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Dear David: debunking common myths plaguing the New Zealand tech industry

Surely NZ is too small to be a credible and globally relevant source of innovation and technology?

Scott the skeptic

Dear Scott,

I disagree wholeheartedly – for a few reasons. It’s certainly a perspective that I can understand, but its just (excuse the pun) patently wrong. New Zealand has long been a source of innovation and change, and not just in technology either: first in the world to introduce the 40 hour working week, first to have universal suffrage. Heck, we even crowdfunded a beach and gave a river the same rights as a person!

I won’t debate that in the technical areas, New Zealand has to work hard to keep up and ahead of the rest of the world. We’ll never be able to have the breadth of research or innovation that other countries can afford, but what we lack in scale, we can make up for in quality. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across some amazing examples of world leading technical innovation from right here in New Zealand.

One example is the Malaghan Institute in Wellington. Over the past year I battled terminal cancer, and was ultimately saved through amazing innovations in immune therapy, for which I had to travel to the USA and have advanced and expensive treatment. Imagine my surprise to find out that not only is similar immune-therapy research being done here in New Zealand, but they are further innovating how the manufacturing process works, and hope to have clinical trials running with their technology ‘soon’ (in the next year, probably). They’ve partnered with scientists in other countries and refined and improved their techniques to create our very own CAR-T therapy. World leading, in New Zealand.

What are the advantages you see from coming from a small country when it comes to technical innovation?

Inquisitive Ian

Ian, I am glad you asked. Too often we focus on the challenges of being from a small country, like lack of capital, need to travel and difficulty with sourcing talent. There is no question some of these are real challenges.

However, our small size also has distinct advantages – for example, our small population means its fairly easy to track down the people you need to talk to, or work with. The famous ‘two degrees’ of separation is true in New Zealand – I’ll wager that you can track down pretty much anyone you want to talk to with a few phones calls or emails, and some persistence. They are also likely to get back to you, and probably even meet you for a coffee if you really try.

Similarly, we can come together and collaborate on problems. I saw an exemplar of collaboration recently when I visited the Product Accelerator in Auckland. This organisation is a collaboration of universities and some crown research institutes who have come together to help accelerate the commercialisation of science and create new products for companies to help them grow. Think of them as an uber R&D team that pulls the top scientists and researchers together to focus on specific problems or opportunities. For example, they’ve done work as diverse as helping an airline re-design their coffee cup holders, 3D printed prosthetics for amputees, helped wineries better ferment their wines, created better membranes for filtering water… Companies come to them with real issues, and the collective mind collaborates to come up with solutions from people all around New Zealand.

One other thing Liwis are known for is our ability to turn our hands to any challenge and to have multiple skillsets and a pragmatic outlook. Peter Beck of Rocket Lab tells of how a team from NASA came to New Zealand to help test their Electron rocket under extreme cold conditions. The NASA team spent hours coming up with ways to simulate the cold depths of space, with special rooms, liquid nitrogen, etc. Peter’s team jumped in the Ute, went down to the petrol station and filled up the car with Party Ice, which worked perfectly. Kiwi ingenuity at it’s best (plus, they put a rocket into space!)

Quick one – what’s biggest challenge to growing our technology sector even further?

Straight to the point Steven

Dear Steven,

 That is a tough one. It’s tempting to go to operational and tactical things: a lack of growth capital, or the challenge with finding experienced leaders and managers, and of course technical folk. However, I think our challenge is largely one of our own making – our level of aspiration. Too often I think we set our sights too low and don’t have the level of ambition we could. We have great role models with New Zealanders who truly do set their sights high, and we should celebrate them. If all Kiwis had the same expectation of winning that our national rugby team does, I am certain we’d achieve the same results they do. It’s time to use our ‘unfair advantages’ and dream bigger.

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