Old Industries Are The Pits

Railways, coal mining and industrial scale manufacturing were all economic activities that had their origins in the 19th Century. This week has not been a good one for anyone employed in those businesses in New Zealand, with widespread redundancies having been announced. The reasons for the collapse of these industries differ, but they share the historical hallmarks of “creative destruction” as expounded by Austrian economist Schumpeter.

Schumpeter was remarkably prescient for a man of his time. Drawing upon the political organisational theories of both Marx and Weber he concluded that innovation was the primary driver of economic change and that every industry was subject to a cycle of emergence, ascendance and decay. He controversially proposed that democracy could never truly empower the ordinary citizen because the electorate were largely ill-informed or ignorant. His predictions that social democratic governments would emerge in the West (rather than socialist revolution) have largely come true.

None of this will be of any consolation to our miners, factory workers and railway engineers. But it does underline precisely why we need to be moving up the value chain through exporting our knowledge rather than relying upon filthy, dangerous and extractive commodity based industries. After more than a decade talking about it, the penny has finally dropped and the government is now attempting to reorganise commercialisation of publicly funded research and has been increasing the investment in research, science and technology. Bullish talk by government ministers about opening up more public land for mineral exploitation also seems to have faded for the time being. That’s why I spend a lot of my time promoting and supporting knowledge based entrepreneurship and emerging technologies and industries.

Paul Spence is a commentator, technology entrepreneur and is a co-founder of iwantmyname, a New Zealand based global Internet venture. You can follow him on Twitter @GeniusNet

Shifting The Economic Goalposts

Economist Brian Gaynor’s recent article on why we will never “catch up” to Australia was another sobering reminder of the hard road that New Zealand has ahead. Invoking a sporting analogy by beating Australia may be a popular rally to arms, but it focuses public attention on completely the wrong set of goalposts.

Another sobering occasion was when we sadly learned of the passing of Sir Paul Callaghan, one of New Zealand’s most passionate science communicators and technology entrepreneurs. Sir Paul lived every moment and notably even turned his cancer treatment regime into an experiment. More importantly he was one of the most ardent promoters of science and technology commercialisation as a means of growing New Zealand’s economy.

“Sir Paul was a true public intellectual who earned the respect of everyone, including those who disagreed with him”, stated the government’s sternly worded Ministerial press release reporting news of Sir Paul’s death. Curiously, outside of Cabinet, I can’t name a single (intelligent) person who actually disagreed with his thesis that New Zealand urgently needs to ramp up economic growth through more investment in research, science and technology commercialisation, rather than continuing with an over-reliance on flogging unprocessed, environmentally unsustainable dairy commodities to the world.

To its credit, the government has finally moved to increase research funding and there are more frequent mutterings along the lines of “doing something” about uncovering intellectual property locked up within our many publicly funded institutions. But those of us who looked on frustrated over the last decade as the “Knowledge Wave” withered on the vine, are becoming more and more concerned that the opportunity to fully promote science and technology as an economic driver is disappearing.

Beyond pumping more cash into research, we need a huge cultural shift involving both governmental agencies and the public mindset. As clean-tech entrepreneur Nick Gerritsen stated at a recent seminar, “we need more millionaire scientists and fewer millionaire sportsmen”. With the loss of Professor Callaghan, I’m left wondering who will be brave enough to pick up the mantle.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

Building Our Innovation Ecosystem

Innovation, incubation and competitiveness are firmly back on the political agenda. 2011 has been a busy year, with the government setting about reforming publicly funded scientific research and reconfiguring IRL in an effort to drive more commercialisation activity in the technology sector. The government funded trade agency has also been talking up successes from its incubator programme. In the meantime, the recently formed Productivity Commission has quietly begun developing an academic framework to address infrastructural inefficiencies in the New Zealand economy.

In this context, it was unsurprising to see some recent commentary that was highly critical of the manner in which government gets involved in innovation and business. More specifically, Rowan’s comments alluded to some deficiencies in the methodologies being employed by business incubators when advising software start-ups. Notwithstanding the fact that incubators are generalists and lack the huge depth of experience and background of success that Rowan brings to his own web and software ventures, there were some fair criticisms which pleasingly generated a lot of intelligent follow-up discussion.

