In his past life as a supply chain manager, entrepreneur Steve Haythorne would send 30,000 loaves of bread from Auckland to Whangarei each night. But he noticed a problem - each of the three trucks it took to do the job was only 60 per cent full.
Haythorne's conundrum stemmed from a baking industry convention: standard loaf crates were stacked in piles of 12 or 13, which was as high as they could be stacked to allow the delivery guys to heft them around on a handbarrow and reach the top to unload.
The stacks were too low to fill up the trucks, but still heavy and dangerous, Haythorne said.
"It's a very labour-intensive job that involves a lot of man-handling as well as creating a dangerous environment ... I thought there has to be a better way."
After searching for some handling machinery that could do the job better drew a blank, Haythorne set about creating his own.
The result is Mobot - an all-electric, stand-on, zero-turn device designed to move items that are too small for forklifts but too heavy to be safely moved by the ubiquitous handbarrow.
A Mobot is manoeuvrable enough to work within the confines of a delivery truck.
It is capable of lifting a stack of 10 crates and then putting another 10 on top, so it can fill a delivery truck to its full height, Haythorne said.
"That results in a massive financial payback. A Mobot could save that Whangarei bread run $700,000 annually, because it can now be made by two trucks instead of three."
The machines will also vastly improve health and safety conditions, increasing workplace productivity and reducing ACC costs, he said.
After receiving some early expressions of interest in a concept vehicle he built more than 18 months ago from his then-employer, Goodman Fielder, as well as Fonterra and bread maker Tip Top, Haythorne quit his job to work full-time on his new company, Mobotech.
"I sold my house, all my shares and went into hock on everything and just poured it all into getting a prototype vehicle together."
A year ago Haythorne showed that prototype to the guys at angel investment firm Sparkbox Ventures. They liked what they saw and invested seed capital of $200,000 from the Global from Day One fund - a joint venture between Sparkbox and Auckland business incubator The Icehouse, with half the funding matched from the Government's New Zealand Venture Investment Fund.
A further boost was given to the fledgling company with a $112,000 grant from Callaghan Innovation.
Sparkbox venture principal Mark Robotham said Mobots had great market potential.
"The niche market in the bread and milk sectors is enough to make the business very successful, but there are other opportunities to extend it to wider markets," he said.
"What we're trying to do with companies like this is get engaged very early on to ensure they reach global markets as quick as they possibly can ... it's all based on the rationale of grow fast [or] fail fast."
Haythorne has used his seed funding to create a final prototype, which he plans to show at a world baking expo in Las Vegas this month.
He's also about to embark on a second investment round to help fund Mobot's manufacture and initiate sales in the US. Already having a track record with funders will make that process a lot easier, he said.
"I'm just very appreciative that the angels elected to get in behind the idea because it never would have gone anywhere without them."
Produced in association with the Angel Association of New Zealand.