Interview with Melissa Yiannoutsos:
Technology companies have the potential to lift New Zealand into a new level of wealth.
Melissa Yiannoutsos and her company, Kerasi are committed to supporting the New Zealand science sector, business leaders and innovators.
As a mover-and-shaker in New Zealand and the Wellington region, Melissa is passionate about investment in science and has retained a keen interest in Technology Valley from the earliest beginnings.
In this article, Melissa answers questions put to her by Fraser Carson.
FC. What was it about your early years that drew you to the career you now have?
MY. I think one of the key things about my childhood that sees me where I am today is my Greek heritage and the role models that I was surrounded by from a very young age. Both sets of grandparents were immigrants from Cyprus and Greece. At a very young age their parents sent them alone to the opposite side of the world (NZ) to start better lives for themselves. In a country where they didn’t speak the language they still managed to set up successful cafe businesses. Some of the first in Wellington that kick started the cafe scene we now know today. I guess in my situation, I haven’t travelled to the other side of the world but there are some similarities. Fresh out of uni and earlier on in my career at Industrial Research (IRL), I was fortunate to have a boss, Geoff Todd, and a mentor, Simon Arnold, that gave me what I thought at the time was an impossible task – “Find angel investors and get them investing in technology companies”. In NZ at that time, this was a new investment category that was not well understand, a new language really, and one that I certainly didn’t understand. And it turns out one that investors weren’t that familiar with either as NZ had a long tradition of investing in property. But after a few months, I got the hang of it and we had a long line of technology companies and excited angel investors. I’m proud to say that over the 3 years we ran the programme we attracted close to $14 million into these young tech companies. Looking back, I think that experience at IRL is to blame for sending me down this career path – I got a taste for science, tech companies and ultimately angel investment.
FC. Tell us about any of your more interesting and rewarding career moments?
MY. One of my more rewarding moments would have to be our [with my business partner, Jenn Anderson] more recent angel investment into Anagenix Limited. The company had all the right attributes, it had to invest in science to compete internationally, it had a couple of passionate founders and it had the beginnings of a relationship with a global distributor. It was geared for some real promising opportunities. A year or so on, we have worked our way through some of the classic challenges of a start up; we all know them well - the founder’s dilemma, slippage in market entry timelines, aggressive competitor behaviours, but to everyone’s credit and hard work, Anagenix hit its forecasts and exceeded all our expectations. It’s a fun ride but definitely has its hair raising moments.
FC. What do you believe are New Zealand's biggest barriers to commercialising science?
MY. For me this boils down to three key factors at the private sector level; timing of investment, the IP ownership debate, and virtual teams.
One of the challenges faced by the private sector is knowing when to engage/invest in science and how to measure returns. Often this happens far too late to gain a real competitive advantage. In the industries I’m involved in, companies need to look beyond a 1-2 year horizon and figure out where their products need to be to meet market demand in more like 3-4 years time. Thinking in these longer timeframes moves you beyond me-to solutions and helps develop competitive advantages that are sustainable. The risk is still quite high at this point but Government investment programmes are designed to help minimise the financial risk helping the private sector engage early.
Then there’s the classic, IP ownership debate during negotiations. There really needs to be more sophisticated discussions about this asset type. Often negotiations fall down and opportunities are missed because of the desire to ‘own’ something. Whereas having exclusive rights to IP is often the better model
Finally, commercialisation stops short when communication is limited between organisations. Partnerships and the project teams tasked with the implementation are key to success. There is so much benefit in sharing market insight to inform the science direction early on, particularly when projects span multiple years. I’ve seen too many programmes where commercialisation is bolted on in the last year. If you can, companies should become part of these project teams to ensure your expectations are being met cross organisations and in market.
FC. What excites you most about the future of technology companies in New Zealand?
MY. Technology companies have the potential to lift New Zealand into a new level of wealth. And if done right, they can retain our smartest brains, but more importantly be major players on the international stage.
FC. Do you think more young people, and women, should be taking up careers similar to yours?
MY. Of course... what more could you ask for... being surrounded by some of New Zealand’s smartest people in science is exciting and turning their ideas into products that our international partners want is pretty cool. You’re competing on the world stage on day one.
FC. What's the one thing you'd like to have achieved in your work before your career is over?
MY. To look back and see a string of technology companies that I’ve had a hand in helping along the way… but more importantly it’s not just about creating wealth, it’s about creating responsible companies that improve our health and wellbeing and are around for our next generations.