Commercialisation: where the rubber hits the road
13 September 2023 | Read time: 9 minutes
SfTI bids a fond farewell to Enrico, our Commercialisation Development Manager. We take this opportunity to recognise his hard work, but also to highlight the importance of his role for researchers. The Innovation system is complex, and if you’re a researcher investigating novel science, your chances of having real-world impact are hugely improved with the guidance and support of someone like Enrico who can help you broker a commercial pathway. Following his departure, Enrico’s role will be continued with the support of KiwiNet.
When Enrico Tronchin looks back at his career to date, there’s one common thread running through it – the appliance of science to initiate societal change. “But that might not be very obvious from my PhD research,” he laughs. Enrico’s academic focus was South African marine plants; specifically, those from the red algal family Gelidiaceae (Rhodophyta). But even in the midst of his third postdoc, he often found himself thinking about the interplay between the lab and the wider world. “I was part of so many conversations with peers about how there were all these ideas – this untapped potential – in universities. But no one could really explain to me why it wasn’t making its way out into society.”
That query became a guiding light for Enrico, as he made the switch from academia to the commercial sector, where he has held several roles prior to joining the SfTI team that played at the interface between research and industry.
All of Enrico’s experience led him to an important realisation. “In academic culture, there's often this sentiment that change is brought about through things like open dissemination of information,” he says. “But I think in practice, most change in society is actually created through the mechanism of commercialisation. The enterprise of science itself couldn't happen without the development of products and services. And yet, commercialisation is still sometimes seen in a pejorative light.”
“But I think in practice, most change in society is actually created through the mechanism of commercialisation. The enterprise of science itself couldn't happen without the development of products and services.
Enrico’s pathway to commercialisation
On immigrating to Aotearoa New Zealand from South Africa, he started working in regional development, focusing on ICT, biotech and medtech. Next, was a role at the Ministry of Science and Innovation – the forerunner of MBIE – where Enrico acted as a “conduit between private sector companies and global experts, operating across all areas of the innovation lifecycle.” But it was at Auckland University of Technology that he really got into his stride.
“That role at what was called AUT Enterprises back then (now AUT Ventures) was such a good fit. It really went back to that original interest that I'd had throughout my undergrad, PhD and postdocs; how do we get great concepts from a university out into industry?”
He oversaw the identification, protection, and commercialisation of intellectual property generated by researchers at AUT. He worked with student enterprise, ran IP training initiatives, advised on licensing and spin-outs, and worked closely with KiwiNet, kickstarting a relationship that he has continued to nurture here at SfTI. Enrico then moved into a business development role at the University of Auckland (UoA), where he established an innovative research hub that forged connections between industry and academia through co-location.
While working at UoA, a job listing grabbed Enrico’s attention. It was for Commercialisation Development Manager at the Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge. SfTI had been established five years prior, and as it entered its second phase, the Board had decided to create a specific role that would help its researchers take their concepts through to market application. “I saw the role, and thought 'yes', this is something I could do really well,” says Enrico. “I’d found myself missing commercialisation, because ultimately, that’s where the rubber hits the road. Step one is getting people to talk to one another. Step two is having practical mechanisms to grease the wheels, so to speak – that's what SfTI is. And then, step three is where you actually execute. This job offered me the opportunity to find solutions in an area of that concept-to -commercialisation continuum that I really felt needed work.”
SfTI allowed Enrico to think big
The unique structure and broad remit of SfTI also allowed Enrico to think big, which he says contrasts with many other parts of the country’s science system. “SfTI was national, and sat across a spectrum of areas, from physical science to engineering. So, whatever change we could come up with in SfTI, we could be practicing it across the whole of New Zealand, and across a number of different disciplines. That really excited me. And it has kept me excited ever since!”
In his time at SfTI, Enrico has been instrumental in creating, changing and implementing some transformative programmes of work. One example of this is a collaboration with KiwiNet in which he co-designed and delivered Rewa Ake, a bespoke training programme that aims to demystify the customer engagement and discovery process for entrepreneurial researchers. “That programme filled a gap – it gives practical skills to scientists who want to get out of the lab and speak to potential end-users. It’s been hugely successful in really accelerating the development of technology.”
When asked to reflect on the changes SfTI has wrought, Enrico says, “I think we're doing some things right now that really serve as exemplars, for how the science system could operate far more efficiently.” He continues, “For me, SfTI’s biggest legacy is going to be what we’ve done around capacity development. We invest in people, not just projects, because the project can't do itself, nor the IP commercialize itself. So, we put a lot of emphasis on supporting the individual scientists that we fund, offering professional development opportunities, science leadership training, and enabling them to go through KiwiNet’s Emerging Innovator Program.”
“For me, SfTI’s biggest legacy is going to be what we’ve done around capacity development. We invest in people, not just projects, because the project can't do itself, nor the IP commercialize itself. So, we put a lot of emphasis on supporting the individual scientists that we fund, offering professional development opportunities, science leadership training, and enabling them to go through KiwiNet’s Emerging Innovator Program.”
Making sure great ideas don’t ‘drop off the conveyor belt’
Enrico also views SfTI’s involvement in the entire innovation continuum as unique and impactful. “We care about that whole process. At the end of every project we’ve funded, the scientists submit a closure report, and we have a debrief session with them. I participate in those because I’m looking for any future funding gaps that I can help to bridge. Developing ideas, technologies, discovering things new to science – that’s an enormous investment. But we’ve recognised that we have a responsibility to help things continue. Think of it like a series of conveyor belts. That first conveyor belt can't stop short of the next conveyor belt, otherwise the thing's going to drop off. As a taxpayer, I don’t want that great idea to be lost. I want it to provide New Zealand society with a societal benefit and a return on that investment. I'm super stoked to have been involved in doing that, and in breaking through boundaries that should never have been there.”
Enrico’s influence on the country’s innovation landscape has been significant, as SfTI Deputy Director Prof. Stephen MacDonell explains, “Right from the interview I was confident that we had the right person for the role. Enrico took time to understand SfTI’s mission, to get a sense of the research we had been and were looking to fund, and to evaluate the chances of commercialisation success for each of our projects. He came up with a unique methodology to do that, and then identified the highest priorities. Enrico has been a consummate Commercialisation Development Manager but he has also been a coach, confidante and, sometimes, counsellor. He has filled that gap that we could all see, and has made a tangible and very visible difference to the commercialisation prospects of SfTI’s research – and of Aotearoa New Zealand’s researchers. The ‘Enrico conveyor belt’™ that he installed has ensured that numerous great ideas have been given a crucial shot at success that otherwise might never have gotten out of the lab. We could not have asked for more.”