UniServices boss going out on a high

Peter Lee, chief executive at UniServices, is leaving the company in March after eight years at its helm, steering the University of Auckland-owned R&D firm through thick and thin.

Peter Lee, chief executive at UniServices, is leaving the company in March after eight years at its helm, steering the University of Auckland-owned research and development firm through thick and thin.

peter lee uniservices interview idealogWhat are you most proud of?

When I came in we were at $62 million [in revenue] and at that time I said we should double that in seven years – here we are at $145 million. We said we were going to become more global and we had, I think, $25 million in international business in 2005 and we have $61 million now.

What are your thoughts on the link between industry and research?

Our philosophy is [that] it’s a creative process. Our job as a separate company run by business people is to have one leg in the business community and one leg in the academic community of the university. We realise they’re different cultures and with that realisation we can bring them together in cooperative collaborative, creative dialogue.

I think if we can get businesses talking about their needs and researchers talking about the technology in such a way that that conversation creates more than the sum of the parts, something comes out of that neither the business people nor the researchers that could have occurred to them separately. When that does occur you have really big ideas. Our byline is ‘the start of something big’ and that’s what we stand for – bringing those two communities together in more than a transactional relationship, but in a discovery relationship. I think that’s been very valuable for us.

What’s changed over the years you’ve been there?

We started as, if you like, a small entrepreneurial company of our own right, without much structure and a lot of individual activity. To have made this transition from a small company to a mid-size or even largish company we’ve had to put structured processes in place. A lot of this growth has been enabled by being a little bit more corporate in the way we do business.

HaloIPT is probably the most high profile success story out of UniServices. Any others?

Halo is one example of a whole range of applications that have come out of that basic technology. If you think about the underlying science – to transfer high amounts of energy across gaps – not only is that valuable for cars as HaloIPT has proven but it’s also valuable for materials handling processes in factories.

So we’ve deployed that in automotive manufacturing and cleanroom manufacturing (manufacturers of large screen TVs and integrated circuits). We’ve integrated it in biotech, biomedical applications. We’ve deployed it into small-scale power applications like PowerByProxi.

Although HaloIPT was the most recent big splash, that ability to build off a basic science platform with all those different applications is much bigger than any one application in itself. So if you look at the whole spectrum it’s quite exciting.

Many of those companies are New Zealand based – PowerbyProxi, Telemetry, 3i Innovations. All of them have made New Zealand their home based on that core competency.

What’s your take on the new Advanced Technology Institute?

ATI is going to be another interface with business in New Zealand. The ATI has been described as somewhat of a thin shell of a business-facing organisation that will draw off the existing capabilities of the research provider such as the University of Auckland. That way it will be very complementary to what we do. That is the configuration we are interested in supporting and being a part of.

The final format is still a matter of discussion but I think it would be ideal if it were industry-facing, an advocate for technical innovation in the high-tech industries in New Zealand, and an additional pathway for the technical capabilities within our research providers within industry. It’s very important that ATI does not interfere with that creative dialogue, though, and shouldn’t presume to be in the way.

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