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Culture of cash encourages job-creation


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Culture of cash encourages job-creation

Encouraging capitalism among university academics was a theme of a talk last evening at the Royal Society, entitled: “How do we capture more value from New Zealand universities?”.

The first speaker was Graham Richards, former head of Oxford University’s chemistry department, which has spun out dozens of new start-ups in the last couple of decades. Richards attributes Oxford’s success to a couple of role models within the Chemistry Department. When academics see others getting rich, they want to follow suit.

The university’s success captured the wider community’s interest. Two decades ago, the community around Oxford did not see itself as an industrial hub. That changed once they saw University spin-out companies creating new, high-paying jobs.

Shaun Hendy reiterated the point about culture, and told the audience that Sir Paul Callaghan had often complained: “My colleagues don’t get it.”

After the formal presentation, Sir Peter Gluckman talked about the example of Canada’s University of Waterloo, which, like Oxford, had spun out dozens of new high-tech companies. According to Gluckman, other Canadian universities tried to emulate Waterloo. They failed because, he said, they didn’t have the right culture.

University spin-out companies aim to commercialise new products invented by academic scientists and engineers. They are part of the ecosystem Technology Valley wants to nurture. The experience of blokes like Graham Richards might clarify what needs to happen. Perhaps it might even be relevant to other types of companies.

The common thread, and the bit that’s missing in many New Zealand organisations, including universities, is that Oxford and Waterloo universities encouraged their technologists to get rich. When Graham Richards talks about “incentivising” academics, he is talking about hard cash. Both Oxford and Waterloo universities make sure their academic technologists can become multi-millionaires, or billionaires, if their spin-out companies succeed. As far as I can tell, this is fundamental. If we want to create high-paying jobs that boost New Zealand’s per-capita income, we have to make sure technologists can get rich. Too often, New Zealand organisations patronise technologists, sometimes going so far as to hire social scientists whose job is to make technologists work longer and harder for less money. The most entrepreneurial technologists don’t put up with this. They go looking for a more conducive environment. But listening to Graham Richards, I got the impression that not everyone walks away. Bad organisational culture sometimes puts out the fire. If Richards is correct, if people in his chemistry department were inspired to create successful spin-outs because they saw their colleagues getting rich, then his talk holds an important lesson for New Zealand organisations.

Make sure your technologists can get rich.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a}

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