NZ's can-do temperament creates nation of innovators

By Cliff Taylor

New Zealanders pride themselves on being able to fix anything with a piece of the proverbial No 8 wire. And that same can-do temperament has created a nation of innovators and inventors.

The give-it-a-go spirit, born in sheds, garages, workshops and basements, has become one of our great export products. From Hamilton jetboats that can move fast along shallow rivers to electric fences that cheaply and flexibly contain stock; from the Weta Digital special effects that out-Hollywooded Hollywood to the bungy jumping that started the mass-scale adventure tourism business; ordinary people in a small land, far from the industrial centres of the world, dreamed up ideas - and the world queued up to buy into them.

Kiwi Richard Latham was living in a shoebox New York apartment with his wife Jennifer when he came up with the inspiration for the Wishbone wooden balance bike.

"I was a bit of a desperate home dad trapped in a concrete jungle with the role of looking after a couple of young kids," says Latham. "We practically lived in Central Park and one day when we were there, I saw something that resembled a balance bike. The Kiwi in me said, 'that looks interesting. I think I'll make one'. I needed a creative outlet that wasn't about changing nappies, so I set up a workshop in the spare bathroom and set about making a bike."

It was a mixture of design inspiration and practical know-how that led to the creation of that first bike, and later a company that has won awards and now sells its products around the world.

"My grandfather had owned an old-school bike shop before he retired, so I had always been pulling bikes to bits," recalls Latham. "With what I picked up at design school, I threw some sketches on a page, looking for a form that seemed to fit. I wanted something that was clean, yet had a sense of purpose.

"The first one was meant to be a one-off. It was too big and my son Noah, who was 20 months at the time, just didn't have the co-ordination to ride it. A couple of tweaks and modifications and I had created the first Wishbone Bike.

"I thought, 'This thing isn't too bad; maybe I could make a couple more'. But it wasn't really until people starting stopping me in Central Park asking me where I bought it from that I realised its potential."

One of the key innovations of Latham's balance bike is that it can be adapted as its young rider grows: first it converts from three wheels to two; then, flipping the frame upside down raises the seat and lengthens the overall ergonomics. Kids can hang onto their much-loved toy from the age of 12 months to five years.

"Given how young Noah was when I made the first bike, I needed to get him riding when he hadn't yet mastered the developmental milestone of balance," Latham explains. "Toddlers find it easier to balance on a bike without pedals, because they can master one skill at a time."

Latham hints that he has "a couple of projects on the go at the moment", working with American and British firms on recycling of consumer waste. The plan is to launch one of the new products at next February's Nuremberg Toy Fair.

Theories about why New Zealanders have a bent towards creative, yet practical, thinking mostly hinge on the idea of the tyranny of distance - that geographical isolation has fostered a self-reliant streak that is particularly suited to problem-solving. The Hayes "chain and grab" wire strainer was invented in 1905 in a workshop on a Central Otago farm by someone who knew no one else was going to do it for him. It helped bring order to a wild landscape, and it's still being made.

A Temuka farmer named Richard Pearse was a pioneer of powered flight - some say he even beat the Wright brothers to it, though he himself never claimed the distinction. Colin Murdoch invented the disposable hypodermic syringe and the tranquilliser gun. New Zealand exporters were in the forefront of refrigeration technology, developed to keep their tons of lamb fresh for the British market. In 1884, another Kiwi, William Atack, was the first to use a whistle to referee a rugby match.

In 1900, this country had more patent applications per capita than any other. In the recently released 2012 Global Innovation Index, we moved up two places to 13th, ahead of Norway, Germany, China, Japan and Australia.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce hailed the result: "This shows that, although we may not have the size or population of those countries, it's the quality of our people, their ideas, and the regulatory and business environments that are helping make a positive difference," he said.

Gisborne-based company Pultron started developing composite reinforcing materials 30 years ago. The company, founded by Peter and Bronwen Holdsworth, now has 80 employees and a second plant in Dubai, and its materials, particularly fibreglass rebars (reinforcing bars), are in demand around the world.

Business development manager Pete Renshaw says innovation is not always about "inventing the wheel", but improving on what has gone before.

"In the past five years we've reinvented the rebar. We've increased the properties of it tremendously and doubled the tensile strength of the product. There's been a huge amount of work taking it from a run-of-the-mill product to what we can confidently say is the best in the world."

Renshaw likes American inventor Thomas Edison's description of success as "10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration". "It's not just about that little flash of brilliance. It's about hard work to make things work. It's persistence."

