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When science becomes business

By Anna Campbell

Turning science into business is fraught with complexities. There is a natural tension between business and science which more often than not, leads to frustrations, delays and conflict. In business, the goal is to get a product into market as soon as possible and gain maximum returns on investment. In science, the goal is to investigate and understand how a product/mechanism works in a range of environments, exploring every angle possible and sharing that information amongst peers in order to elucidate even more knowledge.    

The tension between science and technology and commercial outcomes occurs worldwide and is captured by the term ‘valley of death’ which is used to define the the gap between demonstrating the soundness of a technical concept in a controlled setting and readying a technology for market. The valley of death is where many start-ups and good ideas fall over through lack of capital, communication, know-how and other well documented challenges. 

Bridging the gap

None of this is new; successive New Zealand Governments have attempted to close the gap between business and science through varying policies and funding mechanisms. Unfortunately though, when I hear about some of the initiatives in place, I shake my head in despair, because often what they are trying to do is ‘teach old dogs new tricks’. To put people trained in one discipline, for example a career scientist who has lived on a steady stream of Government funding for 30 years and then expect them to work in and understand another discipline, business in this case, is a big stretch if that person is not interested. In some cases it can be done, but more often than not, there is resistance to change and a lot of pushing the proverbial uphill. I would say, in these cases, leave those people to do what they do best and work with those who want to be in the science-business intersect.

The advent of high-profile companies, such as Apple, Google and Facebook, is helping to close the divide for the next generations of scientists/technologists and business people. In fact this path has become so mainstream I have recently watched two movies with my family which celebrate this type of innovative culture: ‘The Internship’ (which was pretty bad to be honest, but fun for the family) and ‘The Social Network’. Both movies made the concept of merging technology and business fun, accessible and acceptable. 

Supporting young people is a good start

Even more exciting is the openness to science, innovation and commercialisation that is now happening in schools. My oldest child is approaching high-school age, with his two siblings following hot on his heels. So I found myself this year visiting a number of our local high schools. It didn’t matter which school I went to, they all had programmes in place opening up ideas of science, technology and business entrepreneurship. This type of exposure will be a great grounding for those who choose to work in the business and science arenas. I also recently assisted with judging the ‘Audacious’ business competition, run by the University of Otago and designed to support students’ entrepreneurial endeavours. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot from my fellow judges, so I am sure the students did too. Many of the projects had a science/technical twist and a genuine chance of commercial success. My only regret is that I wasn’t exposed to such initiatives at a similar age.

Commercialising science and technology is hugely important for Dunedin and New Zealand’s future. Our Government recognises this (both when led by Labour and now National) and as such have done much to develop policy and investment strategies to reflect this focus. In my view though, the best investment we can make is in our schools, polytechnics and universities, supporting them to show our young people some of the paths and opportunities available to them.

I personally, nearly cried with joy, when my middle child came home from primary school last month having just visited a supermarket and watched pieces of a beef carcass being cut up. He told me with great delight where the meat had come from and described the logistics and complexities it had undergone to get to the consumers and just how it was going to be packaged and stored. I am pretty sure his enthusiasm was genuine and not just a reflection of my barely contained excitement! Science and business in action and a grounding in value chain logistics to boot… and all at primary school. Keep up the good work teachers, our children have an exciting future!