FRST Postgraduate Careers Workshop – A career in science: Where to from here


The FRST Postgraduate Careers Workshop is an annual day long event of seminars held in conjunction with the MacDiarimid Young Scientist of the year award (MYSY).

The day was broken up into three sections: an overview of science research funding, a roundtable discussion (a panel of 6 scientists sharing their career background and tips/hints) and a seminar on ‘Getting your research out there’. I was disappointed to see there were no speakers from the private industry. All were from CRIs or the Universities (AUT or UoA).

Unable to put aside a whole day for the event I decided to solely attend the final session of the day i.e. ‘Getting your research out there’. I was particularly interested to see what the diverse panel of presenters had to say in relation to the commercialisation of research as a means of getting your research out there.

The first speaker was Prof Darius Singh from AUT, director of the Engineering Research Institute and Centre for Advanced Manufacturing Technology at the University. Previously Darius worked as Ford’s Global Technology Manager for 15 years. He was involved in the FRST’s TIF programme, where students are recruited to conduct their postgraduate studies in conjunction with a company. In Darius’s case this involved a PhD with Ford in the computer modelling of the company’s manufacturing processes. Being embedded within the industry he found that his research adopted the companies policy of knowledge extraction through implementation of his research into the company’s operations. He termed this as R,D & D – Research, Development and Deployment. Contrary to what academic scientists think, this deployment does not happen simply by publishing. Other forms of knowledge dissemination he utilised were conference presentations and particularly trade magazines [ a method which directly targeted a large audience who would gain benefit from it]. Darius concluded by noting the difficulties studying and working in the gap between academia and industry 1- communication: The need to change how you communicate when your audience changes. 2- Staying on track vs. Exploratory.

The second speaker was Dr. Temoana Southward, Principle Engineer at Altitude, a subsidiary of Air NZ that designs innovative aerospace interiors. Like Darius, Temoana was also involved with the TIF programme but with Air NZ. He mentioned that he saw Darius’s deployment term integrated into the development component of R&D as in his experiences he viewed R&D as a more applied concept to begin with. Temoana offered some quick pointers regarding turning to the private industry for a career. Find out what the company’s ‘drivers’ and sell yourself on that basis. He found that despite being a postgraduate student, you are purely seen as JUST a ‘student straight out of uni’ that has no experience and therefore your potential employer is unsure of the actual skills you bring to the company. This is despite possibly being involved in industry projects from the programs like TIF. Because of this you need to sell yourself.

Next up was Dr Luke Krieg, Commercialisation Manager at AUT. The two previous speakers mentioned that the securing of intellectual property was a speed hump on the route to publication while being immersed in a commercial environment for their research. However in a timely manner Luke highlighted that patents are in fact a publication themselves and once you secure the IP you are free to publish.

Where the two previous speakers focused on getting research out there in terms of internal implementation, Luke focused purely on commercialisation. This involved three components:

1- Contract research – Self explanatory. All IP rights are typically signed over to the contractor including a clause which ensures commercialisation of the research is pursued.

2- Licensing/patent – Luke mentioned this is typically where scientists are conducting ‘blue skies’ research and they come across something potentially useful i.e. a cure for cancer. They obviously want to make sure it is put into use but don’t have the ability/ skill, money, desire to do so. The success of licensing is highly dependent on whether IP can be established as to safe guard the value for a company willing to invest

3- Starting a company – pointed out a hard road ( One I’m willing to take)

In support of his pro-commercialisation of research stance he pulled out NZ’s OECD rankings illustrating our lack of R&D expenditure as a share of GDP. Particularly big NZ businesses don’t spend enough compared with overseas counterparts. This is resulting in less value added exports meaning less R&D opportunity in NZ leading to a vicious cycle for all us emerging scientists. Luke went on to state why this is happening 1 – NZ Businesses have yet to learn to ‘invest’ rather than ‘spend’ on R&D. 2- Limited growth ambition (stop once you get the 3Bs). Interestingly he mentioned 42 Below selling off to Bacardi as one of these, despite the founders reinvestment their money back into new fledgling businesses. And 3 – Transitioning overseas. He concluded by pushing the idea that there is ‘life after publication’ – i.e. don’t let thesis/ publications gather dust make sure research is followed through and translated into products/services/methods etc. Following Luke’s presentation I put forward a question concerning an area I have taken recent interest into. Question: ‘ How does AUT manage the IP interests of students’. Answer: Depends on situation i.e. contracted research, where the funding has come from. Like in most cases it depends on the contribution of the universities resources to the generation of this IP. So, typically the IP is owned by the university but the benefits derived from the IP {royalties) are proportional to the contribution of the researcher. Also, like the University of Auckland a discussion with the student prior to undertaking such research is advised to address these IP issues. However I did sense a degree of uncertainty towards the topic, something I believe is quite a national phenomenon and an issue I have begun to investigate further – I will report at a later date.

The final speaker for the session was John Tyrrell, Business Manager for FRST. Like Luke, John developed a passion for bringing science research to market. He has a background in Zoology and Ecology combined with molecular biology and has profound experience in algal blooms including a patent for a diagnostic used for their management. John mainly focused on how he sort to build and diversify his skill set as he went through his various career steps whether it was marketing and sales with Biolab Ltd or working with engineers in his postdoctoral studies enabling the development of his research. He also advocated common goal research collaboration.

To round up the session Murray Bain, CEO of FRST, addressed the crowd with some very pleasing words concerning how we make sure value is extracted from our research. Discussions with his Finnish counterparts around how they ensure research gets commercialised resulted in a confused response – it just isn’t a question over there, it just happens. His search for further answers led him to MIT, a highly innovative and entrepreneurial university where their academic environment is wrapped in an ecosystem of entrepreneurship (something the UoA is also trying to develop). For example entrepreneurs get in touch with scientists at the very early stages of their research, establish a relationship which will carry on through until a commercial opportunity is developed. I can draw similarities with the Entrepreneur in Residence programme at the University of Auckland.

Murray regularly pointed to two of NZ’s great scientists Prof. Paul Callaghan and Prof Peter Hunter mentioning they both ‘wished they started to think about commercialisation earlier’ on in their careers – of course this was MUSIC TO MY EARS. Both of them remain in the research space but are very commercially aware individuals – Callaghan with Magritek and Peter Hunter with the commercial ventures coming out of the Bioengineering Institute, UoA.

Murray was questioned about the influence of the recent government change on FRST. Because of the predicted deficits to come, it is believed that there won’t be a lot of new money. He pointed out that there are several changes including the slash of the R&D tax credit and the removal of the FFF. The result, funds being directed away from private and into public organisations. However the true affect is not known as through private:public collaborations the effect may neutralise. He concluded that he wanted an even portfolio of investment ranging from early stage to ‘close-to-commercialisation research.

Quote: ‘Innovation is now the fuel for our economy’

Within his speech he illustrated quite a neat but simple concept of how money moves around. I thought I’d add ‘Invention’ in there as well just for completeness sake.



Related Information:

MIT Entrepreneurial Ecosystem


2: [ Ken Morse, MD of MIT Entrepreneurship Centre, returns to NZ to run a global sales strategy workshop each year ]



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