And it's not always easy in a small country like New Zealand. The shortage of investor cash in a small local market forces many innovators to take their ideas offshore. Red tape can also strangle initiative, as Christchurch engineer Roger Best discovered when he tried to market his Best Burner, a log burner that uses a fire's downdraught. He believed it was the solution to the smog-prone city's pollution problems, because it emits far less smoke and fewer toxins than conventional burners. The local environmental authorities thought differently, and Best has spent years battling and "being buggered about by rules and regulations" to have his product accepted.

Richard Latham agrees that having a great idea is only part of the journey. "The real challenge for me was the massive learning curve required to get the product into the market. Basically, you need the courage to start, be quick to learn how to wear 13 hats at a time, accept you'll make a few mistakes and never look backwards. And if you can get the bank on side, that helps."

Fundamentally, he believes the innovative spirit of New Zealanders is alive and well.
"Being isolated down at the bottom of the earth has meant that at one level, we have evolved to make do with what we have," he says. "On the other hand, when what we have isn't good enough, we set about improving things. We're an adaptive, well-travelled and outward-looking nation and I think that allows us to seek new solutions and be innovators."


* Martin JetPack: A backpack-mounted jet-propulsion system.
Inventor: Glenn Martin, Martin Aircraft Company, Christchurch.

"When I was a kid, Thunderbirds was on TV and John Glenn went into space. I believed when I grew up we would all be flying to work and school. I was a bit disappointed to discover that wasn't quite the case, and I resolved to find out why."

* Zorb: A big plastic rolling bubble.
Inventors: Andrew Akers and Dwane van der Sluis. Co-founder Craig Horrocks says: "The inspiration was the famous clear plastic Coke beach ball.

The key element in the Zorb invention was the pattern of the strings used to transfer the load of the inner ball as it rotated, which also allowed the ball to be inflated at low pressures."

* Blokart: A lightweight, compact, portable land-sailing vehicle.
Inventor: Paul Beckett, Papamoa.

"Land yachts were pretty big and clunky. We just shifted the paradigm to make it a one-size-fits-all. We put a handlebar on it and miniaturised the whole thing. Just as the Hamilton jetboat became the jetski, we took the concept and put it in a suitcase."

* Cardiac Image Modeller: Software for use on MRI machines to produce a 3D image of the human heart.
Inventors: Brett Cowan and Alistair Young, University of Auckland and UniServices.

"We had MRI scanners to take a photo of the heart, but we were more interested in how it was pumping. We take the image and arrange it in 3D, so you have a beating patient's heart inside the computer and we can very quickly get the information we need from the scanner."

* Grown-up baby buggy
Inventor: Allan Croad.

In the early 1990s, Allan Croad saw a demand for something sturdier than the flimsy, small-wheeled baby strollers on the market. He knew that he and other parents wanted to take their kids offroad - or at least off-pavement - out jogging, to the beach or on bush walks.

He built the first prototype Mountain Buggy out of a second-hand golf trundler and a child's car seat. "It was pretty damn rough," he admits.

Adaptations that added big knobbly tyres and a moulded plastic seat resulted in a product that has gone on to become a favourite with parents all over the world. Croad sold Mountain Buggy in 2004 and turned his attention to a new invention - the LeisurePod, a lightweight camping trailer with a pop-top which can be towed behind small cars.

"I had a bit of time on my hands when I sold Mountain Buggy," he explains. "The design focus is what I am primarily interested in and I had an idea of doing something else along similar lines. It's been good fun so far."

The LeisurePod is at the final prototype stage and will debut at the Motorhome, Caravan and Outdoor show in Auckland this weekend.

Croad admits he is "flying by the seat of my pants", but he believes New Zealand is still a good place for innovators.

"We are far away from the main markets, but being separate is quite useful. You can think more independently.

"Kiwis are very accepting of new stuff and setting up a business in New Zealand is a lot easier than other places."

* ATV Lifeguard, a flexible roll bar for quad bikes: Won the Golden Standard Award for Innovation at this year's Fieldays.
Inventor: Vernon Suckling, Ag-Tech Industries, Dargaville.

"More and more people were getting killed on quad bikes. I thought I can't just sit back and say you can't have a roll bar on a quad, so I went back to the drawing board. It's flexible, with 60 segments that all flex and move, so there is a lot less chance of causing injury or death to the rider - because it's not solid."

Cliff Taylor is a former Herald on Sunday senior writer.

- NZ Herald

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