NZ innovators need to look outwards - TEDx speaker

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Christchurch-raised Dr Sean Gourley moved to Silicon Valley and founded a multi-million dollar tech company. Photo / Simon Baker
Christchurch-raised Dr Sean Gourley moved to Silicon Valley and founded a multi-million dollar tech company. Photo / Simon Baker

New Zealand innovators are letting fears about a lack of talent or access to capital stop them from pursuing global success, says the kiwi founder of a US tech company.

Internationally-renowned physicist Sean Gourley said kiwis too often let themselves believe that coming from a small country placed us at a major disadvantage.

"There's a mind-set here that says 'there's going to be someone that's better than me'.

"But there are some big problems out there and there's no reason for us not to be trying to solve them."

Gourley is based in San Francisco, where he runs his Silicon Valley-based company Quid, but was back in the country to speak at TEDxAuckland tomorrow.

The 33-year old said he did not believe the common argument that there was a lack of access to capital for start-ups in New Zealand.

"I think the capital argument is the wrong one to focus on - people say there's no money here but I think there is.

"The reality is you only need a few hundred thousand to get started and employ a few people. Then you can move to US if you want and raise a few million."

As New Zealanders, we needed to "turn our eyes outwards" and recognise our place in the world, he said.

"That's the hardest thing here, to know you're part of a bigger world."

The key was to find problems to solve that would serve a very large market and "make the world better".

"The thing that will stop you solving problems is not being aware of them. If you're not interacting with these problems you can't solve them."

The former two-time national decathlon champ left New Zealand in 2002 to complete his PhD at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.

For seven years he studied the mathematical patterns of war and terrorism. That led to him acting as a political adviser to the Iraqi Government, briefing military officials at the Pentagon, and working for Nasa's Ames Research Centre in London.

Gourley moved to San Francisco in 2009 and managed to raise US$2.5 million in six months to set up Quid.

"I knew in Silicon Valley there was a thing called a venture capitalist and they might give us money."

With the backing of early Facebook-investor Peter Thiel, Quid had since raised US$17 million in funding and currently employed about 40 people.

Gourley said from an early age all he wanted to do was understand the world around him. Both his personal research and company were the pursuit of that.

The idea behind Quid was to build software that took vast amounts of open information - or 'Big Data' - and develop algorithms to help organisations make more informed decisions.

"We need products that allow computers to crunch huge amounts of data which help humans to make strategic decisions.

"Between the two of them, we will be able to make better decisions."

Microsoft and Intel were just two companies now using Quid's products, and the company was turning over revenue "in the millions", Gourley said.

There were currently five kiwis working in the Silicon Valley office.

"They hold their own. They had no problems with talent but it's taken a little time to convince them of that."

Gourley said he was looking forward to speaking at the TEDx event tomorrow, where he planned to share his latest thoughts on big data and augmented intelligence.

He also planned to visit his family in Christchurch and get some surfing in before he headed back to the US where Quid was "a full-time thing".

Visit Sean Gourley's personal website at http://seangourley.com/

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