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Posts Tagged high tech

Shanahan on a mission to destroy the notion of plucky NZ punching above its weight Peter Kerr Oct 24

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You have to give the effusive and self-effacing Greg Shanahan his due.

He kicked off the TIN 100 report in 2004, and now in its tenth year of production it reflects the healthy growth in New Zealand’s ICT, high-tech manufacturing and biotech sectors.

As Shanahan told a Wellington audience at MoBIE‘s new headquarters in Stout St, the combined revenue of these strongly value adding businesses is over $8.3 billion, with $6.1 billion of that from exports.

That’s more than our forestry industry, and provides pretty well-paying jobs for over 35,000 people.

And, as is fitting for a decade anniversary, Shanahan reflected on the growth in the TIN sector, the changes he’s observed and, more importantly, what he’d like to see in New Zealand’s attitude to our successful businesses.

“Part of the goal of the TIN 100 is to help us move past the idea of plucky New Zealand punching above its weight,” he says.

“That’s rubbish as an idea, a type of apology.”

“It’s a bit like saying, that Greg Shanahan, he’s not as bad as you thought.”

Greg Shanahan, TIN100, 22 Oct 2014

TIN 100 founder Greg Shanahan (“not as bad as you thought” [but see story for its context]}

A punching above your weight connotation is also rubbish since global competition demands that a company be a leader in its field. To maintain leadership, TIN 100 and TIN 100+ companies have been increasing R&D and sales and marketing effort as a proportion of their total revenue.

“By doing that, these companies are able to be price makers instead of price takers,” he says.

The summary of this year’s TIN 100 findings are:

  1. ICT growth remains strong
  2.  Recovery of the high-tech manufacturing sector
  3. Healthcare growth is strong
  4. The USA recovery continues

Shanahan says he continues to be bullish about the sector mainly because he feels New Zealand is the right size:

  • We’re small enough to be quick and large enough to be dangerous
  • We’re able to do things more quickly, more efficiently
  • Because we have poorer economies of scale [compared to other countries], we have to do things more efficiently

So, hats off to Shanahan and his team.

Without his sterling efforts we’d have no profile, no analysis and certainly very little celebration of these smart sectors.

(Note: if you’ve got this far, you also might like to check out my new site Punchline – messages that matter)


Of course nobody notices – there’s no photo opportunity! Peter Kerr Oct 07

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Naturally it has escaped the attention of mainstream media…

But, the fact is that two Kiwi IT companies are still in, and contributing to, the world’s largest IT project – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope. (See a press release here).

Thousands of radio telescopes to be built in Southern Africa and Australia between 2018 and 2024 will monitor and survey space, producing vast amounts of data.

It will require real-time analysis of 120 terabytes per second – the equivalent of streaming one million high definition movies at once.

This is a massive Big Data project, and will require new developments in both hardware and software.

A team led by Open Parallel including Catalyst IT engineers has devised and delivered the initial version of the Software Development Plan for how participants in the project will develop software and/or firmware to achieve design goals established for the SKA.

Now, Open Parallel’s director, Oamaru-based (yes, you’ve read that correctly) Nicolas Erdody has also been the inspiration and driver behind three Multicore World conferences (now in its fourth consecutive edition – Feb 2015, Wellington). These assemblies of global IT heavyweights are looking how to take advantage of massive computing power available through multicore computers (where there’s many many processors on one chip).

So far no one has effectively cracked how to write the parallel programs (coding) that takes advantage of this power.

But, by being part of the SKA project, Open Parallel and Catalyst have positioned themselves to both learn, along with others, and ride the inevitable wave of parallel programming, big data, cloud and green computing, and many more state-of-the-art technologies.

So what?

Well, if it comes to pass, there will be a huge opportunity for New Zealand to be at the forefront of what will be a whole new basket of knowledge and technologies around multicore and programming for them.

The opportunities for our IT sector(s) to be ride this parallel computing wave will be immense – way bigger than the movie industry, with much more potential to branch into different fields.

Naturally, Erdody and Catalyst IT managing director Don Christie aren’t part of SKA solely as their contribution to knowledge about our universe.

But they are taking a longterm view, positioning their own companies to be part of the knowledge creation for the project, and clearly identifying themselves as clever and competent operators in an ever-expanding field.

It is doubtful that either of them have any clear idea of where their involvement will lead.

However, their leadership and vision will in the near future be of immense benefit to our country. After all, what computer programmer wouldn’t want to live in New Zealand to be part of both SKA and ongoing developments in multicore and parallel programming.

