Opportunity lost? – a case study, Dr Werner Komposi


By guest blogger: Mike Doig

Dr. Ingr Werner Komposi came to New Zealand about 12 years ago to take up employment at one of our universities. He was educated in Germany and while there divided his time between appointments in academia and industry.

Dr Komposi is married with two children, and the family has settled down well. They enjoy skiing and fishing, and appreciate New Zealand’s quiet and unspoiled natural environment.

Dr Komposi is a talented mechanical engineer who has specialised in the design of small diesel engines. He believes the diesel engine has unrealised potential and has a vision of designing an engine which could become a standard power plant in light aircraft.

He has prospered at his university. He has been promoted to associate professor, has published profusely, and was awarded an ‘A’ grade in the recent PBRF round.

He is a keen supporter of postgraduate research, and has supervised as many as six PhD students at the same time. Because of this he has been relieved of undergraduate teaching duties.

In 2008 Dr Komposi was awarded the Silver Medal for Innovation from the International Diesel Technology Association.

The university has been generous in its financial support of Dr Komposi’s research team. Dr Komposi has been able to attend numerous scientific and engineering conferences overseas, and this has enabled him to visit his family on a regular basis. His parents are now rather elderly.

He has not been able to obtain funding for his research from firms in New Zealand, nor from government sources.

However, as a result of his forays overseas, he has entered into a partnership arrangement with a large engineering concern in Korea, which has agreed to fund some of his work. It is thought that this arrangement grants certain intellectual property rights to the Koreans, but the university has no record of this.

Of his PhD students, all but two have found positions in overseas engineering companies.

One of the two others has taken up a post-doctoral fellowship in the university, and the other has entered the priesthood.

An MBA student at the same university became interested in the work of Dr Komposi and took as the subject of his final year project ‘A study of the feasibility of manufacturing diesel engines in New Zealand’.

It was a fine piece of work which earned the student an A+ grade. His finding was that while it would be technically possible to make diesels here, it would be hopelessly uneconomic and no sane firm or investor would be interested. Nearly all the most intricate componentry would have to be imported.

The MBA dissertation was embargoed for two years because it contained sensitive commercial information given by local engineering firms.

It has now been lodged in the university library but to date it has not been accessed, either in hard copy or online.

A seminar was organised by the university recently to celebrate the work of its most prominent researchers. Dr Komposi gave a stunning presentation of his diesel engine work, and two of his students gave a live demonstration of the latest design, which was surprisingly quiet.

A journalist in the audience was moved to ask how much support the work had received from the New Zealand taxpayer, and when a return might be expected.

Dr Komposi firstly replied that he didn’t keep very accurate records, but thought costs by now must be well over $1 million.

In considering the second part of the question, he first observed that the question wasn’t a very valid one.

‘Knowledge moves forward in unpredictable ways, and on a global scale’, he said. ‘We all benefit from the work of others.’

Dr Komposi and his family have now returned to Germany, where his elder son has enrolled at the University of Tubingen.

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About sticknz

sticK is by Peter Kerr, a writer for hire. I have a broad science and technology background and interest, with an original degree in agricultural science. My writing speciality is making the complex understandable. I am available for outside consultancy work, and for general discussions of converting a good idea into something positive
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