C-Prize 2019 is calling for bold ideas for tech-based solutions or products with the power to improve environmental incomes. Photo: Petra Leary.
C-Prize 2019 is calling for bold ideas for tech-based solutions or products with the power to improve environmental incomes. Photo: Petra Leary.

BusinessNovember 29, 2019

How New Zealand could help save the world with environmental innovation

C-Prize 2019 is calling for bold ideas for tech-based solutions or products with the power to improve environmental incomes. Photo: Petra Leary.
C-Prize 2019 is calling for bold ideas for tech-based solutions or products with the power to improve environmental incomes. Photo: Petra Leary.

Clean tech could be a man-made solution to the man-made problem of climate change. Callaghan Innovation is encouraging local innovators to develop their ideas for a lower-emissions planet, with their 2019 C-Prize challenge.

In New Zealand, far away from the rest of the world, we often forget that our knack for innovation is highly regarded. We split the atom, created the world’s first spiral hairpin and invented the jet boat. Now there’s an urgent need to redirect some of that creativity towards sustainability goals. 

“Clean tech” is a relatively new term for innovations that are helping to save the planet. Whether it be taking plastic out of the process or reusing waste for fuel, the idea of oily tech taking a bath and redirecting its energy towards sustainability seems long overdue. In the age of climate protests and melting ice caps, there’s never been a more crucial time for clean tech to become the new norm.

In 2019, Callaghan Innovation’s biennial C-Prize is providing a catalyst for this shift in focus. The $100,000 prize and commercialisation support are awarded to a group or business with an innovative concept for a product or service fitting within the challenge categories, which in 2019 are all about improving environmental outcomes through tech innovation. Alongside the prize money for first place, the top ten teams receive $10,000 and participate in tailored programmes to develop and prove their ideas. The goal is to help New Zealand companies grab that clean tech moment, and lift our reputation as sustainability innovators. 

Environmental Innovation is the focus for this year’s C-Prize challenge – Callaghan Innovation is asking innovators to develop tech solutions with the power to change environmental outcomes. Business advice, mentoring and R&D expertise will support finalists to turn their concepts into reality. Follow the C-Prize journey.

New Zealand industrial carbon recycling company LanzaTech has achieved global success by pioneering innovative solutions to carbon displacement. Worldwide the demand for an alternative to fossil fuels has impacted the rise in innovations in the fuel industry. While for the most part this has led businesses and innovators to look into biofuels – fuels created from sustainable resources like forestry waste and algaes – LanzaTech has taken a different path. 

LanzaTech was born 15 years ago after co-founders Dr Sean Simpson and the late Dr Richard Forster saw a gap in the market for an alternative to the hype surrounding biofuels. The pair, working at biotech company Genesis at the time, realised the conversion of forestry waste into biofuel wasn’t the only option for a sustainable fuel. Simpson says ‘biofuel’ was a buzzword at the time, but he and Forster saw an alternative.

“We started thinking ‘if we don’t think this forestry biofuel is a good idea but we think making sustainable fuels is a good idea, what do we think could be a good foodstock?’ We mulled it around and came up with some ideas. It had to be cheap, it had to be super available, and it had to be something that wasn’t a food that was available in a single location and was available everywhere.”

Sean Simpson, LanzaTech. Photo: supplied.

That idea grew into LanzaTech, which turns waste gas into ethanol and has offices in the USA, China and India, and has topped the “50 Hottest Companies in the Advanced Bioeconomy” ranking for three consecutive years. Simpson thinks New Zealand provided the perfect environment for the creation of the first iterations of the company.

“We have a population the size of Greater Manchester, but Greater Manchester doesn’t have a forestry industry, a dairy industry, an aluminium industry, a steel industry, or a gas industry. So the small number of people who are in New Zealand tend to have more multi-industry experience. You can hire people and access people in New Zealand who bring to bear this eclectic palette of industrial experience to your problem.”

