10.06.20

Deep tech and the Māori economy can be the backbone of NZ’s recovery

By Geoff Willmott

The tech sector is well-placed to lead New Zealand’s recovery from Covid-19. Deep tech provides a chance for that recovery to be sustainable and values-led – an approach already bringing success to the Māori economy. 

First published in The Spinoff

Aotearoa is currently a pretty good place to be, if you can get here. The $50bn of pandemic-related borrowing is no small matter, but the silver lining is an opportunity for “creative destruction”. How do we reimagine New Zealand once the dust has settled? What do we stimulate or work towards in the medium term?

Consider some of our aspirational goals: matching Australia’s GDP, zero-carbon by 2050, swimmable rivers, eradicating poverty. Our Covid-19 experience has shown us that these things can be achieved – with an urgent, level-headed approach – and the right technologies. In 2020, scientists, public servants, and the importance of dealing with uncertainty have been thrown into the spotlight. The widening gap between our Covid caseload and models has shown how actions do make a difference. Contact tracing apps and videoconferencing are suddenly de rigueur.

New Zealand’s own base of technological expertise is expanding. The tech sector is our third largest revenue sector after tourism and dairy, growing by 9% annually for the past five years, buoyed by R&D support from successive governments and an increasingly comfortable path to investment. This local tech capability assists with our newfound affection for self-sufficiency (see PPE and vaccines), and our ability to implement technologies from offshore, as well as global export revenues. Tech jobs often provide attractive lifestyle choices, contributing to a “brain gain” – the growing proportion of New Zealanders with research degrees.

Homegrown tech expertise is especially rich in an area known as “deep tech”. Deep tech is based on innovations and discoveries in science and engineering. Examples include low-emissions steel processing, innovative touch screens, or new types of energy storage.

In contrast to tourism and dairy, deep tech businesses can be scaled up because they typically have small environmental footprints. As for value, ask the investors – US deep tech companies typically attract three times the private investment obtained by others. Deep tech can supply the expertise, solutions and wealth to take us close to those aspirational goals.

But a piece of the puzzle is missing because there is an opportunity to mesh people and values together with economic impact.

New Zealand already has a successful model for values-led enterprise. Māori businesses share a guiding principle of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and focus on long-term benefits without environmental exploitation. People and resources are as important as profits and productivity. Qualities such as innovation and a global outlook are embedded within Te Ao Māori and other indigenous cultures.

Māori enterprise is growing faster than the rest of the economy, and examples of success are plentiful. Wakatū has achieved export successes by specialising in high-value food exports, with an agenda to support whānau and the community in and around Nelson and Motueka. The Federation of Māori Authorities is harnessing R&D to release value from Māori-owned resources while developing rangatahi and improving diversity in employment. Within Poutama Trust, examples of innovation include the integration of solar power into refrigeration, a living building challenge, and Waiū’s geothermal dairy factory in Kawerau.

Sustainability, a focus for Māori, must be emphasized in a broader values-led economy. Advances rely on deep tech, and will be well supported by circling investors. Globally, trillions of dollars in assets have been pledged to support green initiatives, and sustainable funds have outperformed others during the coronavirus outbreak.

Here, there is an important opportunity for sustainability innovators to develop valuable intellectual property. Last year, the Reserve Bank launched a $100m green investment fund, while investors such as Sir Stephen Tindall are backing sustainability, and local start-ups including Avertana, Aquafortus and Mint are leading the way. Further up the R&D pipeline in the labs of the MacDiarmid Institute for example, sustainability is motivating research into improved solar generation, new grid-scale batteries, the hydrogen economy, molecular-scale CO2 sponges, and efficient ammonia production.

Our values are used to define our aspirational goals. Deep tech provides a way to develop the knowledge and tools to attain them while living by those values. The challenge of building this virtuous circle should appeal to the resourcefulness and humanity of New Zealanders: investors, entrepreneurs and industrialists; scientists, rangatahi, and students.

Dr Geoff Willmott is the deputy director, commercialisation and industry engagement, at the MacDiarmid Institute, and Associate Professor in physics, University of Auckland. This article includes contributions from Kevin Sheehy, commercialisation and industry engagement manager at the MacDiarmid Institute.