Connecting our Emerging Innovators

Published Jul 28, 2021

Catching up with the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Juliet Gerrard

In collaboration with KiwiNet, we had the opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard on 22 July 2021. Prof. Gerrard wanted to catch up with some of our early career researchers and connect with the science community to gain a better understanding of the social impact around some of our researcher’s work. We connected Prof. Gerrard with three of our Emerging Innovators Richard Roberts, Jamal Olatunji and Shalini Divya.

It was a great opportunity for our Emerging Innovators to talk to Prof. Gerrard about their experiences moving from academia into entrepreneurship; from developing new skills, thinking about what industry want and need, to networking with the right people.

Prof. Gerrard understands how challenging it is getting ideas out of the lab and into market and hopes that through her role, she can connect researchers with the right people to provide them with further support along their commercialisation journey. Early support provides researchers with the foundations they need to understand processes and develop their idea to create impact.

Richard Roberts is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Computational Media Innovation Centre at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. He shared his experience of moving from the world of academia and acknowledged how developing his research into animation software has been humbling. “Starting out you have lots of ideas, but what’s important is understanding application. Sometimes you have to give up some of the fanciness of your research and instead focus on what’s going to have impact today, rather than further in the future. It allows you to think more specifically and it’s incredibly rewarding when you see your idea being used,” Richard explained.

Jamal Olatunji is a Research Engineer at the Robinson Research Institute and is currently developing a new plasma thruster to be used in space. Prof. Gerrard and Jamal discussed the range of possibilities a researcher has and how it takes time to narrow research down and focus on an exact application. Jamal told her, “although I love the technical side of my job, I entered the Emerging Innovators programme because I want to build something that industry will actually use and could enable new and ambitious space missions, not just solve scientific or engineering problems. To do that I’ll need to grow my connections and strategic thinking skills, so I can understand what the market and potential investors are looking for.”

Shalini Divya is a little further along her journey and is the Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of TasmanIon. TasmanIon is developing aluminium-ion batteries and moving towards safer, cheaper and more sustainable batteries compared to lithium-ion options currently in market. Shalini spoke with Prof. Gerrard about her journey so far and how a big turning point was changing the language that she used. “It’s been a great adventure and I’ve learnt that you need to be able to show more than just the science. You need to talk about the demand and the market and really carve out a unique proposition. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do next,” Shalini shared.

Wellington UniVentures’ CEO Anne Barnett and KiwiNet’s Seumas McCroskery joined the conversation to provide Prof. Gerrard an update on the current commercialisation ecosystem and share more information about the various projects we are working across. Supporting early career researchers as they take that initial step into entrepreneurship is an important part of the work that both organisations do. Seumas shared, “the Emerging Innovator Programme in particular opens the door to researchers and helps them to start pushing boundaries. All these skillsets support the next stage of their journey.”

Anne echoed this sentiment, acknowledging how this programme engages those early on in their science career. Anne told Prof. Gerrard, “we provide options to many different future pathways and are always eager to help our researchers grow and take that next step. We are here for them from the very start.”