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Brian Knolles is on a year-long OE in the UK - but rather than an overseas experience, he's aiming for overseas expansion.

The chief executive of Auckland-based company Senztek, producers of energy-efficiency technology for hot water systems, is balancing running the company on a day-to-day basis with a serious fact-finding mission in the UK.

Knolles said Senztek had been investigating the UK market for around three years.

"But really just dipping a toe into the water, not being fully and totally committed to the market," he said.

Up until now Senztek has relied on an agent to open doors for the company's hot water system technology, but had never invested the focus or resources needed to "really knock this market over", said Knolles.

In January, the company's board signed off on Knolles taking a year out to undertake some major market research in the UK.

Knolles said it meant the company can make a decision once and for all whether the UK market is the right place to focus or simply walk away.

Now on the ground for a little over five weeks, Knolles has been gaining an understanding of the local market, how it is segmented, who controls the market value chain and identifying key people to meet.

He has been talking to manufacturers, distributors and installers.

"We're talking to all the big players all the way through and really understanding how this market works and where we might have an opportunity," he said.

Senztek's growth plans have been given a boost by the University of Auckland Business School Entrepreneurs' Challenge, which each year offers up $1 million in funding to one or more companies.

Established with a $3 million donation from expat businessman Charles Bidwill, the Entrepreneurs Challenge aims to fast-track the growth potential of New Zealand companies.

Senztek, one of three companies to grab a share of the inaugural funding round, has chosen to focus its money on marketing in the UK with associated technology development to customise is products for the market.

Already Knolles has discovered the market is totally different to its stronghold of New Zealand and Australia.

"Some things we knew, but an awful lot we didn't fully appreciate so from that perspective it's been extremely valuable."

An added bonus was the arrival of 200 units of Senztek's entry level controller at Heathrow, destined for a company Senztek had been pitching to for three years.

The company has also tapped into the business networks available through the business school, including the Icehouse incubator.

Knolles encourages any growth company to throw its hat in the Challenge ring, particularly those who may those may think they are too small.

"Basically there is no downside," said Knolles.

He said the process of applying for the Challenge forces you to sit down and think about your business and write a solid business strategy.

"The whole process of having to pitch that to a bunch of investors, it really does make you think about what you're doing and why you're doing it and what the business is.

"As a business development exercise I would say to people do it anyway, whether you think you can win or not."

The company has recorded revenue growth of 300 per cent in the past three years and has doubled its staff numbers over that time.

Senztek now employs 26 people, with seven of those focused on research and development.

It has added seven staff in the past 12 months, three of which are R&D specialists.

In the pipelines is a device which uses energy management technology that allows consumers to see how much power each appliance is using, control when appliances are on or off and predict monthly power bills.

The Rules:
* Entries are invited from companies seeking funding for growth or expansion.

* The ideal candidate will have a minimum revenue of $1 million.

* Exporters or those with potential to export will be preferred.

* Applicants should have been in business for two years and show financial accounts for that period.

* Companies should not be property- or banking-related.

* Funding will be negotiated on case-by-case basis, with up to $1 million available on favourable terms.

* Investment will most likely be in the form of a convertible note with repayment in full after three years.

* Entries close at 5pm on July 19.

* Winners will be announced in November.

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