The Grill: The business of research

The CSIRO's new ICT Centre Director, Dr Ian Oppermann profiled

Computerworld: Tells us about your background prior to joining the CSIRO?

Oppermann: I was based in Finland with Nokia Siemens Networks — the joint venture between Nokia and Siemens with 20,000 people from Nokia, 40,000 from Siemens, and was looking after the network side of the business. I have a PhD in electrical engineering and I did an MBA at the University of London a few years ago and that helped in dealing with these larger companies as talking about business cases and value propositions.

What do you bring to the new role?

There is a very strong business and commercialisation focus with this role, while still needing to understand how scientists operate and what motivates them. I’ve taken the view that I’m in the business of innovation. There is a lot of great science and fantastic work going on [at the CSIRO] so I want to make sure that science engine is humming along nicely. I also want to make sure we are engaged with the world and that we have good commercialisation strategies and partners.

I hope I bring not only some pretty hard-core business skills backed up by technical understanding, but also a world view from having sat within the global headquarters of Nokia and Nokia-Siemens in Finland. I’m going to bring some of that head-office or global thinking to the CSIRO and I hope it’s a value-add.

Is the process of motivation different between the public and private sectors?

The thing about researchers is that they do it because they love it. The challenge for me is finding enough scope and room to allow the researchers to do what they have to do and provide a framework that allows them to operate with as much freedom as possible given that we have to deliver on certain key results. The guys we have in the ICT centre are already extremely motivated, so it’s really about developing that framework that gives them the room they need while still delivering on our project results and commercial and corporate objectives.

Is the importance of commercialisation growing at the CSIRO?

It’s been of growing importance for the CSIRO in general — it has been a difficult commercial environment for everyone the last couple of years. Given the external earnings requirements that the CSIRO, and the ICT Centre has in particular, has there is certainly more and more pressure to deliver commercial results as opposed to just science. While science is still important, the science-commercialisation combination is at the forefront of much of the thinking as we go forward.

We have also had some good successes — the wireless LAN patent was an exceptionally good one — and we’d like to repeat a couple of those. Obviously, having such a big return is pretty scarce. But, we’ve shown that it can be done and we’re moving forward with a much more focused eye on commercialisation opportunities.

How do you commercial potential against scientific potential?

We are trying to take a balanced portfolio view to the projects we are running. Some of them are pure science, in the sense that they’re of net benefit to the country, and there are some which have worked through the science contribution and are now ripe to harvest or have reached the end of their science research life and are now looking for a commercial exit.

At the moment we’re busy building a view of what we have inside the centre — where these different projects are in their lifecycle — and we are focusing on the ones that those that are yielding good results or are ready for a commercial exit.

What are the differences you’ve observed working in both a public and private sector R&D organisations?

I was surprised how short the time horizons were inside Nokia and Nokia-Siemens. Inside the CSIRO we have a number of horizons spread over years: Horizon one is 1-3 years, horizon two is 3-7 years, and horizon three is seven years plus. The idea is: Something for now, something for the future and something for the long-distance future. In a commercial organisation those time frames are very compressed. In Nokia-Siemens you’re following the time horizon of products which typically have a six-month release cycle, so horizon one may only be 1.5 years and horizon three may be 2.5 years. There is much more focus on results, getting the product out the door, and a very, very strong emphasis on innovation and revenue. That pressure doesn’t exist to the same extent inside the CSIRO, and the upside is that you can focus on a balance of projects and we have the luxury of looking at the longer term future.

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