Local businesses benefit from fresh ideas with R&D grant

For businesses looking to benefit from smart, enthusiastic people with fresh ideas, it doesn’t get much better than a Callaghan Innovation R&D Experience Grant.

The R&D Experience Grant is an internship designed as full-time, paid work experience over the summer break for tertiary students studying science, technology, engineering, design or business. During the internship, students’ time must be spent helping on a special R&D project or activity.

Thanks to the R&D Experience Grant, Cambridge-based website development company Rocketspark welcomed two University of Waikato students, Hongyu Wang and Rhys Compton, into their office last summer to work on a “high potential” project.

Rocketspark founder Grant Johnson says the grant was hugely beneficial in that it enabled the company to benefit from the new ideas and energy of two keen, high-performing students, and it also allowed his team to dedicate resource to an innovative project they might otherwise not have been able to.

“Hongyu and Rhys were able to come and see what it’s like being part of a collaborative team and gain an insight into what the workforce is like, as well as seeing how the ideas and concepts they’re learning at university play out in a real-world context.”

Johnson says it was important that their interns be given a project to work on that had real-world application; a product Rocketspark plan on taking to market for their clients.

The project, which is in its final stages of development, is an ‘SEO Wizard’ designed to help Rocketspark clients navigate SEO (search engine optimisation) principles on their websites, and involved elements of machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence).

“In developing the SEO Wizard Hongyu and Rhys helped come up with the concept, which involved research with our customers to find out what they needed in a SEO support tool, and taking that information to then build a programme that would meet their needs and leave room for improvement and expansion down the track.”

Johnson says they both also benefited from being exposed to general office culture. “Not only did they work hard and produce exceptional ideas and outputs, they really became a part of the team. They made friends, came to the office Christmas party, and got to experience some of the more intangible, but important, aspects that make up the workplace.”

For students Hongyu Wang and Rhys Compton, the internship with Rocketspark helped solidify their study choices and the careers they want to pursue when they graduate from university.

Compton, who is currently in his fourth and final year of a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours in software engineering says he applied for the internship because it had a high research component and he was attracted to the idea of doing meaningful work.

“We were given a lot of creative liberty to take the project where we felt most appropriate, even if it was a slightly unchartered area. Beforehand I knew I wanted to explore machine learning a bit more, so having the ability to fully explore the field has opened my eyes to its current state and future potential, and inspired me to pursue this as a career.

“I also enjoyed the general vibe and culture at Rocketspark. Everyone’s really friendly and laid back, which made it really enjoyable going to work each day.”

Compton says the internship experience will also help set him apart from other applicants for jobs in the future. “Being able to give higher level examples of the work I’ve done, like this project, is important to have – particularly with machine learning and data science jobs which I hope to get in to later.”

Wang, who is in his final year of a Bachelor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences with Honours says working with Rocketspark over the summer has increased his confidence.

“I loved the environment we were in. It was an interesting project academically and I learnt a lot about the workplace in general, like inter-personal skills. Beforehand I didn’t really know what an office environment was like so I feel a lot more confident about going into situations like that in the future.

“It was also really good experience exploring the AI side of things more, which I’ve always had an interest in and will be able to use the experience I gained at Rocketspark when applying for jobs in the future.”

Michael Bassett-Foss, CEO of Waikato’s regional economic development agency Te Waka says funding opportunities such as the Callaghan Innovation R&D Experience Grant are attractive to both businesses and students alike, and can help foster regional growth through innovation.

“It’s a way of showcasing the incredible R&D capability in the regions and combining it with the fresh ideas and new ways of thinking that our tertiary students can bring to the table,” he says.

“Often small businesses don’t get the time or resources to dedicate to tackling those game-changing projects. In Rocketspark’s case, they were able to use their grant to bring a new, exciting project to life, one that will have a positive impact on their business while at the same time giving two smart, hard-working students an invaluable opportunity to contribute to a real-world project in their field of study.”

R&D Experience Grants will be open for applications for the 2019/2020 summer break on 1 May 2019, and close 31 July. To apply, businesses must have an active R&D project and successful applicants will receive funding for 400 hours of full-time work.

Students eligible to apply must be studying, or recently completed, an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification in science, technology, engineering, design or business at a New Zealand tertiary institute. 

L-R: Hongyu Wang, Rhys Compton (CI-funded interns), Todd Harper, Leanne Lawson 

Visit our what we offer page for more information about R&D grants