Not that the government or media would have a clue.

It’s not something that has a photo opportunity.

It also requires the ability to think.


Should you bother with venture capital funding…the numbers suggest no? Peter Kerr Aug 20

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The scramble that many startups make to secure venture capital funding may be detrimental to the budding business’s health.

In fact John Mullins, writing in Havard Business Review’s blogs, makes the point that the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs never take any venture capital (his italics). Mullins is an associate professor at London Business School.

He gives examples from around the world, but the observations are almost undoubtedly true about New Zealand too.

He quotes venture capital investor Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures.

“The fact is that the amount of money startups raise in their seed and Series A rounds is inversely correlated with success. Yes, I mean that. Less money raised leads to more success. That is the data I stare at all the time.”

Wilson’s observation demonstrates there are a number of serious downsides in raising capital too early, and that these drawbacks have profound implications at all stages of the investment cycle. I’ve summarised the five drawbacks to VC funding made by Mullins, who also provides some interesting links supporting these arguments.

1. Pandering to VCs is a distraction.

Raising capital demands a lot of time and energy, when an entrepreneur is better off convincing prospective customers to buy – or perhaps learning why they won’t.

2. Terms sheets and shareholder agreements can burden you.

To protect their own downside risk, investors will require what are often seen by entrepreneurs as onerous terms.

3. The advice that VCs give isn’t always that good.

Unfortunately, entrepreneurs will be very likely obliged to follow the VC’s sage ‘advice’.

4. The stake you keep is small – and tends to get smaller

If money is raised later in the entrepreneurial journey, with customer traction in hand, the startup owner is in the driver’s seat, and is much more likely to find a queue of investors outside their door.

5. The odds are against you

In the VC game the very few winners pay for the losers, so most VCs are playing a high-stakes all-or-nothing game. Such odds make it extremely questionable whether entrepreneurs should put their own business into such a play.

Mullins’ take home point is that especially in the early stages, a startup business is much better off being funded and grown entirely by its customers’ cash.

Outside funding is not the be all and end all – though it can quite easily be the unintended end of the startup.

The article also has some excellent comments (as you’d expect for a HBR type article which add further insights to Mullins’ observations).


Local, thinks global and quickly gets asked if it is for sale Peter Kerr Jul 02

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Many Kiwis struggle to appreciate the size of the global internet market, and how to tap into it says John-Daniel Trask.

The co-founder of Wellington-based Mindscape (“We build fantastic tools for developers”) recently spoke at the NZ Entrepreneur Club.

As an aside, the messages/language on Mindscape’s web pages are a model of simplicity and appealing description. Check out the company’s ‘About’ page to get a flavour of how others should do it.

Business, and more particularly digitally-oriented business has been in John-Daniel’s blood since high school in Palmerston North, including selling a program on a disk that masked other schoolboy’s internet search history on their family’s computer!

Torn between doing a business degree or computer science degree at Massey University, J-D opted for a relatively open-ended computer course – and shoved in as business papers as he could.

He (easily) got a job at IT solutions company Intergen, and from day one was quizzing its bosses about revenues, sales, margins and the nuts and bolts of how it operated.

Not surprisingly he quickly rose through the company; and while he was doing it bought as many shares off other employees as he could.

Soon he was one of the largest non-founding shareholders, and the option of buying the fourth largest shareholder’s portion came up. This would’ve made him the largest non-founding shareholder of Intergen by a long margin. The deal fell through however.

J-D then quietly, and completing the deals all at once, sold his shares back to other employees within Intergen, pocketing a tidy return at the same time.

In 2007, along with Jeremy Boyd, Mindscape was brought into life, creating software development tools as its products, concentrating on Microsoft’s .NET environment.

Mindscape’s main product these days is ‘Raygun’, error reporting software which was launched in 2013.

This software has had exceptional growth – so much so that Mindscape received a number of inquiries whether it was up for purchase.

Instead, and boasting real growth and revenue, Mindscape recently went to the market and raised capital.

J-D and Jeremy Boyd still own 87% of the company – but given that Mindscape’s doubled revenues since April, investors are probably pretty happy.

He says that lessons learned along the way is not to become too scattergunned in its projects or offers.

“Put your energy into one thing,” he says.

He sees a new wave of potential in virtual reality, arguing that the present fixation on the visual component ignores the touch, sound and audio.

In the meantime Mindscape’s focused on its revenues, as this keeps its future options wide open.

