We do it our own spirited way

By Susan Edmunds

New Zealand's rolling green fields don't just nurture sheep and cattle - they also nurture world-beating innovation. Susan Edmunds talks with a few of our most brilliant Kiwis.

Actor-director Michael Hurst. Photo / Adrian Malloch
Actor-director Michael Hurst. Photo / Adrian Malloch

Actor Michael Hurst says he'd be a petty criminal by now if he hadn't moved to New Zealand.

He grew up in England and was in a gang by the time he was 7.

His parents brought him to New Zealand in the 1960s and he revelled in the wide open spaces. "It gave me a sense that nothing was impossible. I never felt held back."

The thespian and theatre director, currently working on Brel at Silo Theatre, says Kiwis still have an idea that what is accomplished here isn't as good as what happens overseas.

"People doing creative work here ... it's seen as not quite as real as in Hollywood or London. But, in reality, we have much more varied, creative lives here."

Celebrating New Zealanders doing innovative, groundbreaking work under the global radar is a cause dear to the heart of scientist Sir Ray Avery. Also an immigrant, he says this is a country that has no cultural or political hurdles to stop people achieving. "We can dare to dream, there are no limitations."

Two of Avery's favourite examples are engineers Peter Beck and Bill Buckley.

Beck is a rocket engineer doing work for the US Government from his Auckland office. And without Buckley, your cellphone may not exist.

Each says that being in New Zealand has been in some ways a help, in other ways a hindrance, to their careers.

Buckley, who set up his engineering firm in the 1970s, hoping to eventually have a staff of seven or eight, now employs about 400 people. His industrial machines are used to manufacture 90 per cent of the world's silicon chips and flat panels.

Samsung has asked him to develop the world's largest LCD television - the size of six 55-inch TVs, stacked - but, at the moment, his team is so busy making machines to produce the next generations of iPads and iPhones that they don't have the capacity to do it.

When he talks to businesspeople overseas, the distance to New Zealand is the first thing they think of. "The first thing that hits them is that they're going as far away from their country as they can."

But there are benefits: a lot of the work Buckley does is for competing companies. It takes so long to get here that he can cover things up before the arrival of any snooping competitor, he says. Time differences also mean work can effectively continue 24 hours a day, on one side of the world or the other.

Buckley is usually in the office seven days a week, although at the moment he spends Sundays at home.

The speedway fanatic owns an Aston Martin and a Jaguar, but too many speeding tickets have cost him his driving licence, and his wife won't drive him to work both days of the weekend.

Buckley says he frequently thinks about taking his business elsewhere but family keeps him here.

"If they close Western Springs speedway I might imagine going then."

Rocket engineer Beck can also see the benefits of being based in New Zealand. His Rocket Lab team is developing new rocket propulsion messaging technology, sponsored by the US defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and Office of Naval Research.

Beck can't reveal too much about the project but says the approach that his team is trying breaks the normal rules of propulsion technology.

"When you think of the United States, they've got tremendous resources to do this kind of work, so it's unusual that it's being done in New Zealand."

But he says American scientists were impressed by the Kiwi way of doing things. "We have a novel approach."

Rocket Lab recently ran a full-scale test fire of a rocket motor that is scheduled to take to the skies this year, in high density monopropellant research.

Being from New Zealand has helped and hindered him, Beck reckons.

"From day one, we've had to be an export company; there's no heritage in the space industry. In the US, there's a joke: here's Rocket Lab, New Zealand's space industry."

Beck and his team are never told that something they're developing won't work, or has been tried before. There's no bureaucracy to fight.

"We are free to innovate. In the US, it's highly regulated but here we can just get on with it without too much intervention."

The three men are among 50 Kiwi innovators profiled in a new book, The Power of Us. The idea came from Avery, who says Beck is a good example of the spirit he, journalist Cameron Bennett and photographer Adrian Malloch sought to capture in their interviews.

"He just went down to the Hauraki Gulf to set off a rocket into interstellar space. Other countries would be worried about where that might land. Here, we have no idea where it landed."

Avery says the book is designed to inspire New Zealanders to dream and look at what makes us Kiwis, even those of us who weren't born here.

All of the people interviewed for the book were asked what they hoped their legacy would be. Sculptor Peter Dawson told Bennett he wants to leave an echo.

Avery wants to be remembered as someone who tried to make New Zealanders realise how lucky they are. "I would like to leave an echo of an echo."

* The Power of Us, by Sir Ray Avery, Cameron Bennett and Adrian Malloch (Random House, $50).

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 18 Apr 2014 13:14:13 Processing Time: 412ms