New Zealand Biotechnology Conference 1999

  • Max Bradford
Enterprise and Commerce

Ladies and gentleman, I am delighted to be here today to open your conference.

It is an exciting time for your industry and a time of great challenges.

Over the next decade biotechnology can become a powerhouse of excellence in New Zealand and make a multi-billion dollar contibution to our standard of living through increased exports and environmental and health benefits.

World-wide the greatest increases in prosperity are ocurring in the knowledge-based economies, where the drivers are innovation, technological process and investment in knowledge-based or "intangible" assets.

Already you have built an impressive track record with internationally recognised achievements in the breeding of transgenic crops with virus and insect resistance, clonal afforestation and the development of such products as ovagen and biopharmaceuticals.

But, this is just the beginning.

With New Zealand's geographic protection from significant diseases, our advanced agriculture and bioscience sectors and unique natural resources we have a huge biotechnology capability.

This, coupled with one of the most open and deregulated economies in the world and our tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship, provides almost unlimited potential.

MIT estimates that 80 per cent of products we will use 20 years from now have not been invented yet.

Hopefully many of these products will be shaped by the companies and research institutions represented here in this room.

However, if biotechnology is to achieve its potential as a major driver in the New Zealand economy, the business and research sectors and the general public will have to undergo a major mindshift.

New Zealand industry, tertiary institutions and research organisations will need to work more closely together to share experience and knowledge.

We need to ensure that New Zealand attracts, develops and keeps the skills and ideas we need to develop the products of the future.

We need to cut down the tall poppy syndrome and develop a national culture that supports and values science, technology and excellence.

Your sector needs to be careful to explain the benefits of scientific breakthroughs to the public so that important progress is not blocked by irrational fears.

The public debate surrounding genetically modified foods is a major test.

I note you are already working to provide the public with objective information through the New Zealand Life Sciences Network.

Your efforts will be assisted by the Government's Independent Biotechnical Advisory Council.

On a wider level we need to raise the profile of the contribution science and technology makes to our lives, to encourage youngsters to have a science education and think outside the square.

To do all this we have to develop a focused strategy across industry, education and science sectors.

We do not have a lot of time.

We can make a lot of progress in 5 - 10 years.

Finland and Ireland turned themselves around within a decade.

So must we, but we do not have that long.

You have already recognised this and are to be congratulated on your efforts to develop a co-ordinated regional strategy for biotechnology.

The Government has been working on a wider strategy to propel New Zealand forward.

Over the past two months I and my Ministerial colleagues have embarked on a series of 24 business forums called Five Steps Ahead.

The forums have been bringing the business, education and research and development sectors together to get feedback on the proposed Five Steps Ahead frame work.

The framework is:

Lifting New Zealanders' skills and knowledge.

Using both publicly and privately funded research to generate more valuable ideas for New Zealanders to use.

Improving New Zealanders' chances of getting the risk finance they need to turn good ideas into reality.

Ensuring regulations and laws support, not frustrate, innovation.

Promoting success and supporting New Zealanders with creative ideas.

These goals are inter-linked and must be thought of holistically.

So far almost 2000 people from all three sectors have taken part in the forums.

The outcome of this consultation process will announced at a major conference in August.

The resulting policy will be comprehensive and integrated, but at this stage I can only give you a general outline of the kind of issues the government is addressing.

We are looking at the signals sent by the Government's education and research funding priorities and seeing if they match up with where the country needs to head.

We are asking fundamental questions.

We spend $2.2 billion a year on tertiary education. But, are we producing enough of the graduates this country needs?

Will producing more commerce and law graduates than virtually any other OECD country generate the high standard of living we want?

One option could be for Government to be more prescriptive in encouraging students into different fields of study. Another is to have more scholarships in key areas.

We spend over $640 million a year on research and development, but are we spending it on the right research for a knowledge-based economy.

Much of our current public good science funding goes to research in the commodity sectors - is this where we will get the greatest gain in the future?

The answers are clearly "no".

The $28 million for the New Economy Research Fund announced in this year's Budget was a first step towards freeing up more money for research in new and emerging industries such as yours.

We are also looking at how our universities and Crown Research Institutions can be encouraged to be more proactive in incubating and spinning off new companies.

A couple of months ago I announced another $3.6 million to promote New Zealand as an inward investment destination.

We are also reviewing Securities Market legislation to encourage the freer flow of venture capital.

The Five Steps Ahead framework is about supporting winners, rather than picking winners.

This does not mean subsidies, as some political parties would have us return to.

Those policies have been tried and failed.

The vision may be Government-led, but it requires all sectors to work together to make it happen.

I am delighted your sector is picking up the ball and running with it.

I wish you all the best.