Tech companies ticking along nicely

By Adam Gifford

If you can, be number one somewhere.

That's a bit of advice gleaned from this year's Technology Investment Network guide to New Zealand's top 100 technology companies.

The TIN100 report is becoming an annual highlight, as compiler Greg Shanahan drills down into what makes our tech companies tick, and asks how they can tick better.

This year he's expanded the list, so companies which fall below the threshold for inclusion (which this year is $12 million in revenue) go into the TIN100+ list.

Shanahan says it surprises some people New Zealand even has 100 technology companies, but he's digging out more each year, as he pushes the vision that brains rather than butter and dried milk are our future.

Total revenue for the TIN100 in 2010 was $6.7 billion, of which exports accounted for $4.9 billion.

Shanahan's former employer Fisher & Paykel Appliances ($1.16b) and F&P Healthcare ($503m) held the first and third spots, with IT services firm Datacom second with $667m.

Many of the larger companies are manufacturers rather than software or service providers, and the volatility of the New Zealand dollar has posed challenges.

A decade ago, with the dollar hovering around US40 cents, companies like the F&Ps and Navman were able to pick up traction with well-priced technology earning generous margins.

Those margins have shrunk. Exporters can only do so much to hedge their currency risk, and from there it's about cost control and looking for higher value.

That's where being number one helps. Being first to market, or clear best in market, means you can make rather than take the price.

Without the sort of marketing budgets many better-funded competitors have access to, that's likely to mean winning at the research and development stage.

Fisher & Paykel Healthcare is number one in the global market for respiratory humidification devices.

Success wasn't overnight. It was in the late 1960s that the company picked up work done by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research on ways to warm and humidify the air used in hospital ventilators.

The business took off in the early 1990s, and the company has extended the technology into solutions for obstructive sleep apnea, which now make up half its sales.

F&P Healthcare's success has encouraged other firms in the sector, with nine in the TIN100 and 13 in the second 100 providing healthcare software or devices, making it more than a $1 billion sector.

On the software side, Orion Health has become the country's largest software vendor by becoming a global leader in clinical workflow software and online patient records.

Douglas Pharmaceuticals' earnings come largely from manufacturing generic drugs, but it has also built expertise in hard to manufacture drugs, including Oratane, which is now the market leader in Europe for acne treatment.

Another drug manufacturer, AFT Pharmaceuticals, enjoyed 20 per cent growth last year from its Maxigesic paracetamol and ibuprofen combo.

New Zealand's long involvement in marine navigation can be seen in today's companies, with Rakon the global leader in frequency control devices for GPS, with over 50 per cent market share.

The currency arbitrage that helped secure the opportunity to create three Lord of the Rings movies is gone, but the innovation generated along the way means Wellywood still beats Hollywood on some fronts.

This year the TIN100 separated Weta Digital from the rest of the companies associated with Sir Peter Jackson, with an estimated $100 million in revenue.

The key to becoming and staying number one is research and development. TIN100 companies invested about $360 million in R&D last year, or an average 5 per cent of revenue.

On the web: www.tinetwork.co.nz

adamgifford5@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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