Northwestern University in Illinois. Later she attended Harvard Business School.She believes Callaghan is getting there.

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They're in to the "blocking and tackling" work now, to make the strategy real and accessible to business.Key to the rubber hitting the road has been establishing the senior management team, particularly the heads of the National Technology Networks.

Three out of five have now been appointed. The networks are part of Callaghan's strategy to customise its action plans for businesses.

''It's quite difficult to define a single set of services that work for all high value manufacturing and services companies,'' Quin says.

''We've identified that there are six major technology areas that multiple firms, and in many cases multiple industries, are reliant on.'

'The managers of these networks - food technology, biotech, advanced materials, sensing and automation, communications technology, and later a standards and compliance network - will be expected to ''know everyone and anyone in New Zealand working in that technology space'', she says.

The idea is to create linkages between all the research going on in the field, be it public or private, and help firms access it directly. And the assistance may not be linear: ''A firm could have needs in advanced materials, ICT, and sensing and robotics all at once,'' she says.The networks will enable Callaghan to be "almost the outsourced R&D department for a firm that's not big enough to have its own internal R&D".

That's on the R&D supply side. On the business demand side, Callaghan is establishing clusters of businesses that share common challenges and will design action plans around them, Quin says.

The firms may be in the same industry, but not necessarily.Examples include the food and beverages sector, which needs access to pilot plant facilities, packaging technologies and information around labelling.

Then there is the medical devices cluster, where firms need access to clinical trials and knowledge about how to set them up. A new cluster being formed in partnership with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise is companies involved in telematics - devices talking to each other.

"They have got some distinct needs we're starting to learn about," Quin says.

The aim is to develop pan-industry manufacturing bases and new, high value export industry for New Zealand.There's no limit to the number of clusters which could be set up, and some groups may only need help for short periods.'

'We want to have that flexibility to focus on the needs of particular companies that share barriers or challenges... and fine tune what we do,'' she says.

One of the ''big pieces'' Callaghan has achieved so far is the transfer of 58 of its staff into two new research institutes within Victoria University - The Ferrier carbohydrate chemistry institute, and the Robinson superconductivity team, based at Callaghan's Gracefield, Wellington premises.

''It allows them to do more fundamental research and to keep pursuing contestible funding, which Callaghan doesn't do any more,'' Quin says.

''It allows us to have a major university co-located with us at one of our single largest R&D facilities.''

Another attention-grabbing move by Callaghan has been the proposed tech incubators - a network of privately-owned businesses which will commercialise existing pieces of technology sitting in the country's publicly funded research institutes.

It is based on an Israeli programme and turns the existing business incubation model on its head, in that it focuses on the innovation first, rather than the business founders.

The incubators take a stake in the venture and run the company from the start.Callaghan is due to announce about now who the successful applicants to run the tech incubators will be.

"We'd be getting greater leverage off the investment the country's already made in research," Quin says.

"So it's a different approach - I think it's an exciting one."


CALLAGHAN INNOVATION'S REPORT CARD FROM THE SECTOR

Shaun Hendy, Auckland University physics professor.
Hendy, a previous Callaghan outreach fellow, gives the agency a cautious pass mark for its first year.There have been frustrations, not least in how long it's taken to hire the top people.

''The high level messages are all reasonably sound, but... it's difficult to assess without seeing the detail of the initiatives, and we haven't seen the senior management team in place.''

Given how long Callaghan was in the planning it would have helped to have that team in place from the get-go, he says. Hendy worked on the Avatar project, an initiative to use social media and cloud-based technology to create a virtual community of firms and service providers.

''It was talked up a lot, and nothing seemed to happen while that senior management team was shuffled.''

Now with the new team they'll probably just park that and have to start that over again.

''He also has his concerns about the shifting of the two science teams out to Victoria University where they now exist on three-year grants.

'Then they're on their own, and that's a pretty tough ask for that type of science."

He's in support of the tech incubators, but points out there are organisations already doing similar work. ''I think they have got to be careful not to just duplicate efforts.''

Ralf Muller, investor and adviser to hi-tech startups
Muller is on Callaghan's panel of expert advisers. He thinks the tech incubators are "a wonderful idea", and is part of a group which has submitted a bid to run one.

Identifying as early as possible which innovations may be successful and putting the supports around them is key, he says.

He chairs the successful Auckland University spinout StretchSense, maker of a stretchable sensor worn on the skin to measure body motion. It has applications for a range of sectors including elite athletics, rehabilitation and filmmaking.

Muller was involved with the team three years before it became a venture.

''If I would not have been there doing that, and if (Auckland University's commercial arm) UniServices had not shown foresight to assign them a mentor, those guys would have gone to other companies, they would have been all over the world.''

Brent Ogilvie, managing director of venture capital company Pacific Channel
Asked how he'd rate Callaghan's first year, Ogilvie says there've been teething problems.

''They've been challenged to become as efficient as they need to be in the interface with business in a timely way. I'm aware of (one company) which is struggling to get partner responses from Callaghan.''

But he points to the successful relationship between the agency and one of Pacific Channel's investments, D'Arcy Polychrome. The venture is about to go to market with its industry disruptor stir-in paint pigments, developed over two years in collaboration with Callaghan and its predecessor IRL.

The big difference now is the integration between the science and commercialisation functions, he says.

''In the past you might have access to those smart IRL scientists.'

"(But) you never had the synergy of both Callaghan understanding your technology better and knowing where the real opportunity lies for the company.''

KiwiNet
The grouping of universities and Crown Research Institutes set up to take a collaborative approach to commercialising research says Callaghan is still in its first innings.

Chairman Ruth Richardson sees the two organisations as parts of a bike - KiwiNet is the frame, igniting ideas out of the publicly funded research institutes, and Callaghan is the wheels - ''business facing, and looking back into the ecosystem if you like, and trying to better connect ideas with those who have a business need''.

General manager Bram Smith has no concerns the two may be stepping on each other's patches.
''To me their mission is crystal clear - to accelerate innovation in firms.'

"Ours is to do the same thing in the research community.

''Innovation is not something you can just put a recipe in place and make it happen, it requires lots of different people taking creative approaches to it,'' he says.

ikeGPS
In January Wellington measurement solutions company ikeGPS received one of the new R&D Growth Grants, administered by Callaghan. The grants cover 20 per cent of a firm's R&D spend up to a cap of $5 million a year over a three-year period.

So the more firms spend, the more they get. The company has been well supported by Callaghan and its predecessors, chief operating officer Paul Brewerton says.

The grant application process was ''definitely thorough and quite rigorous, but then there's nothing wrong with that''.

Without the assistance ikeGPS would be much further behind timeline-wise, he says.

''It's helped speed up the whole research and go to market. We put most of our revenue back into research so it's critical for us as we grow.

''It does give you a level of kudos as well, the fact we've got the backing helps further investment.''

There are pros and cons to the new co-funding system versus fixed grants, but the new mechanism offers more flexibility, he says.

''Knowing we've got that support for the long term is probably preferential for us now. We don't have to be too narrow in what we focus on based on the grant.''   

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