Liam Dann on business

Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, Liam Dann, discusses New Zealand and international financial matters

Liam Dann: Thiel's $15m tip worth following

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Peter Thiel will likely have to wait a decade before he sees a return on his $15 million investment. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Peter Thiel will likely have to wait a decade before he sees a return on his $15 million investment. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Top man that Peter Thiel. Actually, we don't know don't know that much about the guy.

He's the Facebook billionaire, co-founder of PayPal, a big tech investor with some pretty strong political views. He is a libertarian - a backer of long-shot Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, although his cultural and social views are more progressive than those you'd hear in any Republican candidate debate.

He's also a Lord of the Rings fan who has fallen in love with New Zealand.

Whatever you make of all that, he should be applauded for his generous commitment to the local tech industry.

He has helped create a $40 million investment fund for New Zealand which will provide a crucial kick-start for the kind of companies that the country needs to invest in if it is to transform its economic performance.

The Government has stumped up $20 million for the fund. This one bloke from the US is almost matching that with $15 million. The rest will come from other private investors.

We should be embarrassed by that kind of generosity relative to the Crown's miserly effort. But hey - we'll take it.

Thiel is worth (according to Forbes) almost $2 billion. So $15 million is not enormous money to him. Compared to the average Joe who might have a few hundred grand of equity in their house and retirement fund, Thiel is very wealthy indeed.

In fact, on that sort ratio he can afford to spend $5000 the way our average Joe spends a dollar.

But keep going with that maths and you find it makes Thiel's investment equivalent to our average Joe stumping up $3000. Not an insignificant sum for most of us.

How often do you walk past the guy collecting for kids' cancer and pop $3000 in the bag?

Of course Thiel will be hoping that money represents an investment rather than charity.

But when you look at the track record for New Zealand tech company success you'd have to say there is an element of philanthropy to it.

Many clever Kiwi tech companies have made it through the start-up phase but never pushed on to make anything like a reasonable return on investment.

Even our shining lights Xero and Lanzatech remain speculative and unprofitable when viewed from the perspective of a sensibly balanced investment fund.

Venture capital works in a Darwinian way. It takes many hundreds of failures to find the one or two evolutionary successes.

So it is safe to say Thiel has invested with the knowledge that he may never see a financial return.

He might strike a wonder company and double his wealth or he might lose the lot. More typically he might take 10 years to see a return equal to putting his money in the bank. It is a tough game as many New Zealand investors have found over the years.

But it is a game Thiel knows well having been involved with two of the IT sector's biggest successes - PayPal and Facebook.

It is both flattering and comforting that an outsider with that kind of track record should be so enthused about New Zealand's future.

It is often the case that wealthy outsiders are more upbeat than we are about the nation.

Actor Stephen Fry is currently enamoured with us.

Another net guru, Kim Dotcom, also fell for our "South Seas Island meets Seattle" charm.

Director James Cameron is moving here and another US billionaire Julian Robertson owns luxury lodges here and has donated a considerable art collection to the Auckland Gallery.

There is more to Thiel's generosity than just cash.

His expertise and networks will add enormous value to the local companies lucky enough to get involved with the fund.

His real gift is his energy and enthusiasm for the idea that New Zealand could be an incubator for world-changing technology.

The idea of transforming the economy by setting up a hot house of tech innovation is not new.

It has been around at least since the "Knowledge Wave" years of Helen Clark's first-term Government.

Sadly, despite all the talk from politicians we are yet to see any Government make the kind of financial commitment required.

In Thiel we seem to have found a champion. His investment alone will not be enough.

But his involvement and the example he has set provides cause for hope.

twitter.com/liamdann

- NZ Herald

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