In scientific research, patience is a virtue
By John Boys and Grant Covic,
Professors John Boys and Grant Covic pioneered work in inductive power transfer tech. They say it's worth playing the long game when it comes to scientific research.
We all want results, but when it comes to scientific research, they don’t always come as fast as many today would like. A decade ago, relocating high performing Kiwi companies overseas was frowned upon—today, there are plenty of companies built on New Zealand-developed science based in the United States, Europe or Asia.
Selling to offshore interests was once even less acceptable, especially when taxpayer money had helped pay for the underpinning science, but the recent applause for Microsoft’s acquisition of Wellington cloud computing company Green Button illustrates just how much things have changed.
But while finding money early can make sense, it’s not always the best outcome. You can’t expect deep innovation in a year or two—truly transformative technologies that deliver ongoing return to New Zealand, take time to develop. It’s not easy keeping on researching and developing your idea in the often cash-strapped New Zealand environment.
Early stage ideas don’t cost very much—later stage ones do, and that’s partly why we are tempted in New Zealand to give it away early. In our case, we also had to cope with doubters who continually told us that our idea for transferring electricity without cables was both impossible and crazy.
But in a way, that was also what kept us going. We knew how significant our technology would be if it succeeded and, crucially, we believed it would. New Zealanders are undoubtedly innovative and continually come up with good ideas, but what we’re not so good at is leveraging that knowledge for the national good.
Of course there are instances where New Zealand simply doesn’t have the structures to realise the potential of a technology in the timeframe within which it can be successful.
Added to that, is the challenge of recognising when an idea or a discovery has what it takes to be truly transformative. But those obstacles need to be balanced with the risks of selling early.
When a business leaves our shores, it’s not just the intellectual property that goes. Typically, many of the people and skills are also lost to the New Zealand innovation eco-system.
Of course if you are going to incubate potentially game-changing research in New Zealand you have to find ways to pay for it.
Winning the Prime Minister’s Science Prize has given our work a boost. It’s opened doors to connections in New Zealand and internationally and it’s exposed the technology to a much wider audience than we would have been able to. Importantly, it’s also given us prize money that has no strings attached and which we can use to explore.
The importance of basing our research in a university cannot be underestimated. For a start, there’s the benefit of having smart PhD students working on your technology. As well as bringing new ideas and perspectives, teams gain a momentum that individuals can’t.
There is money for blue skies research in New Zealand but it’s limited. In our case, it took time, but we found companies that were willing to partner with us long term, for at least a decade and sometimes 20 years.
We spent some of our time solving their needs for today and in return they provided funds to help us research what they might need tomorrow. Finding those partners is not easy—we spent a lot of time kissing frogs before we found the fairy princess.