Where I parted company with this debate however was when the tone shifted towards questioning the necessity for providing events to engage the start-up community. Most readers will be aware that I’m deeply involved in organising such activities in addition to my role as a co-founder of a couple of tech companies. One of these companies is pre-revenue start-up, the other is growth phase and profitable. Being involved in the community is a deliberate strategy which is partly altruistic (because it’s fun), but also good for business. We are only as strong as the people around us.

The government’s moves to redefine how we approach identifying and commercialising high value science and technology based ventures are oxygen for our economic flame; so too are the various contributions made by formal incubators, informal “innovation hubs”, university commercialisation offices and the various business related events and competitions. The Ministry of Science & Innovation’s report on Powering Innovation even talks about “…the creative connection of talented minds across discipline boundaries“. We do not need to emulate Silicon Valley, but we should learn from that ecosystem model.

Around the world, entrepreneurship is increasingly seen as both a legitimate career option for young people and a growth spark in an otherwise dull economy. At a time when youth unemployment stands at around 30% in New Zealand, we cannot afford to ignore the opportunity of infusing young people with an entrepreneurial spirit. I recently attended the 30th anniversary celebration of the Young Enterprise Trust. This organisation provides entrepreneurship programmes for high schools and counts such luminaries as Rod Drury and Seeby Woodhouse amongst its alumni, demonstrating the importance of a community approach to entrepreneurship education.

Building an entrepreneurial and export focused culture has never been so important as now, with traditional models breaking down faster than ever. Knowledge sharing and relationship building within and amongst our specialist communities is foundational to strengthening our innovation ecosystem. We can no longer afford to operate in silos or to make the assumption that there is only a single approach to building cool businesses that solve real problems and generate economic returns.

100+ Rewiring The Productive Economy

We live in interesting times. Last month I attended a seminar looking at productivity in the New Zealand economy and how we can improve. The most overwhelming aspect of the event however was that most of the attendees were white, male and aged 50 or older. Furthermore, much of the focus was on making changes to macroeconomic settings, rather than making an attitudinal shift. If we are to address this issue in a meaningful way we need to engage with a far broader church, including politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and investors from across the spectrum who are committed to change – not just economists.

With our over-dependence on high volume, low value food commodities to generate income and an over-investment in non productive assets such as property, we have seen per capita income dropping rapidly over the last decade. The flow-on effect has been a return to net outwards migration at levels unseen in the last thirty years. New Zealand is close to entering a death spiral, in terms of an inability to pay for social services in the future, if we don’t fix this right now! Within the next thirty years we will reach a tipping point at which a minority of the population is working to support the dependent majority.

Each speaker at the seminar was tasked with presenting a simple, yet radical idea that could move the goalposts on productivity, in an effort to stem the flow of emigrants and ensure we can fund our future. Some of the ideas were downright batty, but at least people were thinking and talking – which is more than successive governments have achieved so far. In fact, perhaps the single biggest issue is leadership inaction in the face of political expediency. It will take more than speeches and a cup of tea to solve these problems. So here’s my ten cents worth.

It seems we can easily find $10 million to build a temporary booze hall for rugby patrons on Auckland’s waterfront, yet we continue to struggle to provide a coordinated approach to identifying and commercialising world class science in New Zealand. If the government lacks the gumption to look beyond a three year electoral cycle, then the private sector must take a stronger leadership position on the matter.

There’s plenty of cash sloshing around in superannuation funds, but if it means accessing foreign capital and connections to get on with the job, so be it. Endeavour capital see the opportunity, why not others? We should aim for 100+ Lanzatech or Endace type companies. That requires making project opportunities transparent and going big, whilst retaining a NZ Inc. stake in the intellectual property. It means identifying top talent to lead commercialisation. It will also require a complete change of mindset in some of the more conservative knowledge silos around the country.

 

 

 

CGT A Setback For Innovation

The Global Innovation Index judges nations’ progress against a basket of parameters including infrastructure, research output plus market stability and institutional strength. In 2010 New Zealand surged ahead to 9th place out of 125 countries after languishing at 27 the previous year. But in 2011 we dropped back a little to 15th place, or more correctly, we were slightly overtaken by our close competitors U.S., U.K., Ireland and Canada. Whilst there’s no need for alarm, we must remain vigilant that government keeps the right settings in place and that businesses continue to take advantage of global opportunities by leveraging our creativity and growing new knowledge. I remain optimistic.

