Thursday, February 7, 2008

Darin Graham and the NZi3

Darin GrahamDr. Darin Graham is the director of the NZ ICT Innovation Institute, an applied research institute based in Canterbury, that combines academic expertise and industry driven research. He moved to NZ in 2007 from Canada, where his previous post was President of Canadian organisations Innovation Initiators, a commercialisation company.

The NZCSRSC team recently caught up with Darin to talk about the NZi3 and his role in the organisation.

NZCSRSC: Darin, the NZi3 is all the buzz in the NZ ICT world – and for those at UC it is even making quite a physical mark with all that construction taking place! Tell us, what is the NZi3 and where do you see it fitting (its position) within NZ ICT?

Darin: First, I’m pleased to hear that NZi3 is “all the buzz” in the NZ ICT world. Hopefully as we build both the NZi3 Facility and the operational capability over the next year we will get into the exciting work of actually having a positive impact on the ICT R&D landscape. The role of NZi3 is about getting industry needs connected with academic researchers to help create a stronger economic and social foundation for NZ. By developing really effective partnerships everyone wins – the researchers now have real world problems to work on as well as additional funding sources; industry gets to tap into the outstanding capabilities of the academic community (both people and facilities); and graduate students get the opportunity to work on some really cool stuff. The i3 in NZi3 stands for ICT Innovation Institute. As such we are trying to create an entrepreneurial and collaborative environment to help move ideas from the lab to the marketplace. I also like to talk about 3 other i’s…NZi3 is all about creating Ideas (of our students, researchers and industry partners), developing Interaction (between multi-disciplinary teams), and supporting Investment (of both tangible money and less tangible people’s efforts).

NZCSRSC: You say that students are a vital part of the mix (of industry, government, and academia) in NZ ICT. How does NZi3 cater for students, and what role do they play within the organisation?

Darin: Actually, NZi3 is all about people and necessarily about technology as one might first assume. The reason for creating NZi3 was all about people – the government getting more highly-trained, world-class researchers and students; industry having access to the capabilities of those researchers and able to hire top-notch students; and graduate students getting the opportunity to work on some challenging and valued problems. If I was to choose one single stakeholder group was the most important for NZi3 to focus on it would be students. All though the NZi3 mission is to get good ideas out to industry, it is the students who do the majority of creativity thinking and work. At NZi3 we recognize that and have built our programs around students. For example, the first thing that NZi3 did was to set up a scholarships program to attract the best Master’s and PhD students. It started even before the first person (me) was hired into NZi3. Now we have 7 students supported by scholarships and hope to have 50 in 5 years. Also, the entire second floor of the new NZi3 Facility is one huge collaborative workspace tailored to allowing teams of students to tackle the industrial-driven projects. This floor, about 1300 m2, will have the latest in computer and communication systems, and will even have furniture specifically designed for collaborative research teams. To help students develop the entrepreneurial skills they need, we will be supporting business competitions, talent-development programs, industry-led workshops and bringing in business mentors.

NZCSRSC: Darin, you have had an impressive range of roles with large organisations in a diverse range of fields before you came to NZ. Why NZ? What were some of the draw cards?

Artist's impression of the front of the NZi3 building Darin: Yes, I’ve had the chance to lead some R&D initiatives in some pretty interesting and diverse areas – government research at the Canadian Space Agency, the high-tech industry in North America (including security, robotics, and ICT), assisted in starting-up and leading some new companies, and helped create some exciting programs that involve some of the top Canadian universities in generating products and creating new companies. But what I enjoy most is the challenging area that brings all three together. When the role for the Director of NZi3 came up it was an ideal fit. In fact, a close friend said that the job had my name written all over it. Several things excite me about the opportunity. All the partners really took a risk in helping create this new idea – in fact, they probably didn’t know what they were getting into in this new area of “innovation.” In addition to my experience in working directly in this space for the last 10 years, it gave me the opportunity to help the partners build something from scratch, and by learning from my own experiences help build the best concept we could. Working in another country has always interested me, and New Zealand’s culture is close enough to that of Canada that it wouldn’t be too much of a shock to someone over 40! My wife and I like the outdoors and look forward to flying around a new country in our heritage aircraft. Opportunity, risk and balance-of-life all had a hand in the decision – and NZi3 and NZ has all three.

NZCSRSC: One of the things I get from you each time we talk is that you truly strive for excellence in whatever you do. What defines excellence for you?

Darin: I have to smile a little at that question as on one hand it is simple – and on the other, not so simple. Excellence to me is striving to be the best you can be. That takes a lot of hard work and always thinking and doing things differently. My wife always says I must have extra CPU-cycles in my brain as I’m always thinking of how to make or do things better. That’s the simple part. One soon learns that excellence can’t be achieved by a single person…it requires creating an environment and culture that brings together lots of people with diverse backgrounds all trying to do better through collaboration. That’s the hard part, and is exactly what we’re trying to create at NZi3.

NZCSRSC: What are some of the future plans of the NZi3? What can we look forward to?

Artist's view of the new NZi3 building.Darin: We’ve just finished developing a comprehensive plan of what NZi3 hopes to do in the next 5-years. It includes a whole set of programs like scholarships and training mentioned previously. There are over 40 specific initiatives we hope to do – some small, some large – but all linked together to provide support for a complete innovation chain. I’ll mention two particular areas. First, over 95% of the NZ ICT industry is made up of companies that employ less than 50 people! If we want to grow the ICT economy, then we will certainly have to focus on these Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). This presents some interesting challenges as these small companies don’t have a lot of spare resources to fund research…but, they do have some of the best ideas and can be much more dynamic and creative than larger companies. This presents a prime opportunity for NZi3 students and researchers to focus on. Second, NZ barely has enough critical mass to support an ICT industry. To be successful, NZi3 needs to link to other like-minded research institutions around the world. We also need to provide the conduit for global companies such as Nokia, Google, Microsoft, and RIM to invest significant research dollars. By doing so, we can continue to help create success for everyone – and help achieve the excellence we are striving for.

NZi3The NZCSRSC is proud to have Darin and the NZi3 on board as platinum sponsors of the conference.

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