“We could carry out an IPO, we could be attractive as an acquistion, or we could continue to make a lot of money,” he says.

This Entrepreneur Club talk was a great example of a well-executed business, firing on all cylinders.

Without doubt, the winner of the Hi-Tech Young Achiever Award in 2009 will do something else clever again – probably sooner rather than later.

Watch this space.

 


A buried treat in WordPress’s Terms of Service Peter Kerr Jun 26

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It’s in keeping with the spirit of WordPress that its Terms of Service are simple, freely available to be repurposed by others, and, the tiniest bit quirky.

WordPress co-founder, and part owner of its tech-tools parent Automattic, Matt Mullenweg, pointed out there’s a ‘here’s a treat’ buried in the ToS.

Speaking recently in Wellington, he reckons that so few people actually read these legal bits, putting in a hyperlink is a nice surprise for those who bother. Go have a look yourself.

The San Francisco based open source enthusiast was on a whistlestop tour around Japan, Indonesia, Australia and NZ, spreading the word and looking to add to the globally-spread development team.

The scarily young Matt seems pretty savvy and modest all at once. His photo and bio is buried, alphabetically on the Automattic page (though he did point out the pun on his own name in the parent brand).

Part of the savviness comes from a 1970’s computer science graduate dad who encouraged his then six year son to play with the home computer’s code in the late 1980s – with the proviso he fixed what he broke!

A fair bit of looking under the hood later in 2004, Matt was looking around for, and failing to find, simple blogging software or platforms.

So, along with Mike Little he built the open source, free, WordPress. They quickly realising they couldn’t do it alone, and encouraged others to come into development team.

As well, they set up Auttomatic.

He describes Jetpack as the site’s tool with the most promise. This allows plugins that are available on WordPress.com to be available on self-hosted WordPress installs, powered by the cloud.

More than 130 Wellingtonians attended the Shed 6 presentation, including a colleague Harry.

Harry can’t code, but he too was impressed with the open nature of what Matt’s helping create in the net, and dispersing it around the world.

With only 22% of the internet sites, there’s 78% to go says Matt.

His lofty goal is to democratise publishing.

He might just do it Harry reckons.

 P.S. – In case you can’t find the tasty treat, check out paragraph 16


In the rush to all things digital, are we missing a biological trick? Peter Kerr Jun 12

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New Zealand is missing a trick when it comes to the startup weekend, incubator, accelerator programme ecosystem that’s got lots of attention lately.

And sure, I can appreciate how the digital side of things is extremely quick at developing and validating a business through processes such as Lightning Lab.

Where I wonder if we’re underplaying to one of our strengths, is in the biology/technology economy (the analogue economy perhaps?).

What would be the new research and commercialisation projects if we had fired up scientists, engineers, manufacturers,  hands-on finance and distribution people, digital experts and some other odd and even people hothoused in a similar way to the incubator models?

How much learning, cross-fertilisation and ‘ideas-worth-pursuing’ could we generate?

Would the intersection of different peoples’ thinking create new opportunities?

The answer is surely it would.

But still, you’ve got to wonder whether the gift that mother nature has given us to produce biological raw materials isn’t being leveraged to anywhere near the extent we can and should be doing.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no forum that brings a width of sector participants together to collaboratively cook up new schemes.

Obviously, the dairy, meat, wool, forestry, and fishing sectors have their conferences – but they tend to be only mildly looking-over-the-horizon talk fests.

It is rare that people come away from such events with the attitude “I didn’t realise that,” or “I wonder if there’s an opportunity with…”

Now, the last thing I’m suggesting is our country should be either digital or analogue; we should do both, and both should and do inform each other.

Examples include TracMap, started by a former Wrightson colleague Colin Brown – which has expanded from using GPS and other clever computing to expand from helping fertiliser to be applied more accurately, to a range of markets under the heading ‘Situation awareness made easy’.

In fact there’s any number of digital/analogue connections for New Zealand’s primary industry – as evidenced at last year’s initial mobile tech forum.

However, we’re less good at the market end, adding value in areas such as functional foods, or ramping up the use of wood fibre as a multi-talented resource.

I appreciate I’m merely stating the problem without coming up with many answers.

But, how can we as self-described inventive Kiwis, create and explore biological/technologydigital opportunities better; much better?

 

 


Capitalising on virtual and reality Peter Kerr May 13

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Who would’ve thought that the term Holographic Virtual Reality (TM) was still there to be taken by 8i?