Last week I attended the outstanding Ice Ideas conference presented by the much lauded Icehouse business incubator which has a close relationship with the University of Auckland and has been involved in raising $50 million in funding for high-tech companies in the ten years since its inception. The incubator has now set itself the goal of achieving 3000 new business launches over the next decade. It’s an unashamed grab for more deal flow and a call to action for the community to support the initiative financially, for the betterment of NZ Inc.

Incubation is certainly a valuable aspect of the overall innovation ecosystem and I applaud these efforts. But we must also ensure that other structural features are strengthened, not undermined. Not the least of these is ensuring that the spectre of a capital gains tax (CGT) on business asset sales never sees the light of day. On the other hand, some kind of modest taxation of gains on speculative property transactions certainly has merit, in order to encourage more productive forms of investment. Unfortunately the two issues, although related, tend to become intertwined in the minds of the public as politicians desperately seek to gain a foothold.

A capital gains tax on business sales would discourage investment and accelerate the loss of talent offshore by taking away one of the key competitive advantages that we have over other developed economies. It may also have a negative impact on New Zealand’s standing as an innovative and business investment friendly destination.

Speaker presentations from the Ice Ideas conference are available here.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

Brand Value + Cashflow = Win

Despite some over cooked fund raisings causing a few ripples recently . A couple of high profile trade sales underline the value that a great brand brings to a business.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether there’s another tech bubble forming, but I see two separate themes emerging. On the one hand there’s companies like Color and Pandora that raised funding purely on the strength of an idea and a solid team. Neither company has revealed how or when they will generate revenue. There was much hand wringing after Color’s VC round and Pandora’s share price crashed almost immediately post IPO. These are worrying signals in a market where entrepreneurs are being told to go out and raise as much cash as possible, whilst times are still good.

On the other hand, there are solid companies with good revenues and little debt that are cashing up through trade sale opportunities. The Go Daddy transaction was a case in point. This deal had been in the making for some time and looks like a win-win for both the founders and the institutional investors in terms of timing. Obviously it was of great interest to us at iWantMyName because GD are the largest domain registrar on the planet, with around a quarter of the entire global market.

Closer to home, the $139M buyout of listed drinks maker Charlies by Japan’s largest brewer Asahi also looks like a big win. What all of these companies have in common are great brand assets. Where they differ is that some of them not only do not generate profits, but in some cases the value proposition is less than clear. Even a great brand cannot compensate for these failings. Winning companies have recognisable brands, high performing systems or technologies and a means of generating repeating revenues. You’d have to be a right Charlie to invest in a company that didn’t have these attributes.

You can follow the author on Twitter @GeniusNet

AMD Opens Doors For Fingertapps

Unlimited Realities is living up to its name. Last year the company inked a deal to provide its gestural interface software for integration into Dell manufactured computers. Now the door has been opened by computer chip maker AMD. Fingertapps was showcased this week at the AMD Fusion Developer Summit in Seattle ahead of its rollout with AMD’s next generation of chips for Windows based PC and tablet devices.

The company, which has development offices in Wellington and Palmerston North recently appointed former Kiwibank CEO Sam Knowles as chairperson. It now seems to be on a rapid growth trajectory, having been one of the earliest providers of computer touch screen technology. We saw the “unlimited potential” of the product back in 2008 when we invited Unlimited Realities business development manager Ben Wilde to show off Fingertapps at Wellington to the World.

New Zealand companies are becoming increasingly adept at forging relationships offshore and the U.S. computing market is generally the most obvious first port of call. Fingertapps is yet another great example of high flying Kiwi technology going global from New Zealand.

Entrepreneur Bedtime Stories

“It was a dark and stormy night”. That’s how my Grandad used to begin his bedtime stories when I was a little lad. He was both a technology innovator and an entrepreneur, so hopefully some of it rubbed off on me. There’s certainly a lot to be said in favour of story-telling and narrative as a means of passing on knowledge.

