riding the knowledge wave

Published  The New Zealand Meat Producer magazine. January-March 2003

Discovery – based science is exciting, new and creative, says Ovita CEO, Damian Camp.  And that is what he finds stimulating about turning Ovita’s intellectual property into tangible returns.

Camp brings a healthy appreciation of the worlds of science and commerce to Ovita and is excited by the potential to take the company’s huge amount  of intellectual property, apply it to practical situations, create products and services and achieve tangible results.  “We get an idea of what we need to develop by looking  at the industry and  market, then finding partners to help us commercialise products and services.  Our biggest challenge currently is getting the right amount of focus within that huge area of opportunity.  There are so many potential research avenues to explore, we could run the risk of being too diverse.  My role is to help the Ovita team get that balance and apply that focus.”

While a company like Ovita is just what the Government has in mind when it encourages businesses to surf the knowledge wave, Camp suggests some  expectations may be “a bit high”.  Discovery-based science cannot be prescriptive but needs suitable environments for a certain amount of serendipity to occur. “The beauty of Ovita is we have a balanced approach to discovery based research coupled with a  concerted approach for specific product and service development.”

Camp grew up in Titirangi, West Auckland building tree huts and adventuring in the bush; activities many of the X-generation missed out on as playstations, television and computers began to fill up kids’ leisure time.  But the hours spent in the outdoors encouraged him to develop creative solutions to physical problems and Camp reckons this is why he is happy to get stuck in with the team at Ovita.  “ I think that lateral, practical thought allows me to have a holistic view rather than be detail focused all the time,” he says.  

After finishing High School, Camp spent a valuable year living with a local family in Costa Rica, becoming fluent in Spanish.  “ That year was a big challenge in terms of social and personal development.  When you are going through High School, you don’t always have the time to reflect on who you are and where you want to go- I was able to do that.”

Back in New Zealand, it was time to ‘stimulate the grey matter’ and Camp enrolled in pre-dentistry at Auckland University, transferring to Otago University in his second year for degrees in bio-chemistry, marketing management and corporate finance.  “ I have always been fascinated by  science but was more inclined to the commercial side of things.  It was fantastic being a student at Otago although you have to watch balancing the social aspects with the academic aspects.  However I think one of the strong points about Otago is so many students are away from home and have to socialise with a diversity of people.  I was at Otago for five years and was definitely ready to get out when I finished!”

And so it was to the corporate world of Chicago-based consulting firm A.T. Kearney where Camp was based in the Wellington office but spent 90% of his time in Australia consulting for clients such as General Motors, Pacific Dunlop, Ansett and Telstra.  “Firms like A.T. Kearney apply a way of thinking which allows people entrenched in that business to look at it in a different way.  Across those types of firms, the role varied from strategy development to supply charge management to pricing strategy.

“I was always part of a team and it was a fantastic learning opportunity to mix with senior people and learn from their experience.  That is the second best way to learn and I believe anyone who stops seeing the value of learning from other people stops learning themselves.  I like to give everybody the chance to voice their opinion. It does take a lot of time and because of this people often shut down their options with others but I think it is arrogant to shut yourself away as someone may think about something in a different way and give a fresh approach.”

Balance is a concept that comes up a lot in conversation with Camp and while the Trans-Tasman consulting life was made easier by his fiancé Sharlene living in Sydney, he decided climbing the corporate consulting ladder was ultimately an unattractive option.

“Consulting was great to give me a good appreciation for the corporate setting.  There are little bonuses along the way, just enough to keep you interested, but you do become a bit of a cog and I didn’t want to get sucked into that.  Plus the nature of consulting is that you are working in an intensive deadline based environment.  I might finish a project in Melbourne, return to Wellington and two days later be required in Sydney for a completely different client and have to click into a different way of thinking- there was no time to download.  It was not uncommon to work seven day weeks.” 

Also Camp was missing science-related activities, so he moved to Auckland to work for Genesis R&D as commercial manager.  “The bio-technology-related disciplines are churning over new ground and challenging current thinking.  It’s very creative and there is lots of lateral problem solving.  It’s fascinating understanding the different living systems and the inter-relatedness of all the components that build up and contribute to a system.”   

Bio-technology operates in long time frames, unlike say an airline which can roll out and market a new service in a matter of weeks, but the longevity appeals to Camp as it allows staff to become connected with the process and ‘buy in’ in terms of ownership.  “You never get that sort of satisfaction as a consultant where you get involved for a while, then step away and have nothing to do with it.  I’m now dealing with a lot of potential over the development process and nurturing something along the way from an idea to the fruition of a product or service. For me to get maximum satisfaction, I have to be here for the long term.”

He says New Zealand holds an internationally competitive position as ‘owner’ of  a huge amount of  knowledge about the sheep genome which is the result of decades of research by CRIs, Universities and bio-technology companies but warns this window of opportunity will not last for ever.

“We are in an extremely competitive position for gene discovery and understanding gene function as no other country has that depth of knowledge in one species but that advantage will be short lived.  If we don’t capitalise on our knowledge immediately, other players can overtake us.”

Another ‘threat’ to bio-technology companies such as Ovita is the political climate  although Camp believes the two major parties are currently handling the GE issue sensibly.  However he says the worst thing about the debate is people thinking bio-technology and GE are synonymous.  “ I understand why the media jumps on the easy stories of cloning and genetically engineered products but it needs to be understood that both these disciplines are tools within a much broader tool kit that is bio-technology.  If at the worst we can’t use GE for research purposes, scientists will leave New Zealand.  That is a serious, serious risk.”   

While Camp spends his work day fine tuning and balancing all the requirements of a company of the future, he also seeks to find that balance in his personal life and he and Sharlene are happy to be back in Dunedin where she has family.  He spends time off doing completely unrelated activities such as fly fishing, gardening and Goju Ryu, a traditional form of karate which literally translated means ‘hard/soft style’.  A brown belt, Camp says “ karate is good  because it gets so intense that if you let the work day penetrate your thinking, it’s quite easy to end up wearing one.  ”  

And he says Dunedin is the perfect place for Ovita to be based as it is close to a large number of sheep breeders, key research partners- Otago University and Ag Research at  Invermay- and is also part of the Bio-South bio-tech cluster.  “Dunedin is a real hot spot for bio-tech which means the whole sector has a critical mass- it’s very collaborative.  The Dunedin City Council has also been very supportive, subsidising our rent as they see bio-tech as being very important to the Otago economy.”