Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ATI - the new kid on the science block

Block Party 2007It's funny how some people will always find something to argue about even when they agree with each other. The subject of the argument this time was the new kid on the block, the Advanced Technology Institute. The forum for the argument was the First Reading of the Advanced Technology Institute Bill.

According to the Explanatory note, the Bill:
'establishes a new statutory Crown entity, the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), with the purpose of supporting businesses, primarily in the manufacturing sector and services sector, to improve their competitiveness and growth through science and technology-based innovation and its commercialisation'.
First Reading

The Hansard record of the First reading last month sees Hon Steven Joyce introducing a legislative framework for establishing a new high-tech HQ for innovative New Zealand businesses. The intention is to help get New Zealand's best ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace more quickly. Kiwis are apparently great at coming up with smart ideas but we need to get better at translating those ideas into commercially successful products.

The Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) will focus on industries with high growth potential. These include food and beverage manufacturing, agritechnologies, digital technologies, health technologies, therapeutics and high-value wood products.

Despite mainly cross-party support for setting up the Advanced Technology Institute, the opposition parties still found something to complain about. The proposed Board members are not scientists. The funding model is wrong. The brief is too wide. The implementation timeframe is too short. And so on and so forth.

The Bill was eventually read a first time following a party vote. It was referred to the Education and Science Committee for public submissions.

Select Committee submissions

Last week stakeholders put forward written submissions to the Education and Science Committee. Submitters were generally supportive of the establishment of the ATI as a Crown Entity.

BusinessNZ noted that businesses tend to do lots of development but not so much research. The ATI has the potential to plug a gap in the innovative sector. In written submissions BusinessNZ supported the focus of the ATI as being directed by business needs rather than science led. There is a need to solve R&D problems, challenges and/or opportunities identified by business rather than finding a market for "good ideas". It will be important to get good business talent on the stakeholder advisory group from the various sectors to ensure the continuing relevance of effort and direction.

Clause 14 of the Bill says that the ATI must 'aim to ensure that any activities it undertakes are for the net benefit of New Zealand'. The University of Waikato in written submissions said that the ATI will not achieve a 'net benefit' for New Zealand unless the Board includes representatives from the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions. Clause 8 should be amended so that Board member appointments 'reflect geographical representation from across New Zealand where centres of economic growth and potential exist'.

The ATI must concentrate on facilitating creative partnerships, according to the University of Auckland's written submissions. The University's experience over the last 20 years is that the majority of its research and innovation for business is driven by the unmet needs of the market. However, their long-standing commercial research partners always want more than that. The best research and innovation partnerships are multi-directional - market pull and science push. The University sees the ATI as an 'honest broker', introducing interested parties to each other and then leaving them to it.

Crown Research Entity Scion submits that New Zealand needs to broaden its innovation base, protect its current economic base and increase the extent to which value is added. Increasing both volume and value are critical. While Scion supports the objective of supporting science and technology based innovation, the organisation suggests that the ATI adopts a Statement of Core Purpose to achieve "additionality and complementarity" and avoid duplication.

The Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ) says that the ATI must be focused on building capacity within New Zealand, not doing research itself. Their expectation is that the ATI will develop and foster innovation within industry, be driven by industry R&D needs, and be an ongoing source of commercially-focussed research personnel.

The Economic Development Agencies of New Zealand Inc (EDANZ) recommends that the existing network of Economic Development Agencies (EDAs) and the relationships they have established are not duplicated. The organisation also wants to ensure that the complementary role of the EDA network is recognised and utilised.

Kiwi Innovation Network Limited (KiwiNet) supports the establishment of the ATI as long as it promotes greater collaboration and does not duplicate existing services. In written submissions the company is concerned that the Bill does not acknowledge that there are other organisations that are already doing good work in the areas in which the ATI will be focussed. The ATI must be built on a core culture of collaboration.

Further steps

The Education and Science Committee is due to report back to the House on 6 November 2012. I don't expect there to be too many changes proposed to the Advanced Technology Institute Bill. Most stakeholders are in favour of the new organisation.

Of course the ATI's main objective, functions and operating principles will be under the microscope for a while. You would expect that with any new kid on the block. The key to its success will be attracting an effective board and a good stakeholder advisory group. They will be saddled with redundant staff from MBIE and NZTE as well as a 'special advisor' tasked with aligning ATI's strategies and objectives with government policy.


Photo courtesy of author kpwerker under Creative Commons licence.

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