Powerhouse Ventures, one of the three new technology business incubators part-funded by government, is considering a $40 million initial public offering to raise capital for growth.

Powerhouse was named as one of three of the new technology-focused incubators introduced by government this year based on a successful Israeli model. Early stage investment to the companies it incubates is provided in collaboration with high net worth private investors and the government's business innovation agency, Callaghan Innovation, while the NZ Venture Investment Fund is a co-investor for follow-on capital.

The technology incubators are primarily funded from returns generated from equity stakes in successfully incubated companies but it takes some time before those returns start filtering through.

Following its annual meeting yesterday, chairman Kerry McDonald said the company planned to access new capital for follow-on funding substantially, as this was critical for the success of research-based ventures. Among the options for the estimated $40 million needed to provide funding to its existing portfolio and make new investments are an IPO, bringing in one large investor, or raising an expansion fund for that amount.

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Powerhouse Ventures managing director Stephen Hampson, newly appointed to the board, favours the IPO option though it would be unlikely to happen until the middle of 2015.

"There's interest from New Zealand investors in getting involved in early stage technology and the way we're doing it with a diversified portfolio of technology companies takes a lot of the risk out for investors," Hampson said.

McDonald was appointed chairman in October and other board changes include the appointment of scientist Dianne McCarthy, who recently retired as chief executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and Hampson who was formerly chief executive.

Powerhouse Ventures was set up in 2006 with the Christchurch City Council's economic development agency, the Canterbury Development Corporation, as a cornerstone investor. Lincoln University and the University of Canterbury are also shareholders.

A major ownership restructure is due to be completed by Christmas which will see the management company merged with its four funds which co-invest with private investors in the companies within the 15-strong portfolio. Once the restructure is complete private investors, who include Stephen Tindall's K1W1, will be the majority shareholders of the incubator which will directly hold ownership in the companies.

Powerhouse currently has a portfolio of 15 established companies and a further four undergoing due diligence. These include Invert Robotics which makes robots that inspect industrial surfaces such as food storage silos, Hydroworks which designs and builds small hydropower turbines, SolarBright which makes LED lighting for roading and industrial environments and Photonic Innovations which makes calibration-free gas detectors.

Dunedin's 10-year-old Upstart business incubator, owned by the Dunedin City Council, University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic, merged with Powerhouse Ventures in April this year.

"From our beginnings in Christchurch, we now have a nationwide organisation having established offices in Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland. This expansion gives the company access to additional sources of high-quality opportunities," Hampson said.

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The company was impressed with the pipeline of opportunities available from universities and Crown Research Institutes to transfer their technology into start-ups and that had validated its decision to expand nationally, he said.

Two thirds of the money raised would go towards existing companies and one third to new investments, he said, with the incubator planning to invest in an additional six to nine companies a year.

Technology-based incubators are able to access a new repayable grant introduced by government this year, on behalf of the start-ups they incubate.

The first to receive one was a Powerhouse Ventures-incubated company, Tiro Lifesciences. It is an early-stage medical diagnostic company developing technology for the detection of breast cancer in dense tissue.

It received up to $450,000 over two years to develop a pain and radiation-free medical-imaging tool, repayable once it starts making revenue. The funding has to be matched 1:3 by the incubator contributing up to $150,000.

(BusinessDesk receives funding to write about the commercialisation of innovation from Callaghan Innovation)

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