The new big bang: AUT's Colab and Spark Ventures

The academic world tends to focus on the theoretical; on what should be done. The business world tends to focus on the pragmatic; on what can be done. But the two realms are increasingly working together, writes Deirdre Coleman.

The perceived disconnect between education and the ‘real world’ is one that many of today’s tertiary institutions are working hard to overcome. With its strong focus on innovation and preparing students for the changing world, AUT is leading the charge locally.

Integral to this philosophy is engaging with industry and one of the university’s initiatives for forging connections is Colab, a hub for design and creative technologies. Its aim is to unite students and industry specialists in the spirit of creative collaboration. Associate Professor and Colab co-director Charles Walker describes it as a collaborative living lab for testing ideas and new ways of doing things in an age of great social and technological change.

“Our world is changing fast and education is trying to catch up,” he says. “We see ourselves right at the very edge of the university, facing outwards. We’re building a kind of living lab for innovative, more flexible and entrepreneurial approaches to the relationship between education, life and work for the 21st century.”

Colab co-director Charles Walker

Making it real

While universities are places of specialisation, Colab has shifted the perception of how they operate, says Walker. The scientific research paradigm is about breaking things down into smaller and smaller fields so they can be analysed in detail, but Colab is investigating how this knowledge can be used by real people in real life. 

“We’re interested in connecting things up again,” explains Walker. “It’s a kind of ‘entrepreneurial’ paradigm – how do you combine different kinds of knowledge to create new value? In Colab, maybe our specialism is to be a generalist; to create people who can connect things up.

“We’re particularly interested in innovative, experimental and creative applications of new technologies, but always thinking about how they impact on real life. The future will depend on people with imagination, advanced technological skills and the entrepreneurial ability to link-up different kinds of academic or advanced professional knowledge in new ways. We don’t believe in business-as-usual.”

And nor does Rod Snodgrass, CEO of Spark Ventures. Spark established this new business unit in 2013 to drive growth and innovation by creating new markets, products and services. Among its offerings are the internet TV service Lightbox; Morepork, a remote home-monitoring app; the prepaid-only Skinny Mobile service; naked broadband service, Bigpipe; and Qrious,
a big data platform.

Spark Ventures CEO, Rod Snodgrass

Digital disruptors

Snodgrass says working with startups and partnering with academia is a vital aspect of surviving in a completely different technology landscape.

“Businesses that don’t grow die,” he says. “We live in a digital world so it’s a case of disrupt or be disrupted. We’ve learnt to embrace it and look for areas where we can be on the right side of disruption, using our networks and capability to swim in the fast parts of the river.”

The past decade and a half has seen unprecedented change, says Snodgrass, and it’s meant that collaboration and the sharing of ideas is now essential to remaining globally competitive.

“Just 15 years ago, the telco world was a vertically integrated one with a simple offering. Today, innovation can come from anywhere. It’s much more digital and distributed. Until recently, telcos, and many other industries, didn’t really need partners – they had suppliers and customers. But in today’s world we know we can’t do everything; your competitors are global, the internet has collapsed a lot of physical barriers – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – so you’re competing with everyone now, and in that sort of world you need to partner, which means sharing the risk and the reward on some level.”

Joining forces

Colab and Spark Ventures had been talking informally for about a year. At the end of 2015, their collaboration became official and in 2016, they’ll join forces in what, Walker says, always seemed like a natural partnership. 

“In many ways, Spark Ventures is to Spark what Colab is to AUT: a relatively small, agile and responsive agency with access to the resources of a larger organisation, and able to act as a sandpit for trying out new things that can then be scaled up, adapted or diversified across bigger platforms.”

Rod Snodgrass, he says, clearly recognised the potential of working with universities and startups, and wasn’t shy about his desire to access cutting-edge research, smart people and good ideas. 

“He wanted to work in ways that were different from how universities and industries had in the past,” says Walker. “We wanted the same thing, plus access to modern business expertise and entrepreneurial thinking; so it seemed like a no-brainer.” 