Tuesday this week the Bright Ideas Challenge team from Grow Wellington are putting on Entrepreneur Storytime, an evening of anecdotes and stories from a diverse and successful group of local entrepreneurs. Speakers include Mark Clare – investment banker and web entrepreneur, Rachel Taulelei – founder of City Market and chairperson Wellington On A Plate, also Geoff Todd – CEO of both Trinity Bioactives and Viclink and CreativeHQ chairperson. Other speakers include Trent Mankelow who is a highly successful graduate of the CreativeHQ business incubator and Derelee Potroz-Smith, a finalist from last year’s Bright Ideas Challenge.

I’m particularly interested to hear Geoff’s story since he is a man with a foot in the camps of both academia and business, a rare and important breed of individual that New Zealand urgently needs at present. But it looks like an inspirational lineup overall and everybody is welcome to attend this free event. Registration essential.

 

 

Cutbacks Sour Sweet Taste of Success

Almost everyone agrees that New Zealand needs to produce more high value, knowledge based goods and services to pay its way in the world. But the gestation period from good idea to global superstar can be in the order of five to seven years – and that’s just the ones that survive. Changing the policy settings for research, development and business growth to accommodate political cycles creates uncertainty for long play economic development projects.

In 2004 I made some introductions for a little known Wellington company called Open Cloud. They had a Java based middleware product for telcos that had the potential to go ballistic, given the exploding mobile market. Seven years on the company has a UK office, solid investor backing and mobile telecommunications companies beating its door down. Research and development remains based in New Zealand, a commitment the company made very early on in its evolution. Some forward thinking individuals at New Zealand Trade & Enterprise made sure that doors were opened, even though the company had only a handful of staff at the time.

Waikato company BioVittoria developed a plant based food sweetener that has caught the attention of global markets. Again, this company is a prime example of the kind of enterprises we need to be cultivating in New Zealand. But it too started out small with just its founders and a small number of contractors. The company leveraged research done in New Zealand and diligently built up a supply chain and manufacturing plant in China to process locally grown fruit and distribute the product globally. Even though BioVittoria suspended plans for a share float in 2009, the company instead secured an influential equity partner that will help with growth.

In the face of government funding constraints NZTE recently announced yet another senior management reshuffle and cut the number of direct client-facing roles. They also dumped the Escalator programme, which has been educating small business owners for many years in the art of capital raising. So now that New Zealand Trade & Enterprise has eased itself out of minding small businesses, will there be any support for the next generation of technology and science based ventures that are stepping forward? Intermediaries such as government agencies and consultants do have a role to play in building the networks that small ventures need to scale upwards. We should not rely on economic Darwinism alone to identify winners and losers.

Smart Capital

Amidst the hand-wringing over Christchurch’s loss of Rugby World Cup games I was once again left wondering why we struggle as a nation to focus on the really important issues that underly our efforts to rekindle economic growth.

In the global scheme of things the fact that a handful of rugby games won’t be played somewhere is hardly world breaking news, especially in comparison to the extraordinary drama unfolding on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Yet the media spent a good portion of last week hounding politicians on the topic of World Cup venues. It was obvious that McCully and others were stonewalling and already knew the outcome, but there were much meatier issues left untouched. For example, where was the government going to find the $10 billion or more needed for the reconstruction of Christchurch and how will we round up sufficient numbers of skilled trades people to do the work?

Later in the week I attended a closed forum for leaders in the ICT community discussing how we could boost the economic return to the capital city from our industry. It was notable that at least half of the attendees were skilled migrants who, at some time or other, had deliberately chosen Wellington. It really brought home the significance of the contribution made by migrants to our creative industries. Naturally much of the forum conversation was taken up with suggestions around making our city a more engaging place for creative types and telling our story widely and more often.

Disconcertingly however, the topics of identifying external sources of capital and strengthening our entrepreneurial ecosystem were treated superficially. Recently I was reading an article by YCombinator’s Paul Graham talking about what start-ups need to help them stay in a given location. Provide them with financial capital, he says. Accessing creative talent and facilitating cross-pollination of ideas are really important too, but ex-pats don’t have a franchise on these things. Access to smart capital and developing a vibrant entrepreneurial community culture are major growth drivers. These are themes I will continue to be advocating for strongly.