Touch Tech Turntables Triumph

Ever since the movie Minority Report hit our screens we’ve all been fascinated by the promise of touch screen technology. I think touch tech is going to be big this year, which is one reason why I’m currently working with a young entrepreneur on an interesting project involving tablets. More about that soon. In the meantime, there are other companies in New Zealand that are already well advanced in this field.

North Shore manufacturer Kevin Andreassend grew up dreaming about futuristic multi-media too and he now runs a company called ICE AV that assembles and re-exports tailor made big screen and audio set-ups around the world. The company recently had the opportunity to work a high profile stage equipment provider in London, delivering large screens for a massive DJ gig in the city. The same company also works with other huge touring acts such as U2.

But it will probably be much smaller screens that drive the mainstream adoption of this technology in 2011. Most smart-phones and tablets now have touch screen tech. In fact much of the new technology now driving workplace and personal productivity tools ironically had its origins in the home amongst an earlier generation of electronic games platforms. This will inevitably lead to greater interest amongst the general public in future applications. ICE AV have capitalised on this interest by creating a clever system called Holodesk that integrates a fully interactive touch screen system with a DJ turntable set-up. This creates a new kind of experience for part-goers and has (literally) been receiving “rave” reviews in Europe and the UK.

More Kiwi tech going global – Got an interesting software product or app that you’d like me to review? If it’s made in New Zealand and a little bit left field, please drop me a note.

A Tale of Two SOEs

Two recent media articles illustrated the different approaches to innovation taken by a pair of high profile state owned enterprises (SOEs) with which I am well acquainted. What these stories have in common are the fact that both businesses were turned around by strong leadership.

Rod Oram’s pre-Christmas cracker about Air New Zealand’s cabin layout innovations was a timely reminder about how (with an injection of taxpayer funded capital) the national carrier went from being a basket case to business success. I love Rod’s work and the fact that he has been for many years a tireless champion for innovation and technology as a way for New Zealand businesses to add value to exports and grow the economy.

The second story was about MetService, my former employer. The NZ Herald article outlines how the company leveraged a stake in a UK company to acquire expertise in the European marketplace. The company executed this strategy under the tutelage of Paul Reid, who is about to move on from the company. Reid inherited a mess when he took over the CEO role several years ago but he forged ahead and infused the senior management with some core competencies that had been somewhat lacking previously. Incredibly for a knowledge based business, the company had limped along for many years until this time without either a human resources manager or a CIO. He also took the time to genuinely listen to any staff member, his door was literally always open.

Being a former Air New Zealand staffer himself and mindful of the highly competitive nature of the industry, Reid actively led MetService away from its traditional aviation market base and into the media and consumer markets of Europe and the Middle East. This has proven to be a good move, although in light of volcanoes and snowstorms and rapid developments in platform technology, aviation still looks like a missed opportunity for the company. Unfortunately, it was very clear to me at the time that it meant a death warrant for the position I was employed in. But now that I’m engaged in a challenging role developing a high growth technology export business that I actually have a stake in, it seems like the best possible outcome all round.

Best wishes for 2011.

W2W Strengthens Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Recently Unlimited Potential ran Wellington to the World (W2W), New Zealand’s leading showcase event for early stage web and software ventures. W2W is about building bridges, so we invite technology innovators, entrepreneurs and tech investors to network over beer and pizza and encourage young companies to share what they are working on through either talks or at the demo zone. This was the third year that we have run the event and  I’m personally very proud of what has been achieved so far.

Much of the progress that is being made in promoting technology entrepreneurship in New Zealand is underpinned by communities of interest that are flourishing right now. I shared some remarks about this at the opening of W2W in my capacity as Chairperson at Unlimited Potential. We think it’s important to support developer communities and start-up groups because they nurture the seeds of future ventures and provide a deep pool of knowledge for new entrepreneurs.

If you didn’t make it to the event this year, check out the W2W entrepreneur videos. There is also some images and an event review available.

Thank-you once again Wellington City Council, Grow Wellington, Viclink and Summer of Tech for helping make this event possible.

W2W – Innovators Ready to Roll

Global Entrepreneurship Week has rolled around already and Unlimited Potential is once again doing it’s bit to promote technology entrepreneurship as a career option. I’ll be working hard this week on a few last minute details for our Wellington to the World (W2W) event on Thursday.

Wellington is alive with tech talent at present and there has been somewhat of a renaissance as geek-preneurs have got cracking launching some great products onto the world stage. In some cases these are second or third generation ventures where there has been an earlier exit. W2W is a showcase event that brings together technology innovators, entrepreneurs and investors to share ideas and celebrate emerging tech ventures from around the region. 

