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‘Eureka moment’ leads to $1 million R&D comp

Media Release
17 March 2009

‘Eureka moment’ leads to development of $1 million R&D competition

Industrial Research Limited’s (IRL) innovative “What’s Your Problem New Zealand?” competition is the brainchild of a group of IRL staff who participated in the company’s leadership programme.

Delivered by Victoria University’s Centre for Executive Development and Hainsworth Associates, the programme seeks to develop leadership skills at all levels of the organisation, giving staff the opportunity to actively take part in mapping the strategic direction of the Crown Research Institute.

IRL staff Paul Benjes, Nick Long, Madhusudan Vasudevamurthy and Robert Holt pitched their idea of a competition for New Zealand businesses in need of R&D solutions with a prize of up to $1 million worth of R&D services from IRL to a panel of business leaders including IRL Chief Executive Shaun Coffey, Chris Kelly from Landcorp and Warren Bolger from BP New Zealand.

The idea was so well received that Shaun Coffey decided it was worthy of putting into practice and after months of planning “What’s Your Problem New Zealand?” was launched at a function held at Te Papa last night.

The IRL leadership programme involves participants being put into groups and given a set amount of time to devise an idea to pitch to a panel of business leaders who ask the group searching questions about the viability of their proposal, in a manner similar to the popular TV series, Dragon’s Den.

Stephen Cummings, Professor of Strategic Management at Victoria University, developed this innovative format in the UK whilst at the University of Warwick.

“Having run this type of programme many times with several organisations in the UK, I'd never encountered a bad idea or presentation. People want to do well and given the opportunity they have no difficulty in thinking creatively about how their business could be run better,” he says. “The problem is that many organizations aren’t sure how to effectively involve their staff in strategy development or they are afraid to open themselves up in this way. IRL wasn’t afraid and I don’t think we’ve seen a bad idea emerge from their programme either.”

However, Professor Cummings says that when ”What’s your problem?” was proposed to the wider IRL Leadership cohort; then the panel; and then to the whole of IRL it was clear it was a bit special.

“While a huge amount of work went into refining the idea, it was a ‘eureka’ moment each time it was presented. You could feel the rooms expand with people thinking ‘this is so simple and so clever that it's brilliant’”.

“Part of IRL’s strategy is to better engage with industry over the coming years and when the team came up with “What’s Your Problem New Zealand?”, the idea really resonated with me,” says Shaun Coffey.

He says the current challenging economic environment is an opportunity for New Zealand businesses to re-examine the way they go about developing products and services.

“World-class R&D will always underpin world-leading, high-value products and services. New Zealand businesses need to take advantage of the science and engineering expertise available at IRL and other R&D providers to enable them to meet the challenges of competing successfully in global markets.”

Leadership programme participant and competition project team member Dr Paul Benjes says he found the experience immensely educational and enjoyable.

“It was great to meet people from other parts of the organisation and learn more about the workings and interests of other science and technology teams.”

He says there was strong link between IRL and the programme with a real expectation that ideas and solutions found on the course would be brought back to IRL and proactively pursued with the full support of senior management.

“IRL historically has had a low public profile and we are always striving to better engage with industry. We saw the idea of an internally funded competition open to all NZ businesses as a way to address both problems.

“By getting industry to talk to us we will be far better placed to understand, and respond to, their changing R&D needs. As an added bonus we hope to stimulate levels of R&D investment from the private sector and assist New Zealand to emulate other small export dependent countries like Finland and Singapore that have reaped the benefits of significant R&D investment from the private and public sectors.”

For more information on the competition, guidelines and rules visit


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