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Govt invests $35 mln to attract world-leading university entrepreneurs to NZ

Wednesday 20th July 2016

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The government is investing $35 million over four years into a new initiative, Entrepreneurial Universities, to attract world-leading entrepreneurial researchers and their teams to New Zealand to further strength the country’s universities and innovation eco-system.

The programme, initiated by the University of Auckland, is open to all eight of New Zealand’s universities who can enter into a 50:50 partnership to attract and support named researchers and their teams to work in the university for an initial period of three to five years.

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce said it was an “unashamedly elite fund” designed to bring the top academics, their teams, and labs to New Zealand. Those being recruited will need an established record in innovation and entrepreneurship in the top ‘maker’ disciplines such as computer sciences, nano-technology, and biotech, to help grow a pipeline of innovative start-up companies, commercialise their intellectual property, and help train the next generation of scientific entrepreneurs, Joyce said.

It’s expected up to 15 to 20 researchers and their teams will come to New Zealand over a three-year period. The fund has been modelled on similar programmes around the world, including the US and UK and works out at roughly $1 million per team per year.

When asked why the researchers would come to New Zealand over other countries with similar programmes, Joyce said the nation accounts for “something around half a percent of the world’s total science budget so we have to do some innovative thinking that will attract these entrepreneurial researchers to this part of the world”.

He said the University of Auckland’s draft list includes a number of successful Kiwis, many of whom have done their degrees in New Zealand and then made their careers outside of the country, that may want to come home, along with other researchers that have some kind of linkage to the country that for various reasons want to come here. “We don’t have to get many to make a significant difference,” he said.

New Zealand universities also have a good reputation for excellence with all eight ranked in the top three percent in the world, Joyce said.

Tertiary Education Commission chief executive Tim Fowler said it was about universities identifying which overseas-based researchers are “going to be the next rock star” and getting them here while they’re still growing their research base.

Auckland University vice-chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon said the idea for the initiative stemmed from the university realising New Zealand has lost something like 30,000 jobs in agriculture and around 80,000 in manufacturing over the past 20 years and that it was new companies that create new jobs.

New Zealand universities already had a number of what McCutcheon calls “accidental entrepreneurs” – academics who it was “in their blood” to commercialise their research and set up spin-out companies but there wasn’t enough of them to build sufficient deal flow. The US experience was that those types of highly-engaged academics also have a profound effect on students who then can go into the private sector to create new companies and increase the size of the overall innovation eco-system, he said.  

Government funding for the programme is part of the Budget 2016 Innovative New Zealand package that included an extra $410 million in funding for science researchers already based in New Zealand. The new initiative is expected to be on-going once the announced funding ends.

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