Equally (except we’re sort of now used to it), who would’ve thought four non-New Zealanders, who together form 8I, and who now call Wellington home, would have come together to help build the improved visual engine to power the Oculus Rift virtual reality head-mounted display.

The Oculus was initially funded through Kickstarter in 2012, and in March Facebook stumped up with $400m in cash plus $1.6bn in Facebook stock to buy the company who aims to puts the head-mounted display’s price within the reach of gamers (among other things).

Making the display, but more importantly the background code that enables the holographicness is therefore a big, complicated, maths-heavy, piece of work. The May 5 announcement on the 3D leap forward is notable.

The four person co-founder team that’s more or less self-assembled is top shelf stuff.

Australian-born Linc Gasking started and sold out of a highly success San Francisco net-based startup.

He’s recently written a self-funded study and report on “Five ways New Zealand can accelerate a sustainable high-tech ecosytem”, is a co-founder of Free Range Farms, a space, place and pace for startups, and also of Chalkle, a community based learning/teaching platform.

Joshua Feast, is a Kiwi, who has been based in Boston for a while involved in tech ventures.

Sebastian Marino, the Chief Creative Officer brings some serious applied maths and visual effects grunt to the team. He won a 1999 Academy Award for his work on virtual clothing in a Star Wars movie, and provided much of the algorithms and computation behind 77 Pieces – a 2D to 3D modelling tool that allows shows what a flat patterned piece of cut out cloth will look like as part of a pair of jeans (for example).

I’ve not met Chief Scientist Eugene d’Eon, but Mr Google reveals a Lord of the Rings involvement as well as numerous (solo and shared) publications in computer science journals with names such as ‘A layered, heterogeneous relfectance model for acquiring and rendering human skin’.

We’re very lucky these guys have chosen to base themselves here. They could set up wherever they please, so whatever secret-ether Wellington’s emitting to attract and retain this sort of talent should be bottled.

They’ll be calling on the home-grown and imported talent pool to help develop the next iteration of the Oculus Rift, and deliver a consumer product.

As Linc Gasking said in the press release, 8i is acquiring deep technology from Oculus. But equally, 8i it is also adding its own expertise, boosted to by the team it is building….people who among other work gigs have been immersed in building the 3D Avatar movie.

Oculus, and in turn Facebook don’t just choose any old random to do this sort of work.

Keep an eye on these guys as they capitalise on a time, place and collective brains sychronocity and synergy.

If we do this right, and not put the word innovation anywhere near 8i, Wellington and New Zealand could create a commercial 3D nucleus as the company scales the opportunity to make Holographic Virtual Reality the real deal.


Lightning Lab grows up, gets into its groove Peter Kerr Apr 30

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The Lightning Lab’s demo day had some quite fascinating works in progress…bring on Demo (to investors) Day on May 28 at Te Papa.

The team behind LL are also, as you’d hope, a year wiser, further along a path with the aim of rapidly ramping up verified/proven businesses.

It also isn’t surprising to see the LL accelerator (now there’s a nice rhyme/assonance) expanding to Auckland next year and Christchurch.

The nine, mostly two or three man teams (and a question asked why so few females?), have had assumptions challenged, hard questions posed – as teams are forced to think about building a business as opposed to creating a product.

There is also wider value beyond the incubation itself, as Ken Erskine, director of startups at The Icehouse, (as appears in Stuff), puts it perfectly

He says research showed successful startup accelerators provided a network of highly experienced and committed mentors and investors, an active alumni network and, most importanly, connections to future capital.

Together, we have a phenomenal combined network of mentors, investors and startup entrepreneurs to help ensure the success of the nationwide accelerator programme.”

At the demo, with a small d, day on April 23, one of the three month intensive’s more interesting pivots was the horse guy.

The original pitch was to do something to make horse shoeing more easy. But the team lead by Ashok is now looking to create a tool so that businesses can run campaigns on SnapChat (the instant appear/disappear photo app).

The guys looking to build a tool to automate translating accounting figures from say Xero, MYOB or QuickBooks to an accountant’s own chart of accounts has already got strong traction and demand.

One of the startups wants to capture, retain and effectively distribute that deep institutional knowledge longertime employees have about a company and how it works.

There’s an app to help the hospitality industry manage its staff/flow requirements, and software for managing shared expenses – as in flatmate situations. An easy, no-bugs way to get a web design quickly going live and updateable, a water tank monitor device, management software for sports coaches, and an app that uses social networks as a way to connect offline – say a quick game of tennis – were explained, and a brief lessons learned given by all.

