Surely NZ is too small to be a cred­i­ble and glob­ally rel­e­vant source -


Dear Scott,

I dis­agree whole­heart­edly – for a few rea­sons. It’s cer­tainly a per­spec­tive that I can un­der­stand, but it's 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 im­munether­apy 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.

Dear 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 it's 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 Ki­wis 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 its best (plus, they put a rocket into space!). -

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.

By day (and the oc­ca­sional night) David Downs is gen­eral man­ager, projects, at NZTE. Last year, while bat­tling cancer, he re­leased a book with Dr Michelle Dick­in­son on New Zealand tech­nol­ogy called No.8 Recharged.

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