First published in stuff.co.nz on 16.10.2012
New Zealand the Innovation Factory
New Zealand needs to turn itself into an innovation factory that creates more export products and services, then more jobs, then more export revenue, then more tax-paid profits. We have plenty of people working on "garden shed" innovations, but we're not good at commercialisation - that is, taking a great idea and turning it into a commercial product that we can sell globally. Why?
Because to create great export products we need: a great idea, enough money to develop it, connections to customers who want it, a superb sales and marketing strategy to sell it - all wrapped up in a fantastic business plan with a great team to execute it. Some organisations are doing this, but not enough of them.
What are NZ's weaknesses?
1. Expecting the government to pay for everything – wake up, New Zealand, the government hasn't got the money. We’re going to have to do for ourselves. They need US to give THEM tax revenue before THEY can give US anything.
2. Picking losers mentality - I've heard officials and "experts" in high-powered meetings say righteously: "We're not here to pick winners." Yeah right - what are we here for then? To waste government and private money picking losers? No, we need to develop the skills and nous to pick winners.
3. Lack of commercialisation skills, market nous, and market contacts among our scientists – and expecting them to have all these when they should be working on their ideas. Our scientists are good scientists, but generally not good business people. That’s because they're trained to be scientists, not business people. We need to give our scientists some basic business training, connect them with skilled business people to help commercialise their ideas, but mostly leave them alone to get on with it without worrying about who’s going to get made redundant next.
4. Lack of correct performance measures - we need to ask questions like: How much public money could this product save? How many export jobs will it create? How can we keep the jobs and tax revenue in New Zealand? Is it a new paradigm that will change the world? How do we foster an atmosphere of innovation?
5. We sell off our best ideas (and people) to overseas owners. This is promoted as a good thing - foreign capital raising so that majority ownership goes offshore. Pretty dumb, really. Sure, the inventor gets a few million (BMW, boat and bach) initially, but the billions are captured by foreign owners and foreign governments, and we end up working for them - same old, same old. We need to grow billion-dollar companies here, and keep the tax revenues here too, so we can afford the first world facilities we naively expect we can keep on a second world income. I know it’s a big ask for a country of only four million, but we need to figure out how WE can take over THEM - step by step.
6. "Can't do, woe is me, too far away from anywhere" attitude. This is what the Australians have over us. They have a "can do" attitude, "give it a go, mate, and if you fall down, we’ll help you up, and give it another go…" We need to stop looking at the obstacles, and instead look for a way around them. And if we need to do a deal (collaborate) with others (even Australians), we need to be commercially smart in the way we do this.
All this needs to be wrapped up in an innovation network that pools all the brains, financial, and marketing resources of the country, so that innovators can get run through an Innovation Factory (boot camp) to make sure they get their science and sales strategies right. Because one doesn’t work without the other. We already have the kernel of this in New Zealand, with Auckland University’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, and the NZ Venture Investment Fund, but we need much more unity and collaboration, and especially buy-in from NZ business – small and large. We're simply too small to have a whole heap of tiny (or even medium-sized) outfits doing bits of the Innovation Network unconnected. The Innovation Factory can be virtual - I’m not advocating we spend yet more millions on buildings.
Key questions for investors in innovation
Key questions for everybody: How much public money did we save today? How many export jobs did we create today? How much tax-paid profit did we generate today? How many innovators, and brilliant young scientists and engineers did we mentor and inspire and keep in New Zealand today?