Close

The mother of invention

The mother of invention
Last year Idealog published Cash for Ideas—The Idealog Guide to Commercialising Your Ideas. In its pages we brought together an expert panel from six of the top innovation support firms in the country. We enjoyed it so much, and learned so much, that we are doing it again.
Magazine Layout

The Idealog + NZ Marketing Innovation Guide

Last year Idealog published Cash for Ideas—The Idealog Guide to Commercialising Your Ideas. In its pages we brought together an expert panel from six of the top innovation support firms in the country. We enjoyed it so much, and learned so much, that we are doing it again. This time, rather than focusing on getting a single idea out in the marketplace, the aim is to transform companies into innovation machines ready to hoon our nation up the OECD rankings.

A tall order? Grenville Main, owner and managing director of research, digital and branding agency DNA , says he has heard the story before.

“All my voting life we have heard governments talking about the fact that we can’t just rely on primary products, because if commodity prices tumble we are in real trouble—there is no backup,” he says.

“But nobody has really pulled it off. The problem can be when nobody really gets that innovation is designed and engineered, it’s invested in over time. It’s no longer down to luck and it’s also not always fast. We need to create an environment where visionary CEOs can get the support they need to build a second string to New Zealand's bow.”

Hamish Campbell, manager of investment services at the spanking new Ministry of Science and Innovation, is one of the key people charged with making it happen this time.

Magazine Layout “The government, from the prime minister down, is signalling that innovation is a key driver of the future economic growth of New Zealand,”

Hamish Campbell

Manager Investment Services, MSI

“The government, from the prime minister down, is signalling that innovation is a key driver of the future economic growth of New Zealand,” he says. “We are talking about matching Australia’s GDP and we are not going to do that with business as usual. We need to encourage our companies and the next generation of entrepreneurs to invest in innovation and R&D. We have to go beyond making our existing businesses more efficient. We need to out-think our competitors and innovation is key to doing this.”

Campbell believes it can be done. Look at Denmark and Sweden: back in the 1980s and 90s they were running neck and neck with New Zealand in the ‘will farm for cash’ stakes, but are now light years ahead. And mobile phone monster Nokia somehow emerged out of a sawmill in the backwoods of Finland. These countries managed to take their natural advantages and build a platform with them, and that is what we need to do now if we are going to catch up.

The message from the Scandinavians is that the next big thing could come from anywhere. “If you had sat down at a whiteboard ten years ago,” says Campbell, “and asked what sort of New Zealand companies or industries should excel, cyber security or digital animation may not have come up on the list. But we now have world-class companies in each of those areas.”

Jonathan Kirkpatrick, CEO of AUT’s Business Innovation Centre, is similarly optimistic. “I don’t think we are bad at commercialisation at all,” he says. “Other countries have more critical mass, and much more money to throw around. Critical mass is important in getting high densities of people. Big swathes of Asia are not innovative; they just copy other people’s ideas. I think we just suffer from all the things that small populations and geography bring us. We are an innovative nation. There are Kiwi innovators doing things all over the place, especially within those primary industries.”

This seems right on two counts: one, the Chinese can’t be paying all that money just for our cows, sheep and grass. So they must also be after the intellectual property, what it is that makes our dairy and meat taste and sell better than other people’s. And two, a lot of the really important innovation is not the weird and wonderful prototypes and inventions, it is the less showy business of just doing the simple things better. It’s not just the startlingly new and Earth-shattering, it is also the stripping of things back to their essential core, or re-presenting them, that is innovative business.

The challenge is to make things better, more efficient and a little bit different. It can’t just be about finding things that work overseas and trying them here, à la TradeMe. We have to start pushing in the other direction, so the rest of the world wants more of what we’ve got.

In our Cash for Ideas supplement (January/February 2010), the disgustingly successful Derek Handley of Hyperfactory said: “If you haven’t figured out how to get the government to help you, you are an idiot.”

The Ministry of Science and Innovation has just been created with the expressed intention of helping Kiwi innovators in established businesses to become world-beaters. It is particularly keen to support three stages of development: emerging technology, companies that are active in research and development, and the highest achievers with sophisticated R&D that also mentor and help other businesses.

Manager of investment services Hamish Campbell describes the basics of the strategy: “I think as much as anything we are less about picking winners than backing winners. We have just made an investment of $92 million over three years in 26 companies with proven track records, such as Fisher and Paykel Healthcare. This is about taking companies that are already successful and helping them to accelerate their investment in innovation and that will drive future growth.”

What all our experts agree on is that innovation is a Very Good Thing, but can be bloody difficult. Their job, and ours with this guide, is to make it a bit less bloody difficult.

“We aim try to minimise the luck involved, good and bad,” says Kirkpatrick. “There is always going to be some good luck involved in getting something off the ground, but you don’t want to be relying on it. There are the right connections, the right meetings and the right deals. We work to deliberately create them. Our experience helps us see the landscape when there are times when you can’t. Its about having a bit of foresight, understanding the commercialisation process and then being quite deliberate about how you go about it.”