High returns for science funding in New Zealand

Magnetic pads under roads that charge electric cars wirelessly and Bluetooth devices that when thrown in water or wine can measure river quality or oxidation levels—these products are practical, innovative and hot off the press.

They are also products developed through Return on Science, which turns the best technology coming out of New Zealand research labs into products that can be bought and sold in international markets.

The research might be years in development, but just 14 days can be the difference between leading the charge and falling behind other countries vying for the top spot on the world innovation stage, says Return on Science programme director Graham Scown.

Scown says the HaloIPT project, the inductive-power technology that recharges cars wirelessly, beat competitors to patent by just two weeks.

“The market that we were looking for was specifically in the vehicle market and we needed to identify the best companies that would be interested in something that they would then license and fine-tune for their specific use.”

Having started as a University of Auckland UniServices commercialisation programme, Return on Science is now a nationwide service.

“Usually at the stage that the technology is getting ready to leave the lab, it’s not ready to be picked up by the market, so there’s a gap in that space,” says Scown.

Filling this gap and helping universities, research organisations and government agencies get their technology out there is helping put New Zealand on the map, says Scown.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) agrees, having recently given Return on Science a further three years’ funding.

Scown says there’s a very deliberate process; four investment committees made up of experts from around the world take a look at the projects. The MBIE funding will ensure they can continue to meet once a month, analyse technology, and identify market potential.

Since they began four years ago, they’ve seen 260 projects.

“We’ve got investors, entrepreneurs… and then we have some retired or semi-retired distinguished academics,” says Scown.

“One of the things that New Zealand has is an enviable network overseas, you know the Kiwi ex-pat, so we utilise that a lot… we draw on people to help us confirm whether what we’re thinking about the approach to [the market] is the correct one.”

In the first stage they look at the technology, figure out the market and what questions they need to ask. The final stage is licence agreements, investment memoranda and making sure they’ve got the right answers. Along the way they work through regulatory challenges and any risks associated with the technology itself.

Developed at the University of Auckland, HaloIPT has been licensed to Qualcomm, a US-based company with the research and development retained in New Zealand.

The funding from MBIE means Return on Science can continue to open up the commercialisation process to further research organisations around New Zealand.

“We’ve got research teams from one university working with commercialisation groups from another. People are being a lot more open from within the environment, [it shows their] confidence in the sector to help and not take other people’s ideas.”