We have a cool new venue this year, so have included a small demo zone adjacent to the bar area in the programme. There will be plenty of opportunity for hands on experience. Some of the companies in the demo zone will also be presenting during the entrepreneur flash talks. The event begins at 4pm on Thursday 18th November with talks by technology researchers from Victoria University. A number of these projects have commercial potential and will be seeking partnerships and investment in the future. Victoria University commercialisation arm Viclink is an event partner, so please support these speakers. 

The event also encapsulates the Summer of Tech launch for 2010/11. Summer of Tech is a great initiative that matches software and engineering companies with students looking for work experience over the summer holidays. It’s an important plank in a strategy to build up capacity and grow employment in hi-tech around the region. This year we are very pleased to have Xero CTO Craig Walker to speak at the launch. There are a small number of places left at the event, so be quick, registration is essential.

Journalistic Credibility Explodes As Social Media Bites

“Qantas Jet Explodes Over Indonesia” blared the headline on the New Zealand Herald website yesterday. Once again the media went into panic mode as it scrambled to keep pace with a flurry of reports that were popping up through social media sites. Indonesian sourced Twitter content describing an explosion and aircraft debris raining from the skies were interpreted incorrectly as an aircraft having exploded in the air. Does this sorry episode and the recent media debacle over The Hobbit suggest that traditional forms of media are more frequently substituting sensationalism in the place of research and accuracy, as they struggle desperately to compete with the immediacy of new forms of digital media? The last remaining vestiges of New Zealand journalistic credibility also exploded yesterday.

Traditional media seem ever willing to cater for the public’s demand for reality based entertainment and hunger for death and destruction. What really happened in the sky yesterday was that an uncontained explosion in one of four engines of a Qantas A380 shortly after take-off from Singapore led to the aircraft entering the holding pattern and dumping fuel overhead Batam in preparation for landing. Some engine debris was recovered on the ground but due to the qualities of the Airbus aircraft, there was no loss of structural integrity and the crew followed correct procedures, returning to land safely.  A properly researched headline should have read “Flight Crew Performs Textbook Emergency Landing – 450 Safe”.

Wellington media maven, blogger and Fairfax journalist Greer McDonald will be speaking at Social Media Club on Monday evening about how traditional media treat information received via social media channels. This is sure to be an interesting and lively discussion given recent events and the fact that Greer has a foot firmly in both camps.

Is Branding Part of the Value Proposition?

I’ve recently finished reading a book called “How Brands Grow” by Prof. Byron Sharp. Although it is not specifically technology venture focused, I would highly recommend it for any marketer, especially those marketing web-based B2C services such as we do at iWantMyName. The author questions much of the accepted wisdom on marketing and turns a lot of traditional textbook strategies about marketing on their head.

In a dynamic market, you can compete on price, but this is akin to an arms race and damages everybody. You can also compete by innovating and making your product more feature rich, but this is expensive and takes time. A third approach is to have a brand strategy in place from the outset that puts you in a stronger position when competition arrives. But product developers sometimes overlook branding as part of the overall value proposition.

In his book, Prof. Sharp argues that the quickest way to build a market is to make your brand physically and mentally available to consumers as well as targeting the large pool of dissatisfied customers that change brands each year. He scoffs at differentiation, citing cases like Coke and Pepsi who have attempted to differentiate within the cold drinks category, but whose respective market shares hardly change year after year.

Coke and Pepsi are constantly fighting off cheaper brands and do so quite successfully because customers are prepared to pay a premium for a brand they feel connected to. That connection has been built up through generations of consistent positioning. Everybody recognises the Coke symbol, right? It’s irrelevant whether or not the product itself is substantially better than the cheaper ones. What matters is that customers mentally associate positive attributes with a brand such as trust, some kind of meaningful narrative plus “sticky” graphical images. Customers ascribe value to intangible features and this should not be overlooked.

This post is an extension of a discussion on a value based strategy to competing in new markets started by Libby Russell on the New Zealand Software Alliance LinkedIn page.

Innovation Investment For Tech Minnows Drys Up

Last year the government signalled its intention to invest heavily in “primary sector innovation”. As an efficient producer of food with a huge and growing consumer market emerging on our back doorstep, it absolutely makes sense to invest in this area, but it should not be treated in isolation. It also sends a disturbing message that high carbon, environmentally damaging industries are the priority.

The official announcement of a $144M investment into the Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) springs from a promise made in 2009 to form a public-private partnership to invest into developing more innovative high value added products and services based upon our existing expertise in farming. But this funding was purloined from an almost identical programme that had already been set up just prior to the demise of the previous government. While the Nats rebranded the package, nothing happened for over a year. In the meantime the global economy tanked and the public’s attention was diverted away from the issue.