Snodgrass was drawn in part by AUT’s proactive approach to working with industry, and a message and strategy that complemented that of Spark Ventures. 

“The Colab environment is very familiar to us because we have our own Living Lab within Spark Ventures where we do testing, proof of concept and prototyping. 

“We’re happy to partner with different New Zealand tertiary institutions, but we feel that AUT’s ways of learning are similar to our ways of working. There’s a cultural fit. We see the same sorts of problems and challenges – and every problem is also an opportunity – but just from different directions. At Spark Ventures, we see it from the business world, and we have a range of technology challenges we’re trying to solve with new ways of thinking. At Colab, they have smart people and ways of thinking, and things they may be trying to commercialise. We’re striving for very similar outcomes but coming at them from different directions. We’ll all learn things along the way.” 

Snodgrass believes closer collaboration between industry and academia in New Zealand is vital and will be mutually beneficial. 

“There are a lot of smart people at universities who’ll be in the work place at some point. We have work to do, they’ve got the brains. We’ll get to meet some of their students and graduates and they’ll get to see how we work. Hopefully somewhere in the middle the secret sauce will be made.” 

Emma Pottinger, using an iPad with an augmented reality app (background work: Vizcera by ALexey Botkov)

The secret sauce

The projects Spark Ventures and Colab will collaborate on are still being finalised, but they’ll likely involve digital innovations designed to enhance lives and business. The deal is fairly open in its scope, says Walker, but will include some joint ventures and events.

“We’ve identified research projects in two emerging fields of mutual interest: Data Visualisation and the Internet of Things. Our students will work closely with Spark Ventures, possibly in the workplace and/or with another Spark Ventures’ partner.”

One of the benefits to AUT is the financial assistance some postgraduate students will enjoy. The partnership will provide for two full-time scholarships in the Master of Creative Technologies programme at Colab. 

“Our students will also have a chance to build valuable research skills in an interesting new field,” says Walker. “They will also be connected to meaningful business practices and potential employer networks. And Spark gets a smart worker and valuable research capability in their organisation.” 

Building on an established model

While it might be a somewhat novel approach in New Zealand, academic/industry partnerships are nothing new overseas. The US has a long history of university-industry collaboration, and recent high-profile partnerships include MIT and Facebook, Carnegie Mellon and NASA.

“The MIT Media Lab was certainly a model for us in establishing Colab back in 2008,” says Walker. “At that time there were almost no other examples of a place that combined design, computer science and the humanities – something that’s very difficult to do in most universities.

“In some ways we may have been ahead of MIT in how we organised Colab. We wanted to look at complex real-world problems that can’t be solved by traditional approaches. The real world can’t be neatly divided up into engineering or design or business, or whatever, in the way most universities are, so we had the idea of abandoning traditional lectures and classroom teaching in favour of projects and partnerships with anyone with an interesting idea who wanted to work with us.

“We’re very fortunate in that AUT is open to new ways of doing things, and has supported Colab while we ignore all the traditional boundaries between science, technology, the arts, or business. So it seemed logical for us to approach partners like Spark Ventures and others to create innovative ways of learning and working. Now institutions around the world are copying us.”

Partners a-plenty

For Colab, this collaboration with Spark Ventures is important but it’s far from unique. Colab already has agreements in place with a number of innovative New Zealand companies and is in negotiation with others from overseas. 

“We’ve been very successful in developing new partnerships between our researchers and industry or community partners – for example, in areas such as smart textiles, wearable technologies, intelligent interaction design and social innovation using new technologies,” says Walker.

“We’re interested in leveraging partnerships like the one with Spark Ventures to demonstrate what the relationship between universities, industries and communities might look like. And we’re definitely keen to talk to any New Zealand companies who believe there could be some mutual benefit in partnering with us.”

This article appears in the forthcoming issue of Idealog (#61), out next week...