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Show and Tell: How do you spend on R&D while continuing to grow your business?

As part of the New Zealand Innovation Council’s new video series, Innovation Heroes - Show and Tell, which will focus on eight specific elements required to achieve successful business growth, some of Aotearoa’s best-known innovators share their stories of innovation and inspiration. This time Sunfed Meats’ Shama Lee, Ligar’s Nigel Slaughter and Volpara’s Lisa Johnston talking funding and R&D.

You have an idea that you believe will solve your customers problem. In order to make the ‘idea’ a viable product you’ll need to go through an R&D process first…and you’ll need some money to make it happen!

Entrepreneurs, innovators and business owners all have their own experiences to share that are very valuable to those going through R&D and Funding, as they provide a different perspective from trained business advisors. They share their real-life experiences, whereas advisors help you develop a process and hit key milestones with good processes and methodologies. Both are equally valuable in different ways, at different times.

Sunfed Meats – a company that produces plant-based meat substitutes – chief executive Shama Lee says the challenges of commercialisation should not be overlooked.

“Our biggest challenge that we are living through currently is actually commercialisation,” she says.

To overcome that, she says companies need to persevere through challenges by remaining true to what they’re about. “Focus on the product. That’s your foundation. You nail that, [and] everything else should follow. Never give up. There’s no such thing as failures, only outcomes. Learn, adapt, and try again.”

Being a storyteller might seem like a sales tactic, but Ligar chief executive Nigel Slaughter says that’s also crucial in order for investors to understand your journey and your vision for what you want your product or service to become. “Tell your story as if you’re doing a movie trailer,” he says. “The exercise of putting it into movie trailer format really focuses you on what the value is, not just ‘here’s some needs, here’s some benefits, and here’s some cool things that we can do.’ Focusing on the value of it is really powerful for attracting good investment money.”

Slaughter says identifying experts and potential business partners is crucial. “The biggest challenge is just getting them and finding the right companies who have the same burning need as we have.”

Slaughter says it all comes down to how much you care about your idea – and just how far you’ll go to bring it to life.

“It’s got to be personal,” he says. “You’ve got to have the belief. You’ve got to be able to stand in front of a room and say why you believe in it. Otherwise, it’s just another idea that you’ll get bored of once you come up with the next idea. I’ve got a message in my mind saying ‘look, there’s people around the world dying because of arsenic in the water. You’ve got a technology that can stop that.’ That keeps you going. No pressure.”

Another idea, he says: emphasise successes. “There’s nothing more impressive than successes. And the successes don’t have to be big. You can focus on doing some small things that prove that the technology works, rather than just aiming for the end goal and plodding on until that [is achieved]. For investors and other people looking on, if you can just show step-by-step improvement and getting something done, that’s really, really important.”

Lisa Johnston of Volpara Solutions – which helps detect breast cancer early, thus saving lives – stresses the importance of searching for experts. It’s also important, she says, to not only look for the funding you can get, but the funding you want.

You also need to be inspired, she says. “What inspired me to stay with Volpara was the fact that I can directly impact people’s lives, in particular women’s lives, through taking good scientific research, presenting it in a way that people have never seen before to improve breast cancer screening. It’s also really great to be delivering information that is empowering women with more knowledge about their own health and also to our customers to provide the best quality breast screening service to women they can.”

Once you’ve got your money, you need to innovate – and to do that, you need to spend money.

R&D might seem like a chore when you’re desperate to get your ideas out there, however it’s incredibly important to take the time and invest in R&D.

So, how can you fund R&D while simultaneously growing your business? One ingredient needed for success, Johnston says, is communication. “To get a really good product, you need really good communication across teams, even in research. Communicating your story to an audience so that everyone can understand the importance of R&D funding for you [is crucial].”

Embracing change is also crucial, she says. “I used to work in academia. I did a PhD. My research felt important, but I didn’t feel like I was impacting human life or any individuals. Working at Volpara, I know that we’re directly helping women in detecting breast cancer early.”

Like Johnston, Slaughter stresses the importance of teams working together. “Get individuals on the R&D team working together rather than as individuals.”

But there’s something else that’s important, Slaughter says: perseverance. And he says there are plenty of examples of perseverance we can all learn lessons from. He says he’s particularly inspired by journalists who doggedly pursue the truth, even if it comes at a great personal price and even if everyone else thinks they’re wrong. “It’s about making the choice to make the world a better place,” he says. “It’s that tenacious, never-say-die attitude.”

That perseverance, he says, has translated into his work with Ligar. “At first it was simply an amazing technology with the chance of exploring an uncharted market. Then it hit me that it would give everyone involved the chance to make a difference, to clean up pollution, to remove toxins, to extract value from waste, to help make medicines... to improve lives and perhaps even to save lives. That’s pretty damned inspiring.”

But is perseverance enough? Sunfed’s Lee says it’s also important not to undersell yourself – and to think globally. “Aim big. Have a grand vision. And be born global. So raise [funding] according to that.”

She says it all goes back to never giving up. “If you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, there’s going to be a lot of people telling you it’s not possible,” she says. “Ignore them. Listen to your inner voice, stay the course, and persevere.”

Although these three innovators come from very different backgrounds and have very different businesses, they share many of the same traits. To watch the video, download your FREE booklet and get our Innovation Heroes’ ‘Top Tips on R&D and Funding’ go to innovationcouncil.org.nz.

Sponsored by AUT. 

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