Bright idea, Big future?
NZ Listener, 4th September 1993
New Zealand inventors may come up with the ideas, but their problem is finding money to develop and market them.
The stakes are high. The case of Hirstlens NZ is a brilliant example of the problems facing the Kiwi inventor. This Auckland firm was started by Czech migrant Eugene Hirst, a world pioneer in the field of contact lens design. Here too, the state helped Hirst to hone his ideas - "We have had a 40-year relationship with the DSIR, and the industrial research body that replaced it," says joint managing director Ian Handricks.
Hirstlens was the first company in the world to invent and make soft contact lenses - and it now has the world’s first bifocal contact lens ready to hit the global market. This is a major Kiwi triumph, and Handricks is full of praise for the Technology for Business Growth Scheme (TBG) that helped bring the concept to fruition. "We’ve had a fantastic relationship with them.”
So far, so good. Alas, there is now no venture capital in New Zealand to market the thing. The company has had to shop its idea round and find a major partner overseas - which means New Zealand will now miss out on the fattest share of the export earnings. "We had no choice," Handricks says, the exasperation evident in his voice. "We’re a weak donkey, and this is a bloody big cart."
It is a chronic problem. For reasons of ideological purity the state will go only so far, and then grudgingly. There is a need, Handricks agrees, for venture capital in that crucial $3-10 million range. Without it, the fruits of Kiwi invention are being lost, to foreigners.
"I’m a New Zealander," Handricks says. "I’d like the chance to create jobs here. But what do you do? If we stay here and produce for just the local market, we undervalue the idea. We come up with some great ideas in New Zealand - yet, you know, I can’t think of a single example of a good Kiwi innovation that has stayed within this country."
There is a "yawning gap", Handricks says, for a capital fund to market our ideas. “I’ll tell you how you should end your article," he says. "Just say... when a New Zealand company comes up with a great idea and wants to market it - what do you do? What do you do?"