New Zealand often works well as a proving ground for innovation, and that’s in part because of its small size, says James Muir, business innovation advisor for energy and environment at Callaghan Innovation. 

“The businesses that we work with, many of those are developing products, services or processes that are very scalable and exportable as well. They’re using New Zealand as a testbed then exporting overseas.”

And while it may seem impossible that a small Kiwi operation could penetrate the huge markets for clean tech in places like the USA and China, coming from a small remote country can actually help with global expansion. Simpson says being from New Zealand was a huge asset when it came to getting a seat at some overseas tables. 

“[When] scaling in a country like China, as a small company in New Zealand I could get the New Zealand Ambassador to China to help me out with a meeting or a signing ceremony and we were on a first-name basis for a little while. If I was coming from the US, I would have to be the CEO of Boeing to get a handshake from the US ambassador to China.”

Muir admits it’s early days for climate technology in New Zealand, and that’s why Callaghan Innovation has chosen to put the call out for ideas of innovations that aim to directly confront this problem. In the 2017 Global Clean Tech Index, New Zealand ranked 22nd. Callaghan Innovation has big goals to help move the country up into the top 10 in the next few years.

“There are a number of small advanced economies that are ahead of us and we would love to move New Zealand from 22 to about 10 in a few years time. Broadly it shows that we are not being as focused on this sector as we could or should be,” says Muir.

“With C-Prize we’re looking for really audacious new ideas for technology – whether that’s a product or process – that have the power to address climate change, bring about clean water or enable smarter resource use.”

As an agency focused on advancing innovation in New Zealand, Callaghan Innovation has an important role to play in making the country a world-leader in clean tech. That’s precisely why the themes of this year’s C-Prize centre around environmental innovation, says Richard Quin, the energy and environment group manager at Callaghan Innovation. He says the C-Prize challenge will help New Zealand as a whole to increase its ranking on the Global Clean Tech Index by accelerating the development of multiple bold innovations with global potential in this space.

“Being selected for the C-Prize programme’s [final ten] is a prize worth winning on its own because that’s when Callaghan Innovation gets involved. We introduce teams to our experts and our partners across the innovation ecosystem to educate and inform them about what it’s going to take to realise their idea. Our aspiration is that all 10 teams come out of that process with the potential to go on and become thriving New Zealand enterprises.”

Richard Quin, Callaghan Innovation energy and environment group manager. Photo: supplied.

And while Callaghan Innovation wasn’t created specifically to address environmental issues, Quin says encouraging environmentally-focused innovation was a logical step to keep up with growing global demand for clean tech. 

“People may wonder why Callaghan Innovation is in this space. We’re not the Ministry for the Environment, we’re not accountable for delivering any kind of environmental goals. But what we’re about is supporting business innovation and enabling business that is growing through the use of technology… supporting those ideas to become products that will generate revenue and jobs, and have a positive impact on the environment in New Zealand and globally.”

There are certain sectors in New Zealand that Muir thinks will experience huge technological and environmental changes in the next few years. Agriculture and transport top the list. The recent push towards electrification of vehicles is one thing that’s helped both of these industries and is a perfect example of how clean tech is here to stay.

“We have noticed an uptick in businesses in the clean tech space which will be creating new jobs or jobs with higher value in the future, so I think it’s really positive and I don’t see it having a downside in the near future.”

Quin isn’t just asking for people with established businesses to apply for the C-Prize. He wants anyone from students to iwi groups to friends who’ve been “chipping away at an idea around the dining table”. 

“It’s all about the aspiration to create a business that’s either reducing the amount of harm in how products are produced or used, or businesses that have ideas to rejuvenate natural systems.”

Teams have until 8 December to get their entries in. And even if you don’t get selected, “they will get some feedback on how to make their idea better, so they are better prepared for next time,” says Quin. What’s the worst that can happen? 

This content was created in paid partnership with Callaghan Innovation. Learn more about our partnerships here

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