I’ll Meet You at The Edge – A Love Letter to Academic Entrepreneurs
April 1, 2021
by Anna

Written by Jon Sandbrook

To Tomorrow’s Gamechangers (you know who you are),

Kiwis are an innovative bunch. We fix things. We are curious. We dream well beyond our shores. We are a nation of explorers, tinkerers, and builders.

Geographically speaking, New Zealand is out at the edge of the world. But don’t let that fool you, New Zealand is also home to a thriving community of world-class research institutions, and researchers working tirelessly at the frontiers of their chosen fields – discovering, innovating, iterating. But you already know that, of course.

So, there you are, out at the edge, doing edge-of-the-world research.

Simultaneously, the world is increasingly screaming out for solutions to some of humanity’s biggest challenges – around sustainable energy, food, transport, connectivity, to name a few.

And, you know what? You just might have some of those solutions in your research labs, under your desk, or in the back room.

I’d like to talk to you about entrepreneurship. The kind that takes deep technology innovation and uses it to transform the world as we know it.

When recruiting team members for his famed “Great Southern Journey” in 1908-09 departing from Lyttleton, aiming to reach as far south as possible on the frozen continent of Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton’s simple newspaper job advertisement summed up the risk in such a venture at the nexus of scientific discovery and bravery:

“Men Wanted: for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in event of success.”

Famously, as the story goes, the ad captured the attention of many aspiring adventurers of the time and Shackleton had his choice of team for the upcoming expedition, despite the clear challenges and low likelihood of success.

Interestingly though, Shackleton’s story is one where the explorer and his team actually ended up falling 112 miles (~180km) short of reaching the South Pole. This could have been deemed a failure, falling short of the goal. However, the outcome for Shackleton was, in fact, quite the opposite. He was widely celebrated for setting a new record for reaching the farthest south latitude at 88°S and extending the boundaries of human knowledge further than ever before. He was honoured by the Royal Geographical Society, who awarded him a Gold Medal, and knighted by King Edward VII for his efforts. He was, for all intents and purposes, lauded as a hero by his peers and the public alike.

My point here is that even in perceived ‘failure’ there is success. Shackleton didn’t reach the Pole as he’d hoped, but he did reach further into the icy continent than anyone had before, propelling the field (and his own reputation) forward at the same time.

The story of Shackleton illustrates the value of pushing the boundaries to expand the capacity of the human race. Deep technology innovation and entrepreneurship is very much focused on this same purpose.

As noted by Christophe Tallec, General Director of Hello Tomorrow, a global deeptech community –

“Deeptech is all about long-term trends. It targets today the kinds of segments that will have tremendous economic weight and influence [over] our lives in the coming decade.”

The outcomes of deep tech commercialisation are hugely beneficial to ecosystem act at all levels:

  1. For the individual entrepreneurs involved, there is potential for huge financial rewards, professional kudos, and the development of entirely new skills and capabilities.
  2. For universities/institutions, there is huge brand value creation, attracting students and academic talent, attracting more research funding, and direct financial returns from commercialisation of IP through successful start-ups.
  3. For industry, there is massive value in problems solved, efficiency enhanced, and new and improved products created.
  4. For investors, there are unparalleled opportunities for financial returns.
  5. For the country, there is enhanced economic growth, job creation, talent attraction, and global standing and influence.

To quote Tallec again: deeptech startups are “…often described as the bridge between fundamental scientific research and the potential applications deriving from it.”

Of course, there are many reasons why start-up ventures may fail. That fact is well documented – look here, here, and here. So, like Shackleton’s expedition to the Pole, the entrepreneurial journey is not for the faint of heart.

The bridge between great research and great deeptech commercialisation may be narrow (nobody said building the next deeptech unicorn, or reaching the South Pole, was easy). But the span from the lab to greatness is not as wide as you might think.

Ok, so naturally, the next question is… How do we build those bridges?

That, in my view, is where you the humble yet brilliant academic entrepreneur, come in.

There you are. Already on the edge of world technically. And the world is screaming out for solutions you are on the precipice of creating (if you haven’t already). The ingredients are all there.

And what’s more, there is a ton of support and resources available to help you to commercialise your innovations – think commercialisation offices (e.g. Wellington UniVentures, Auckland UniServices, Otago Innovation, and others), government support agencies (e.g. Callaghan Innovation), support organisations (e.g. KiwiNet and Return on Science), as well as a great network of incubators and like-minded investment partners (like us at WNT Ventures).

If it all still sounds too hard, and you are struggling to believe it’s possible, you needn’t look far past your colleagues for some inspiration.

In addition to New Zealand’s long history of inventors, visionaries, and creators, our country also has many spectacularly great contemporary academic entrepreneurs. Take for example Professor Jason Wargent, who is maximising plant biology with UV through his company Biolumic, and Professor Cather Simpson who’s microfluidic and photonic technologies are transforming the world through Engender Technologies and Orbis Diagnostics.

And that’s just two that immediately spring to mind. There are many more.

So, be not afraid. I implore you to seek to solve the biggest problems you can find. And be audacious about chasing the opportunities inherent in your most powerful technical insights.

Indeed, you have everything to gain.

The journey of an academic entrepreneur is hugely challenging, but it is also a chance to leave your enduring mark on the world. And you never know, it may just prove to be worth it.

Disclaimer: Here at WNT Ventures, we love academic entrepreneurs and technically minded founders. We work alongside them, invest in them, and share their passion for technology. That’s what we do. We live and breathe this stuff every day because we believe in the fundamental power of New Zealand’s research labs, workshops, and garages as the starting point for creating the future.

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