Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Where science meets commerce

Researcher helps make the jump from innovation to saleable product.

Dr Kimberlee Jordan says switching on her business brain has been a constant effort.
Dr Kimberlee Jordan says switching on her business brain has been a constant effort.

When scientist Dr Kimberlee Jordan returned to New Zealand after 10 years of study abroad, she couldn't face another research paper.

She toyed with a fresh start in human resources or real estate.

"I was really casting a wide net and actually I'll say when I saw this job advertised, the one that I have now, I thought I have to apply for it because it's perfect, my skill set matches exactly what they're looking for but I really don't want to be doing academic research."

"This job" is senior research scientist at Industrial Research, which Jordan joined in 2011. Since then it has been folded into the Government's high-tech body Callaghan Innovation.

At Callaghan Innovation, named after scientist the late Sir Paul Callaghan, scientists work alongside engineers, technologists, businesspeople and investment and account managers, aiming to turn $140 million a year of government funding into business innovation.

Jordan's first task at her new job was to play computer games for hours on end.

She was testing games and technology aimed at assisting the movement rehabilitation of people affected by strokes.

The 37-year-old with a PhD in kinesiology, the study of human movement, still struggles to explain her job to others.

"What I see one of my roles as being is translating science and research outcomes into commercial products for New Zealand firms." Her research expertise on how the brain controls movement is put to money-making use by companies such as Im-Able, a Wellington-based firm commercialising technology for stroke rehabilitation.

A clinical study at the Royal Melbourne Hospital on the benefits of upper limb rehabilitation after a stroke has been testing the effectiveness of Im-Able's technology on patients.

Endorsement from the Australian study could see the Im-Able equipment become a standard part of stroke rehabilitation globally.

Jordan says a childhood passion for science meant she was always destined to be a "science nerd", but switching on her business brain takes constant learning and effort.

"If I was going to give advice to future scientists: definitely try and get some business skills in there." She works at immersing herself in the business of commercialisation, seeking out people with experience in project management, business case writing and the "dark art" of sales.

Solving problems with her science hat on can sometimes put her at odds with the reality of business, so Jordan says she is learning to recognise that although research matters, sometimes she needs to set aside her desire to create a faultless product in favour of meeting the client's needs.

"The perfect product might take a million dollars to develop, whereas you can get 80 per cent of the way for a tenth of the price."

Working at the intersection of business and science wasn't a comfortable fit initially for Jordan. "When I first started this job I was tremendously insecure about what other academic scientists would think, especially because you start going down that commercial pathway, and my attitude initially was it's kind of a bit dirty, there's money involved, it's not real science." Jordan says she struggled with her own perception that she was a "crap scientist" for working alongside commercial enterprises.

"Now I think I'm an awesome scientist because I'm doing it." The satisfaction comes from creating devices and technology that have tangible benefits to society as a whole.

"That's what makes me really passionate about this job is I get to do things that help people with their health and if we do a good job then we help the New Zealand economy grow too.

"It's like a double-whammy really and I get a great deal of satisfaction out of that." She says it feels like the "ridiculous years of education" are now being put to a good use.

"I know it sounds quite cheesy but the contribution I can make now, which I would never be able to make had I not put that effort into getting the degree, the satisfaction I get out of that makes it really, really worthwhile." Jordan admits she has her own product idea on the "slow boil" but she can see a time in the future when she'd like to test it as a commercial prospect. "I'm not sure what the future will hold but hopefully the space I'm in now, give or take a bit of science."

- NZ Herald

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