Technology innovation is coming thick and fast in Auckland as more start-ups eye the lucrative international marketplace.
The city's innovation ecosystem has suddenly expanded. Grid AKL, the innovation hub established in Wynyard Quarter by Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed), is operating at full capacity; Lightning Lab has moved into the Grid to fast-track the brightest early-stage digital companies; and a new specialist incubator Astrolab wants to turn university and Crown Research Institute research and intellectual property (IP) into commercial reality.
After opening in May last year, Grid AKL houses 15 high-tech companies and in conjunction with Ateed organises an events programme and workshops that attract up to 400 people a week. The latest guest in its GRIT (Get Really Inspired Today) series was David Butler, vice-president of innovation at Coca-Cola, who provided valuable entrepreneurial tips to the Grid's resident companies.
The Grid's newest tenants include Weirdly, which has developed a recruitment app that generates a fun, customised quiz ranking candidates in order to find the perfect 'match' for the business and vision; and LeaderKit which has a created a software programme for managers to track and report progress against operational goals and the strategic plan.
Previously Unavailable, the first company of its kind in New Zealand, is a new consultancy headed by James Hurman dedicated to helping companies grow by creating more successful product and customer service innovations.
One of the original residents, software company Revert.io, is poised to make a big impact in the cloud storage space. Revert's software provides customers with a back-up of its data stored in the cloud and it can quickly retrieve files and information that are deleted.
"We built Revert to empower our customers when disaster happens and to give them peace of mind that they have a secure, second copy of their precious data," says its founder, Rich Chetwynd.
Revert, which launched its product last September, presently has 5500 customers, mainly based in United States and Europe. They have a free offering and paid plans start at $9.99 a month.
Revert wants to attract greater attention by adding an exciting feature to its data protection software.
Its four-strong team is building a software tool that provides an alert as soon as something happens to the stored data - such as hacking or deletion, whether accidentally or maliciously. "It gives a layer of visibility for companies who have invested in the cloud," says Rich. "The algorithm we are building audits information flowing around SaaS (Software as a Service) applications such as Salesforce, Dropbox and Google Drive, then uses machine learning to profile and flag unusual activity.
"We are taking a very reactive approach in protecting data by providing insights and intelligence about what is happening with data.
"It's exciting new space. We will sit between the traditional back-up companies and the hardcore security enterprises which are expensive. We will service businesses of 30 staff and more," Rich says. "The alert feature is a unique tool and it gives us a chance to go really large as a company."
He says presently about 100 terabytes of data is managed by Revert, representing 75 million different files. In the United States more than 30 per cent of companies operating in the cloud have experienced some form of data loss, and by 2020 78 per cent of businesses (100-1000 employees) will be operating fully within the cloud storage space, up from 37 per cent in 2014.
Revert will begin beta testing its alert tool within two to three months before launching it on the marketplace. The Auckland-based software developer raised seed funding of $420,000 in June last year, with Rowan Simpson - a Trade Me, Xero and Vend investor - making a significant contribution.
Revert is presently conducting a second round of funding, and is planning to double its staff to eight or nine by the end of the year.
"We want to be a $100 million recurring revenue company and possibly complete an IPO (Initial Public Offering)," says Rich. "But first we have to get to $1 million annual revenue. I've done that before and ideally we can do it within 18 months."
Rich, an experienced software programmer, developed an e-learning management system Litmos.com, which was sold to Californian-based CallidusCloud in 2011.
"That was an early exit and Revert will be a life-long business," he says.
"The Grid is an exciting place to work in. There's lots of people to talk to and flesh out ideas and add more value to your product.
"I worked at home with Litmos and it just became really lonely. You don't have anyone around to interact with and you forget how to talk to people. Being in the Grid is about people, connections and continuous feedback."
Rich is a member of the 100-strong Flounders Club which meets monthly at Grid AKL to share development and problem solving stories. The business accelerator Lightning Lab, operating in Auckland for the first time, is in its third week of a three-month programme to unearth the latest and brightest start-up digital companies.
Lightning Lab, established by Wellington-based incubator Creative HQ in partnership with The Icehouse and Canterbury Development Corporation, sifted through more than 200 inquiries and 71 completed applications to select the final nine for the intensive Auckland programme at Grid AKL.
The nine teams or businesses, representing 30 keen entrepreneurs, are busy working to make their product a commercial viability within 12 weeks. A group of 10 lab technicians and 120 experienced mentors are available to lend support and provide valuable advice.
"It takes a village to raise a kid and it takes a community to raise a star," says Lightning Lab's market validation executive, Mark MacLeod-Smith. "The mentors have been there and done it, and they can help solve problems and provide clarity to where the teams are heading."
The programme culminates with Demo Day where the teams pitch to 200 investors and hope to attract their attention and purse. Some previous businesses from the Lightning Lab programme have attracted funding of up to $500,000.
"The Xeros and Vends have paved the way and provided inspiration and motivation. We can foster and build capability, connections and capital, and fuel the next wave of technology companies," says Mark. "We will do as much as we can to make sure the companies find the business models that work for them."
The nine teams working towards making a big impact are:
• Broker Better - lead and referral generation for mortgage and insurance advisers.
• Designer Wardrobe - a market platform to buy, sell and swap high-end, second hand designer clothes.
• Estimeet - mobile app that lets you know how far away your friends are when meeting up.
• Future Insight - online tool for business analysts to find what they don't know about their data in seconds.
• Logicore - value chain management software.
• Justly - Xero-style creation and management of testamentary documents such as wills, power of attorney, advance medical directives.
• Preno - property management application for smaller accommodation providers.
• Roll - super simple business intelligence and management software for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
• Wear it Her Way - crowdsourcing web app that passes on clothing recommendations from females in your demographic, or Facebook friends.
Astrolab, a public private partnership with Callaghan Innovation, started operating from its Symonds St office last August and plans to incubate five to eight hi-tech companies a year.
Chief executive Brett Oliver says the new incubator plugs a gap in the innovation ecosystem. "We want to get complex technology working in a way that is quick and effective and to get it to the marketplace ahead of the competition.
"We have funding channels, and we can help commercialise IP from the universities and Crown Research Institutes, as well as private companies. We complement the approaches that are under way at Grid AKL, Lightning Lab and The Icehouse," he says.
The early-stage tech companies at Astrolab will be backed by a $450,000 repayable loan from Callaghan Innovation, as well as $150,000 private funding. The loan is only repaid if the company succeeds.
"It's the Government's offer to help fund those sorts of ventures that provide the highest possible return," Brett says.
Astrolab has taken on its first software company which is developing a complex algorithm for the digital film industry, primarily in the US. Another candidate is a business planning to create new protocols around communication over the internet.
Brett says Astrolab is looking at three or four companies capable of attracting Callaghan funding and "there are quite a few others in the pipeline."