Small Business: Software plan to stay ahead of pack

By Gill South

Surveying technology company linking hardware with data tools to win clients in electricity lines market.

IkeGPS CEO Glenn Milnes with the company's hand-held surveying instrument. Photo / Mark Mitchell
IkeGPS CEO Glenn Milnes with the company's hand-held surveying instrument. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Hardware-based tech startups can find themselves turning to software development to stay ahead of their rivals.

That has been the experience of Wellington mobile geospatial solutions company ikeGPS.

"Until 18 months ago, we were a pure hardware company," says chief executive Glenn Milnes. "Now ikeGPS is building end-to-end software solutions, taking the outputs from the hardware platform and doing useful things for asset management such as measuring and modelling power pole structures."

The ikeGPS mobile device can measure attachments on a utility pole, then generate instant computer-aided design (CAD) models in Power Line Systems software, or create geo-located 3D scale models.

The technology was used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, tagging information to photos of broken levies.

"IkeGPS solutions intersect and disrupt two market mega-trends - mobile and geospatial," says Milnes.

A stock market float for the business is "something that we have been actively looking at".

The company is a finalist in the upcoming New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards.

The business' founder and technology head, Leon Toorenburg, was an electrical engineer surveying telecommunications cell sites in Africa. He wanted to solve the problem of how to record distant assets without having to travel to them.

He returned from Africa and set about building the first prototype of the company's hardware platform.

IkeGPS was formed in 2005. Its first commercial product was delivered in 2008 to the US Army Corps of Engineers for use in Iraq, Afghanistan and the US.

A coup came last year when In-Q-Tel, the strategic development arm of the US Intelligence and Special Operations community, contracted the company to develop software measurement solutions.

"In-Q-Tel has also backed other geospatial companies such as Key Hole [now Google Earth] and SketchUp - so we are proud to join such an elite group," says Milnes.

"Our future is in power, oil and gas."

The management team are focused on the electricity lines market, winning 30 new customers in the past quarter including San Diego Gas & Electric, South California Edison and Malaysia's state power company, Tenaga Nasional Berhad.

In the US, regulatory pressures are helping the New Zealand business. "There will often be five or six service providers with a presence on the power pole and in America there are new regulatory requirements for power companies to have their network CAD-modelled," says Milnes.

Milnes joined the company, in which venture capital firm No 8 Ventures has a stake, at the begin-ning of 2011.

The Wellington business has 21 staff, US and UK sales offices and turnover under $10 million, which is expected to double year on year.

"We are in real growth mode," says Milnes. The firm's research and development, sales, marketing and manufacturing are all done in Newtown.

"We are preparing for a world where competitors replicate the hardware," says Milnes.

"The way we stay ahead is by developing solutions for industry problems. That's where we focus, and we look at really large niche markets rather than being everything to everybody."

Top Tip

It's all about perseverance, of having a vision of what you are trying to do. You have to really understand the market and aim for a large niche.

Best business achievement

What we are achieving with the electrical utility market, partnering with the biggest providers.

- NZ Herald

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