The recently announced and much lauded additional $189M in funding for high tech industries also sounds good at first glance, but is worthy of closer inspection. It’s spread over four years and is entirely targeted at larger firms. The problem here is that a lot of the most interesting ideas are being generated in smaller companies that are already being hit hard by the recession. Small companies don’t have a lobby group and tend to be way too busy innovating and simply staying afloat to complain anyway.

Starting-up and growing a tech company has always been a crucible of fire and only the best and brightest will succeed. That is why I’m sometimes a little bit ambivalent about publicly funded handouts. On the other hand, larger firms now have better access to government grants than smaller one, which seems a little unfair. New Zealand is way too reliant on commodity exports and certainly needs to add more value through innovation. But let’s not forget emerging software and high tech manufacturing companies that build and export high value products and services with almost no pollution or carbon attached.

There is a real disconnect between innovation at the coal face within small and enterprises and the resources being made available by government to stimulate these enterprises, some of which will grow to be bigger fish eventually. Under the new system, small companies will self assess their needs and receive training to improve “capability”. That is both laudable and necessary, but it doesn’t help get new products developed and to market faster.

Postscript: In response to my friends at TechNZ. My comments above refer to the new funding. There remain avenues for small firms to access co-funding for small projects from the existing funding pool.

The Hills Are Alive

The hills of Wellington may not be alive with the sound of music as such, but they are home to some of New Zealand’s coolest emerging technology sector companies.

Providing a network forum for entrepreneurs to connect with investors, future employees and other innovators is part of what we do at Unlimited Potential. This week IN-Business magazine published its fantabulous SmartNZ technology supplement and were kind enough to include an article penned by yours truly. In the article I talk about the resurgence of tech entrepreneurship and how we can enjoy New Zealand’s lifestyle whilst scaling our businesses globally.

The publication leans heavily on the people and events happening in the technology scene around the Greater Wellington region and is a beacon of light for those of us working within smaller tech companies. Being an entrepreneur has its ups and downs and we all need a little dose of inspiration at times. Tim Collins and the team at IN-Business have done an outstanding job with SmartNZ and I would highly recommend grabbing a hard copy or checking out the digital version of the magazine.

The article I wrote for SmartNZ also mentions Startup Digest, a weekly listing of startup, innovation and technology events. If you would like to subscribe to the New Zealand digest or find out how to get your tech event or product launch listed, you can find this week’s edition here.

Mid Winter Mentors Offer X Factor

At this time of year when it’s cold, grey and wet, it becomes all too easy to simply enter hibernation mode. But businesses don’t stop running just because the weather sucks and certainly nobody can afford to stop creating and implementing new ideas. Every so often we need to escape our local environs, go away and stimulate our brain cells by becoming totally absorbed in something completely different. That’s why I’m looking forward to my trip to X|Media|Lab Sydney later this week.

X|Media|Lab is a highly effective and affordable globally focussed event for businesses involved in the digital media innovation space. The event comprises a conference day plus a weekend workshop for selected project teams. There are also social events at which the organisers can facilitate introductions to potential partners, investors and international mentors. X|Media|Lab visited New Zealand in 2008 and 2009 and we’d love to see them back again. The events are organised at venues around the world, several times a year and attract a who’s who of speakers from the worlds of digital media, animation, games and mobile.

With ideegeo being essentially a business software developer, I wasn’t sure we would ever get the chance to attend the international mentoring workshops – but much to my delight, the opportunity has arisen. No, we haven’t started creating digital animated games or building social network sites, but we have begun conceptualising a product that will help such sites to monetise. So it was with much excitement that we found our project had been selected as one of a handful for mentoring from over 80 entries.

We’ve already been talking to some very smart people about the idea but there is more work to be done. Whether or not we can take the next step will largely hinge on securing some high level partnerships at a very early stage. Such relationships are difficult to secure without travelling outside of New Zealand. X|Media|Lab brings a bunch of influential movers and shakers to our front doorstep. It’s an opportunity we are relishing.

Research Week Brings Science Leaders Together

A winter retreat for scientists interested in medical research and biotechnology is bringing some of the world’s finest science researchers together for a week long convocation.

Queenstown has for many years played host to a number of research meetings across a diverse range of topics from molecular biology to neuroscience. Now these meetings are being clustered into a knowledge fest being labelled as Queenstown Research Week. It’s an opportunity for local researchers to mingle with and learn from some of the world’s leading minds from within the medical and biotech arenas.

It is also an opportunity for investors to hear about opportunities within biotech and to promote science commercialisation in general. No doubt there will also be some quiet analysis during the coffee breaks on whether or not there is any substance to Craig Venter’s recent pronouncement that life had been created in a test-tube.

Irrespective of one’s position on that particular topic, one thing is certain. Medical and biotechnological science is advancing at a rapid rate and such fields create wonderful opportunities to improve human quality of life, address environmental problems and deliver economic gains – provided these technologies are viewed with a robust ethical overlay.