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Liam Butler interviews David Downs

Liam Butler interviews David Downs co-author No8 Rewired 202 New Zealand Inventions that Changed the World

21 October 2014


Liam Butler

No. 8 Re-wired by Jon Bridges and David Downs is a comprehensive, colourful treasury of New Zealand inventions - jam-packed with the stories behind 202 home-grown creations and the crafty people who dreamt them up. www.penguin.co.nz $45

David Downs strong interest in innovative companies, and his pride in New Zealand, lead him to work at government agency New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, where he helps local businesses grow internationally.

Question One.

David, Sir Peter Gluckman the chief science advisor to the Prime Minister has described No. 8 Re-wired as a compendium of creativity. In reading the book I learnt about Professor Richard Faull's bank of 400 brains and his research into stem cells and their ability repair the brain. What aspect of Professor Faull's work do you find most remarkable?

Professor Faull is a great example of a kiwi innovator who challenged authority. The prevailing scientific opinion in the mid-2000s was that the adult human brain was in constant decline, with brain cells dying off and not being replaced. Faull undertook painstaking research and showed that the brain actually has a mechanism for creating stem cells and a way of transporting them across the brain to regenerate damaged areas. They wrote up the discovery, but it was initially rejected by the journal ‘Nature', because the referees refused to believe that a team of kiwis could find something no-one thought existed. In classic NZ fashion, they didn't take ‘no' for an answer, and had their finding heralded on the front cover of the rival journal ‘Science'. Faull commented that ‘It was even better than being the centrefold of Playboy!' - although it's not clear if he has first-hand experience of that.

Question Two.

The $100 million-plus per annum Comvita Medical honey business heals wounds, burns and various illnesses in a way that fits well with our clean green image. How can other companies make the most of our environment to maximise their entrepreneurialism?

New Zealand's environment and position in the world is a key differentiator for us. For much of our history, we have lamented the ‘tyranny of distance' as we've seen our remoteness as something of a disadvantage. However, I believe that this distance has now only bred in us a unique spirit and resilience; it's given us the opportunity to create whole new ideas and solutions.

Most obviously, our natural environment is a magnet for tourists seeking beauty in the outdoors, or products like our seafood and dairy products that benefit from our relative pristine conditions - but we also see companies like Comvita thinking differently about how something that was considered a weed (Manuka) could become part of a world leading medical treatment. Similarly, there are stories in the book about Dr Lucy Moore, who developed a new way to create Agar during WW2; about Bill Hamilton who created the jetboat to navigate the shallow rivers of the South Island; or even about the people who came up with new ways to sow seeds and fertilizer for the air - all great stories, but you'll have to read the book for details!

Question Three.

Sir Ray Avery has asserted that ‘No.8 Re-wired brilliantly celebrates New Zealanders' disrespect for the status quo. Dr Baeyertz invented the tape that can accurately estimate birth dates. Such a simple solution to a complicated issue is a great example of a humble New Zealander who worked hard to create a way simple solution. How can people learn about how much work goes in to such invention?

Inventing is like climbing a mountain - many try, most fail. And even those that succeed fail most of the time. All the inventors we talked to told stories of failed ideas, early prototypes, frustrating dead ends - in the book we talk a lot about failure, and its role in the creative process. The real difference between the successful and those who are not, is their spirit and perseverance - seeing failure as part of an overall process, not a reason to stop.

One contemporary example of the effort required to achieve success would be the Martin Jetpack. Glenn Martin has, since 1981, been working on a new approach to air travel using a fan powered jetpack - for over 30 years he has been testing, refining, failing, learning. To support his obsession, Martin and his family moved to Christchurch to be near the University. He'd spent a few years working to get money to support the family, then take a few years off to work on the jetpack, and then repeat the process. Martin mortgaged his house three times. Many jetpack prototypes were designed, built, tested, then discarded - all on paper. The first test flight didn't come for 16 years - about 15 years after most people would have given up.

Today, Martin Jetpack is on the cusp of huge success, with viable early versions and recently a capital injection of over $6m from private investors to take the project to completion. When the jetpack finally flies over NZ, it will be Glen Martin's bloody-minded determination and spirit that got it there.

Question Four

Lord Rutherford's splitting of the atom is covered in your book under the subheading breaking up is hard to do. Nelsonian Lord Rutherford stated "We've got no money, so we've got to think". How are modern scientists making their mark on the world stage without massive amounts of money?

While on one hand it celebrates our ingenuity, Rutherford's memorable quote has become an excuse. It's true that NZ scientists and engineers have historically been able to ‘punch above their weight' with ideas and innovations far outstripping what you'd expect from a small country at the bottom of the world, but today we are in danger of slipping behind the rest of world, with chronically low levels of investment in Research & Development and blue sky scientific endeavours. Many in the science and innovation community are advocating for higher levels of investment in R&D to create the same sorts of success we see when Auckland university professors Boys and Covic came up with ways to transfer power - wirelessly. This ‘inductive power transfer' is a magical system - you could charge electric cars while they wait at traffic lights for example.

NZ scientists are smart as any in the world, with success beyond what could be expected - but we still need to fund and support them well to continue to be world leading or books like ours are in danger of being a lot shorter in the future.

A bit more about No. 8 Re-wire...

If necessity is the mother of invention then Kiwi ingenuity is its father.

No. 8 Re-wired is a comprehensive, colourful treasury of New Zealand inventions - jam-packed with the stories behind 202 home-grown creations and the crafty people who dreamt them up. From well-known innovations (human flight, the discovery of DNA, the pavlova) to lesser-known feats (instant coffee, the referee's whistle, the electronic petrol pump) to the newest in high-tech world-firsts (robots and jetpacks!), it is the most complete and entertaining book ever on Kiwi ingenuity. And, yes, the pav is definitely ours.

A surprising and absorbing account of Kiwi can-do, and a celebration of the No. 8 wire spirit on which New Zealand is built, it's also a revealing look at how innovation can power us into the future.

To enter the Draw for this book CLICK HERE Open to NZ residents only.

Closing Date November 4th 2014.


ends

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