As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Zahra Champion Is the Executive Director of the BIOTech New Zealand and Assistant Director of the Institute for Innovation in Biotechnology (IIB). She is running for the Waitemata District Health Board (WDHB).There are 3 Health Boards in Auckland and a total of 20 DHBs in New Zealand.


What in the community inspired you to move outside your work?

I am running for one of the hospital positions on the district health board across New Zealand. 

I run a very purpose-driven team, funded by members, a not-for-profit. We are a group very much focused around science; we also support related services. We have programs that connect, advance, promote. We run events. I can connect members to one another  to ensure they get the information they need. I connect also them to other industry bodies. I can connect them to people around the world. I am a conduit between people and companies. I am always trying to emphasize the importance of biotech. 

The government had a task force in the early 2000s where biotech was key. Science takes a long time, an  excess of 30 years. The way elections are run, projects sort of need  three-year cycles.

Biotech needs success stories and content we can provide to the New Zealand government and international organizations. Successful case studies also help us to encourage governmental funding. 

Instead of lobbying governments, we want to work alongside them. We want to support the decision-making with facts and figures. 

I also work at the University of Auckland, with the various kinds of enterprise students, often with  science backgrounds. They go off and they do a thesis inside a company. Those students meet with companies to get a real-life experience. I also sit on a paid board and a number of not-for-profit boards. I have a diverse skill set that I could take to certainly a larger board or a more complex board.

What convinced you that the health board is where you should devote your time? 

I have served on not-for-profit board in the health sector for a number of years. I have gained a lot of experience. You are very much involved at a grassroots level, working in the community. I am very fortunate in my role in the biotech sector. I have seen so many new technologies. They might be diagnostic kits, technology that enables patients to monitor themselves remotely. I see all of the really exciting new technology. I also see that we have yet to implement within the hospital. I see the value and complexity of the data. I am also really big on early screening. We have so many fantastic technologies that we could implement. 

You mentioned research that often does not trickle down to the public at large. Obviously time and the resources are needed; however, not all research is successful or produces the anticipated results. How do we ensure we are not reinventing the wheel? Does this research get adopted in the marketplace? 

New Zealand is very innovative. We need to partner and to be smart with investments. When you are going into a partnership, I think you need to ensure you have the right values and are embarking for the right reasons.  

I do not know what it is like overseas; there is a real challenge here to get some of these new technologies into the hospital or government.

We sometimes do not endorse our New Zealand products enough by using them. You will see a lot of our New Zealand companies taking products overseas, but not actually being used here. In New Zealand, we struggle at times with collaboration.

We should be looking at central databases across New Zealand. Certainly, if you are looking at the hospital setting, we should have a database that connects this through your hospital, your primary care, and your community. I as a person or a patient should be able to access all that information. Which then enables us to better manage data, to start looking at not me individually but the population. Everybody thinks their technology is the best; sometimes they do not want to collaborate or share. 

We also have some real issues around privacy. That comes down to what people believe they own and what they are happy to share. It is quite difficult to access patient data. If you are running a clinical trial and you want to look at a particular clinical or a disease stage, you should be able to search the whole of New Zealand. But we are unable to be efficient in terms of running these clinical trials. There is a two-pronged approach: getting the technology to sale and then getting it implemented.

Do you have some of the ingredients of what is needed to drive social impact? 

I think education is really key. Some people have a real understanding or a really good educations. That enables them to start making decisions around how we make something better. Then it becomes a collaboration, and collaboration is key. How do you get people to collaborate? They need to be each having an open mind.

It is again having that flexibility to say, yep, you have got a better idea. I am happy you understood my idea, or I am happy to collaborate. 

It comes down to shared values. Are we want to make a lot of money? Is this about the good of people? Is this about growing a business? Is this about selling quickly? 

In terms of the ingredients: an openness and willingness being able to see other people’s views. I keep thinking it is all about flexibility.

Do you have an  example of a successful cross-sector collaboration?

There is a company called Revolutionary Fibers. They took nano-technology and ended up with one of our large fishery companies. They have the waste product of fish. They take this waste product to a technology company that spins nanofibers. They are now extracting collagen and spinning collagen. 

 It was literally as simple as meeting at an event or having that introduction around what are some of the opportunities.

The guy who runs Revolution Fibers is an amazing guy. He is always at networking events. He is always talking to people outside of his sector to look at opportunities. That is what I mean about the education and that flexibility. I have seen those opportunities there. 

It is a really innovative company and really clear on their vision.

Why are these issues important to you? How did you end up in biotech, for example?

I am a scientist. I did my PhD, and I love new innovations. I love looking at new ways of doing things. What is the current research? What can we do with hidden costs commercialized things? Actually taking an idea, technology, and turning it into a product or a service that people can use and make a difference.

We are faced with some really big global challenges right now. We have faced them for a number of years, but it now seems to be incredibly real. You and I want to do good. We want to help the situation, or slow it down, or reverse it. What we need are really great solutions along the way. Technology is going to do that. It is not quite as simple as saying technology will have all the solutions because not everybody believes in the technology. A lot of people do not want to embrace technology. 

I am not a scientist at the bench, I love talking to the non-scientists. It is sitting in that space of telling the story and translating it to ensure that both parties understand what we are trying to do.

We always ask our interviewees who has made an impact on their DNA. I am sure there have been many people who have influenced you and your work. If you were to name one or two people, who would it be?

Two professors had a big impact on my life. Professor Margaret Brimble and Sir Mont Liggins. He is a famous New Zealander, but he is so down to earth and supported me through my Ph.D. He stumbled on a groundbreaking idea: babies tell mothers when they are going to be delivered, and not the other way around. Through his research, he saved millions and millions of lives.

Dame Margaret Brimble I have known for many years. She has had a major impact on my life through her continuous support of me and my career. In 2010, I wanted to apply for the Breakthrough Leaders Programme. Margaret was one of my supporters ensuring I could participate as an individual not as part of a business. Yesterday we had coffee, it made me realize again that her work is weaved into every part of making a difference in society: companion animals, human drug development, pest control, environment. It is a true inspiration that one person with a dedicated team can play such a huge role in the health of society.

Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8th, 2019. 

impactmania’s Women of Impact program has been awarded with the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.

For more information: [email protected].