Finally, and this will be interesting to see if they can get it right – a map that shows where you’ve been on web searches – a way of collecting notes and creating shortcuts through the world’s knowledge.

So, obviously no shortage of ideas up for grabs.

But, as we all know, ideas are easy – it is getting them to sustain flight that’s the trick.

And, an interesting final note:- LL is a partnership between founding investor partners (who receive a percentage share of any startup’s initial offer) and MBIE, part of its accelerator funding pool.


The Kiwi innovation space is starting to look awfully crowded Peter Kerr Apr 16

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Is it just me, or is the innovation/commercialisation space looking awfully crowded and confused these days?

Sure, we like to think we’re (NZ Inc) inventive and entrepreneurial.

But there seem to be more entities out there offering innovation (and I shudder to use the term) advice, funding and connections than there are companies with good ideas.

Wearing my taxpayer’s hat, I have no problem when private money puts their proverbial on the line and takes a punt on a startup or early stage company being the next big market success.

Therefore the angel investor community, private equity companies and even family, friends and fools are to be admired and encouraged.

But the plethora of government, university and regionally financed organisations servicing our entrepreneurs is started to look very overlapping, rather uncoordinated; and the lack of transactions by some players needs to be questioned.

A cursory list includes (I’m not sure if I should apologise for accidentally missing some!):

NZVIF

Callaghan Innovation

MBIE (well, parts of it)

KiwiNet (and the individual university commercialisation units that are part of it)

Icehouse

SODA

BBC

CreativeHQ

powerHouse

Sparkbox

In fact this blog was inspired by the recent announcement that there is to be a merger between Wellington-based Kerasi Ltd, and powerHouse – though Kerasi’s website states it is a powerHouse partner so decide for yourself who the kingpin.

powerHouse has also recently announced a merger with Dunedin incubator Upstart.

Then there’s a new body I’d never heard of – Innovation Council NZ.

Again, one of its main sponsors is government via Callaghan Innovation.

All in all, I’m afraid it means that there is quite a bit of overhead costs to be paid for by someone (us) as all and sundry scramble around looking for something to invest in.

In other words, there’s lots of pedaling by a lot of people, but without the sense of urgency that having your own money invested brings to the game.

There will be a lot of meetings though, and any number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through to make sure that ‘value’ is being delivered to the taxpayer.

And then, by the time that someone higher up that government food chain ponders the question of whether flinging a whole lot of money at innovation, and seeing what sticks, actually does work, it’ll be time for another change of policy.

But by then minister of everything Steven Joyce will probably have ditched the science and innovation part of his portfolio!


Re-arranging science funding’s deck chairs Peter Kerr Apr 09

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Well, I guess you can’t have too many science funding bodies…

An alert colleague pointed out a GETS call for applications for – Capability in Independent Research Organisations Funding. (GETS Reference: 41196)

This fund is aimed at non-Crown Research Institutes,

“which hold significant research capabilities supporting national outcomes in areas of government priority.”

This will appeal to organisations such as the Cawthron Institute, HERA (Heavy Engineering Research Association), Opus Research and other independent researchers. (You can see a full list here at IRANZ, the Independent Research Associations of NZ).

The major surprise is that this fund is to be administered by the Health Research Council (HRC).

In a way it all makes perfectly logical sense given the way that science, innovation and commercialisation ‘policy’ (used in the very loosest terminology) has gone over the past few years

We had science policy and funding being separated – a Ministry and a Foundation for R,S & T.

Then these two were brought together to have a Ministry of Science and Innovation.

That lasted about five minutes, and MBIE was set up, with much of its funding allocation removed when Callaghan Innovation came, and is coming into, being.

Oh, there’s also the Primary Research Growth Partnership administered by the Ministry of Primary Industry as another entity entirely.

And now this.

The HRC does make funding allocations to researchers in health – which presumably they have a fair degree of expertise to do so.

Now they’ve got to become experts in a wide range of research fields, completely unrelated to their core knowledge.

Instead of the fund being under MBIE, and aligned to its overarching goals which seeing as it helped write them it should understand, a completely different body gets to do the choosing.

I guess, when as a country, we have no clear idea of what we should be concentrating our limited scientific endeavours on, then spreading the resource ever more thinly and hoping something, anything, serendipitously happens to happen is as good as any other approach.

But it takes us ever further away from the exemplar countries such as Denmark and Singapore – countries that have a plan, stick to it for a bit, and then modify what they do to achieve the clear goals that they have.

Talk about re-arranging the deck chairs!


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