Caitlin Sykes

Your Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small business: Commercialising innovation

James Robertson, CEO of Invert Robotics.
James Robertson, CEO of Invert Robotics.

Wall-climbing robots, technology controlled by thought, 360-degree view cameras - it all sounds like it could be kit from James Bond's bag. In fact, they're innovations being commercialised by small Kiwi businesses.

It's one thing to have an idea; it's quite another to package it up and sell it. Commercialising innovation is a notoriously long - and expensive - process, and this week a handful of small business owners share their experiences of the challenges and lessons learned along the way.

Take those wall climbing robots, produced by Christchurch-based Invert Robotics, which develops and uses remote inspection equipment to provide industrial inspection services.

The firm's CEO, James Robertson, says the company spent nearly two years developing its technology before it could even think about market entry, during which time the company was supported by investors who believed in the concept and the team's ability to deliver.

But Robertson says it was time well spent. The company immersed itself in the task of understanding exactly what their potential clients would need from the technology, ultimately allowing the firm to develop a better service.

"That's also paying dividends in other ways too," says Robertson. "Because we're developing technology that no one really thought could be done, clients are more willing to share other problems they are facing and that is giving us other opportunities."

Andrew Turnbull is investment committee chair of the Kiwi Innovation Network, also known as KiwiNet - a consortium of universities, Crown Research Institutes and Crown entities focused on supporting the commercialisation of research. He's also got a swag of experience in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries and as an angel investor.

Turnbull says companies that successfully commercialise innovation are able to strike a tricky balance between a number of factors: they have tenacity but know when to give up; are adaptive yet focused; have both youthful exuberance and proven commercial experience; and are open to building relationships, but discerning with it.

At the heart of success is a great team and good governance.

"Team is number one," says Turnbull. "You can have the best technology in the world but if your team isn't up to it you're never going to get anywhere."

Innovation is about doing things in a whole new way, opening up the prospect of new possibilities that just weren't available before, and the companies interviewed this week are determined to shift some paradigms.
Auckland-based startup Thought-Wired, for example, is focused on commercialising its first product, called NOUS, aimed at assisting people who have severe physical disabilities.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but NOUS uses the natural power of thought, via a brain-computer interface, to navigate, control and access applications - allowing an entirely 'physical-free' way to access communication and other computer applications.

It's technology, says the firm's founder and CEO Dmitry Selitskiy, with the potential to make a real difference.

"Apart from having commercial importance to our business," he says, "bringing our solution to market has the potential to be life changing for the tens of thousands of people with profound disabilities and their families in New Zealand and around the world."

James Robertson - Invert Robotics

James Robertson is the CEO of Invert Robotics, a Christchurch-based company that makes robotic inspection equipment.

Can you tell me a bit about what Invert Robotics does?

Invert develops and uses remote inspection equipment to provide industrial inspection services. Our flagship technology is the world's first climbing robot system for crack testing of stainless steel vessels in the dairy industry, which removes the risks intrinsic to performing these inspections manually - namely working at height in a confined space.

What have been the major challenges along the journey of commercialising the innovation behind Invert Robotics?

There have been a few. Firstly, I'd say funding. Development of our technology took upwards of two years before we could even think about market entry. During this time we supported the business through angel investors that believed in the concept, the application and Invert's ability to deliver a working technology.

We also suffered a number of setbacks during the technology development stages. We spent a long time clearly defining our clients' needs and went through a number of techniques and design iterations until we developed something that could address every necessary point.

Lastly, I'd list market entry as another challenge. Convincing the largest industry in the country to try out a brand new technology was tricky, and as with any new technology there have been teething problems along the way.

What have been the biggest lessons you've learned?

The importance of testing. For 10 months of the year the dairy factories won't let us near any of the equipment that we're supposed to be inspecting because they're busy operating. We don't have a tank of our own, because they're so expensive, and that means we don't get a lot of time on site to test our gear before we have to go live with it. And we've learnt that it's very different testing something in an office environment than it is testing it in the field - with all the noise, dirt, grit and other people around.

Also, spending more time with clients really pays dividends. When I started the business late in 2010, we spent nearly two years with clients making sure we understood exactly what they were wanting to achieve - why they were getting cracking in the tanks, what they were looking for, the decision making process around what was a severe crack and what wasn't a concern - because the more time we spend with the clients the better we can build our service.

That's also paying dividends in other ways, too. Because we're developing technology that no one really thought could be done, clients are more willing to share other problems they are facing and that is giving us other opportunities. We've already got a second line of inspection gear that we've built in the last year that's solving other specialist inspection problems that haven't been solved in the past.

And everything takes longer than you think. That's something we're still working on - how long we predict something's going to take to build, inspections take to deliver, fundraising and patenting. However, we've been very lucky that some of the angel investors we had on board from nearly day one are very experienced people. I left university and started the business and my team are from similar backgrounds, so the governance team and shareholders have brought a lot to the company.

What's next for the firm?

Invert is a really exciting place to be at the moment; we have a lot of opportunities in front of us. Initial approaches to international partners regarding expanding our inspection services are proceeding well, our domestic inspection service business continues to grow and our technology is maturing along with it. On top of these things, the technology development capability within the business is attracting new clients from other industries to us - we bring a fresh perspective to remote inspection fields that is in much demand and there are a number of industries requesting we develop more equipment.

I really do see that our international expansion is going to start happening quickly and the more time we spend with clients the more opportunities they put in front of us.

Coming up in Small Business: How do small business owners work out an advertising budget, where to spend it and how to judge the return on their investment? If you've got some tips to share from your own business, get in touch: nzhsmallbusiness@gmail.com.

- NZ Herald

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