From pilot to production - bridging the gap
Commercialisation is a big part of what we do at Scion. In this issue of Scion Connections we highlight some of the technologies currently under development with our partners. While most of these innovations are for uptake by New Zealand firms, we always keep a close eye on international market developments, competing technologies and collaboration opportunities.
Anyone with ‘hands on’ experience in commercialisation knows it is both challenging and highly rewarding. As economies and firms globalise, this challenge (and the scale of opportunity) is increasing. The broad rule of thumb that an approximately tenfold increase in effort and resources is required to progress from a novel science idea to proof of concept, and a further hundredfold increase to achieve full market release is rarely wrong. Despite this ‘truism’, science projects are generally not funded beyond the proof of concept stage, meaning investment for the critical steps to get technologies into the market needs to be sourced elsewhere.
At Scion we address this ‘step-up’ challenge by accessing funding, such as through the MBIE Preseed Accelerator Fund (PSAF) and (now) Callaghan Innovation for TechNZ programmes, to supplement firm and Scion investment. These funding options play a critical role in bridging the gap – the so-called ‘valley of death’ – to where projects can be fully funded by the client.
Getting funding right is only one dimension of success. We aim to involve firms as early as possible to gain both their expertise and co-investment. Proven disciplines such as stage-gating are applied to ensure a systematic pathway of development. Access to pilot facilities is essential to ‘iron-out’ the challenges of scaling up to market volumes and generating sufficient product for robust in-market testing to be conducted.
The composition of the development team should also evolve to ensure it has skills appropriate for each stage of development. It is invaluable to have members of the firm acquiring the technology, such as LignoTech (page 4), intimately involved within the project team. We are getting better at documenting and sharing our experiences in commercialisation so that successes are repeated and mistakes are made only once. Indeed, contrary to the views held by many commentators in the popular media, we have a surprising array of experience in commercialisation within Scion (and other New Zealand research providers and the private sector).
I think that much more should be made of this wealth of local expertise before rushing off to find the latest international ‘guru’ to host workshops on innovation ecosystems that bear little resemblance to circumstances in New Zealand.
As noted above, scale-up facilities are pivotal in de-risking new technology. Two recent new investments in this area, the BioPolymer Network (BPN) Pilot Plant and our Nursery Container Facility, are featured in this newsletter.
We are planning to make further capital investment into pilot plants over the next few years to support the commercialisation of technologies in our pipeline. Typically these plants cost several million to design, construct and commission so it is important that we confirm market demand and ensure we are not duplicating facilities readily available elsewhere. Our pilot mechanical pulp mill is a great example of the value they add. Opened in 1986, this has had extensive use by all of New Zealand’s pulp mills and is now central to our bioenergy-chemicals research programme.
Your comments on any of the articles in the following pages would be most welcome – please feel free to contact me.