Shelling out to lure top global research talent

When I visited universities and research institutes in Israel last year I was struck by two things – their entrepreneurial outlook and their eagerness to bring international entrepreneurial research collaborations to fruition.

A focus in these areas – enabled by state, private and foreign investment, has paid off for Israel in the form of a research sector that creates a pipeline of ideas and intellectual property that industry can then commercialise. Researchers want to relocate to Israeli institutions because they know they are a hotbed of innovation. Universities cash in on intellectual property developed by their researchers.

Other countries do this and New Zealand does reasonably well for its size. But a new government fund unveiled today as a 50-50 partnership with the universities suggests there’s recognition of the fact we need to step up this kind of activity to stay competitive.

The funding will go towards paying for world-leading researchers to relocate to New Zealand where they and their staff will be set up in labs here and work with their host universities on research with an entrepreneurial bent. It is four years of funding, but presumably will need to be an ongoing investment to keep these big names here and attract new ones. The government release suggests researchers will come for a 3 – 5 year period initially.

You can see where the government is going with this – get crack teams of researchers developing cutting edge technologies in high-tech, 3D printing, augmented reality, semiconductors, software development etc to head to New Zealand for plum jobs and the opportunity to set their own research agendas. In exchange, our students get to work with cutting edge researchers and ideas can be spun off into a new generation of Kiwi start-ups.

That all sounds pretty good, but in the scheme of things it is a relatively small amount of money. Plus, as Professor Shaun Hendy points out, they may quickly come up against some of the limitations of our research sector:

“In the long run our low funding success rates, the lack of post-doctoral fellowships, and the intensely over-managed science system that has evolved in the past few years will make it hard for our universities to retain these star researchers.”

You can imagine some hotshot MIT or Cambridge professor rolling into to a New Zealand university and quickly realising the scale of things here and our distance from the key ‘maker’ markets they know and love.

Still, if the universities can pull this off, it could have a major culture changer. I asked AUT University innovation expert Professor John Raine what he thought of it. He said:

“I think this is an excellent initiative and the universities will be pursuing this opportunity keenly. New Zealand has some areas of science and engineering, and in business and the social sciences, where we have world leaders and where we should be attracting international teams to work with our researchers for a period of time.

“I think there are particular opportunities across health and medical technologies, ‘Big Data’ technologies and analytics, in areas core to the New Zealand economy such as agritech, wine (and the wider horticulture domain), and tourism.”

Full release from the office of Steven Joyce

$35 million for Entrepreneurial Universities  

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce has today announced a $35 million investment over four years for ‘Entrepreneurial Universities’, a new initiative to attract world-leading entrepreneurial researchers to New Zealand to further strengthen our universities and our broader fast-growing innovation ecosystem.

“Entrepreneurial Universities is all about attracting more of the world’s leading researchers and their teams to locate their labs here and base themselves in New Zealand,” Mr Joyce says.   “We are especially wanting to recruit people with an established record in innovation and entrepreneurship in the top ‘maker’ disciplines, to help grow the pipeline of excellent innovative start-up companies in New Zealand, and train the next generation of scientific entrepreneurs.”

The Entrepreneurial Universities programme will involve the government entering into a 50/50 partnership with individual universities to attract and support named researchers and their teams to work in the university for an initial period of three to five years.

“We will invite all the universities to bid for the opportunity, and expect up to 15-20 world-leading researchers and their teams to be brought to New Zealand over a three year period.’

The programme follows an approach to the Minister and the TEC earlier this year by the University of Auckland, and will be modelled on similar other programmes around the world including the US and the UK.

New Zealand’s universities already have a very good reputation for excellence with all eight universities ranked in the top three per cent in the world.

“However it’s a very competitive world out there, Mr Joyce says.  “We need to keep challenging ourselves and keep adding to our hi-tech sector. Entrepreneurial Universities will strengthen our research and start-up capabilities and add to the learning opportunities for our undergraduates.

The ‘Entrepreneurial Universities’ initiative is part of Budget 2016’s $761.4 million ‘Innovative New Zealand’ package and will complement big increases in the funds for researchers already based here in New Zealand.

“Across the Marsden Fund, the Endeavour Fund, the Catalyst Fund, the Health Research Council, and other associated investment mechanisms, the government is investing an extra $410 million over the next four years in New Zealand science.  The Entrepreneurial Universities fund will add another dimension to that comprehensive investment.”

Entrepreneurial Universities is consistent with the National Statement of Science Investment, and is a key initiative in the Innovation stream of the Business Growth Agenda.


  1. Bruce Hamilton

    Once again, the funders can not identify and fund research that would propel NZ science forward. Instead they expect institutions to propose suitable candidates. I suppose Brexit and Trump might make some overseas researchers feel imminent funding insecurity, but as George Slim notes, why would they consider NZ?. Maybe some researchers ( IT, theoretical science, Antarctic?) are mobile, but why would they stay in NZ after the initial funding – they would continue to the next nation with suitable funding.

    NZ should develop the considerable talent we already have, especially in fields relevant to NZ’s research aspirations. Better to send young scientists overseas to work in world-leading groups and then bring the knowledge back and build research teams around them.

  2. Barry Scott

    Yes very hard to see how this is going to work given we have such poor infrastructure for many of our research areas. Perhaps there are opportunities in some research areas where our unique fauna, flora or geology provide a point of difference. I would have preferred to have seen a new dollop of money like this going into strengthening the NZ research enterprise as advocated by Shaun Hendy. BUT this money has been approved so lets try and make good use of it.

  3. George Slim

    We have tried this before, in the mid-2000s. As I recall it was called the Strategic Relocation Fund (Auntie Google reassured me on that point) and offered 5 years funding and a bit of capital shared between Government and the successfully bidding University. It was a lot more expensive per group than the scheme being proposed now ( We got a couple of good groups in who struggled a bit once the funding ended and, again from memory, have since largely moved on. the scheme failed to answer the “Why would you?” question. Top groups don’t need money, they have it. If you are coming here because there are top resources in your field then you will be competing with researchers already in New Zealand. Parochialism aside, New Zealand isn’t the best place in the world to do cutting edge research outside of a few fields already well populated here. The groups that do manage top research in New Zealand typically got there by a devious route that is difficult to parachute in. You don’t move to Wellington for its weather: you don’t move to New Zealand for the strength of its research infrastructure.
    The previous scheme was quietly discontinued after the initial trial. It’s a nice idea but not quite so simple as you might hope.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s