Sir James Dyson: Let's get inventing to create jobs and prosperity

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Dyson vacuum cleaner designed by Sir James Dyson. Photo / Supplied
Dyson vacuum cleaner designed by Sir James Dyson. Photo / Supplied

Invention creates jobs, it creates exports, and it creates wealth. Both in the UK and in New Zealand, we need to do more to ease the skills shortage in engineering, and champion budding inventors in schools, universities and small businesses.

New Zealand is taking steps towards this. Technology hubs are being established in Christchurch and Auckland. But be warned - the focus shouldn't be solely on web start-ups. It is hardware; real tangible inventions that will ultimately re-ignite the world's economy.

I started by ripping the bag off my old vacuum cleaner and attaching a cyclonic prototype. More than 5000 prototypes and 15 years later, the first bagless vacuum cleaner rolled off the production line in the UK.

Going it alone was risky. I was heavily indebted. Not a single lender considered my idea a worthwhile investment. I persevered, and DC01 became the best-selling vacuum cleaner in the UK within 18 months.

Today, just 20 years on, Dyson is in over 50 countries selling vacuum cleaners, hand dryers, fans and cordless machines too.

Taking an idea from a concept to commercial reality should not have to be a hard slog. But with the world fixated on digital and internet start-ups, support for engineers and entrepreneurs is in ever shorter supply.

It is the engineers of today who will fill the void in the nation's coffers. Take Honda in Japan. Exporting hardware has created profits that dwarf the budgets of some small countries.

These companies start off small, with just an idea. To encourage more Soichiro Hondas, we must start fostering ideas. Our governments must not be distracted by internet start-ups. We need to set our sights on supporting young people with the tenacity and brains to commercialise an invention.

Both in the UK and in New Zealand, we need to do more to champion emerging inventors in schools, universities and small business.

The Royal College of Art in London has just opened a new business incubator. The James Dyson Foundation donated $10 million to build the RCA Dyson Building. This facility can house up to 40 new ventures ranging from a waterless toilet for the developing world, to a retractable screen designed to give patients privacy in hospitals.

What they have in common is that they all involve physically engineered components. In the long run, they promise jobs and exports.

Exports by New Zealand's top 100 technology companies have risen 2 per cent to $5.2 billion in the last financial year. R&D spending has increased by 8 per cent - well ahead of the UK.

Hard hit by the earthquake, Christchurch could have easily slipped into economic decline. But the recent $1.8 million investment in the city's new innovation hub is a sign that your Government won't be turning its back on R&D.

Auckland is busy establishing its technology hub in the Wynyard precinct, and The Icehouse continues to offer business incubation to promising start-ups. Both are positive signs to show New Zealand has the ambition to become a centre for high technology innovation.

Governments will need patience as they build these new technology hubs. Unlike the investor's dream of overnight success, creating things requires long-term thinking.

R&D takes time and money. Failure comes before the breakthroughs occur.

Each year, the James Dyson Award judges clever inventions from some of New Zealand's brightest young minds. This year's winner, Axolotl, is a sustainable tree harvester, ensuring that the entire tree is used and not wasted.

Nick Ross, the inventor, is now working with the international forestry industry from New Zealand to Scandinavia to commercialise his idea.

It takes time, but the financial rewards justify the effort.

New business ventures will populate the technology hubs of London, Auckland and Christchurch, all of them garnering investment, creating jobs and exporting patented technology across the world. Invest in start-ups, invest in R&D and we invest in the future.


Sir James Dyson is the chief engineer and founder of Dyson Appliances in Britain.

- NZ Herald

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