At one end of the scale are the big disrupters — the Ubers, the Alibabas and Tinders of a connected world.

And then there are the modest operators getting traction in New Zealand, giving established players a run for their money and appealing to a younger demographic willing, for instance, to take a punt on a novel form of investment.

At the global scale, the disrupters have pushed relentlessly into the market space held by large and possibly complacent industries. Uber has clipped the ticket of taxi operators around the world and become an immensely valuable stock, acquiring a war chest big enough to run competitors off the road.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is a global behemoth, handling more online business than eBay and combined. This week, the Hong Kong tech monster announced that it was getting into the movie industry, just as Netflix (another disrupter) did with House of Cards, putting content in front of millions of eyeballs. It suggests that Hollywood faces more more digital disruption.


New Zealand disrupters come in different forms. The online auction site TradeMe has gnawed at the revenue streams of mainstream media. Xero, the startlingly successful cloud-based accounting startup, claims to have 400,000 customers in more than 100 countries.

New names are popping up in places where ideas need money to grow, but can't access traditional funding sources, nibbling at territory held by the big brands.

Here are five New Zealand disrupters which, with a little fortune, could make a bigger splash in the coming months.

Rocket Lab

New Zealand Rocket, Rutherford Test SUPPLIED 14th Jan 2015
New Zealand Rocket, Rutherford Test SUPPLIED 14th Jan 2015

The Rutherford rocket engines undergo tests at the lab.

Sitting in a secure Mangere building is an 18m, 10-tonne black tube which, its makers hope, will be shooting for the skies sometime this year on a mission to put business in space at a cost that doesn't bust the bottom line. Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-developed, US-funded enterprise is at a crucial stage in its ambition: Its target is to launch the carbon composite rocket, called Electron, from these shores this year, but it needs to recruit more of the right people to get there.

Chief executive Peter Beck, who has lived and breathed rockets and space for much of his 37 years, says the biggest obstacle to success is finding the right people for the project, given the small size of the talent pool.

Just one commercial venture had gone to space in the past 30 years — Elon Musk's California-based SpaceX — so "finding people with the relevant experience who isn't retired isn't easy", says Beck.

The company is adding one or two people a week to its payroll, and its staff resemble a United Nations. Besides New Zealanders, the company has hired people from Spain, Germany, France, Australia and the US.

Last year, Beck got backing from Silicon Valley venture capitalist and billionaire Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

Says the New Zealander: "These guys only invest in disruptive projects. They're not interested in a slight improvement." The goal, says Beck, is essentially commercialising space.

"What we're trying to do is press a giant control, alt, delete on the space industry and the way we achieve that is by making space not just something that only multi-billion enterprises can utilise, but a place where if you have a small amount of capital, then you can put an asset up there and can generate revenue and provide significant services," Beck says. The sum he has in mind is a $5.9 million launch, with as many as 100 missions a year using less fuel than a Boeing 737.

Beck is not yet saying where in New Zealand the Electron, powered by its classified Rutherford engines — a nod to the Nobel prize-winning New Zealand scientist Sir Ernest Rutherford — can take off. But he is determined that it will.

"We're pushing very hard for this, but to put that in context, it takes a Government a decade to go from blank sheet of paper to a launch vehicle. This is our second year. It's a very large task, but when we successfully fly, we'll only be the second private company in the history of the planet to put something into orbit."

Snowball Effect

Josh Daniell of the Snowball Effect has helped create a crowdsourced beer.

Josh Daniell has been busy over summer, enjoyably so. This week, he was in Blenheim helping create a "crowdsourced beer" at Renaissance Brewing, a craft brewer given a financial leg up with $700,000 raised last year by the online roar of the crowd. Snowball put the offer together and the boutique Marlborough brewery used the money to buy new equipment. Its first brew was based on voting by new shareholders.

Launched last year, Snowball makes it possible for investors to buy shares in new or growing New Zealand companies. New to this country, the equity approach means investors can share in the success — or failure — of a small-to-medium enterprise. Two other mechanisms are also starting to make their presence felt — rewards crowdfunding, such as Kickstarter, where investors pledge funds in return for rewards (or just toss in some spare cash) and debt crowdfunding, where investors loan money and (hopefully) earn interest in return.

All three have the internet in common, and all carry risks. A cautionary statement from the Financial Markets Authority about putting money into new startups attracted to the Snowball concept appears on the company website. It says: "Investment in these types of businesses is very speculative and carries high risks. You may lose your entire investment, and must be in a position to bear this risk without undue hardship."

Daniell, a former corporate lawyer, says despite the risks, crowdfunding is an idea whose time has firmly arrived in New Zealand.

He says for the public, it's the opportunity to invest in enterprises at an early stage. The process is simple, online and opens up asset classes that previously were out of reach. For companies, it's a cost-efficient way to raise capital, and a handy method of recruiting advocates — in other words, shareholders — who drum up word-of-mouth advertising.

Snowball makes its cut by charging companies raising funds a 6-per-cent fee, with a $20,000 minimum. There seems no shortage of investors: Three projects offered last year — Carbonscape, which makes "green" coke, Renaissance and The Patriarch, a movie by Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori and based on Witi Ihimaera's Bulibasha - all closed oversubscribed.

Two offerings on the books for this year hint at the novel fields which Snowball wants to promote. Aeronavics Limited designs and makes drones. It wants to expand in the US market. The other is for a startup called Beyond The Story, a London-based NZ company which owns some clever software it calls Publisher+. Essentially the app gives readers added extras when they open the page of a novel or similar content such as a movie. The company has gained notice in the UK with its Anne Frank Diary app.

Daniell says others are in the pipeline. "We've had expressions of interest from over 500 Kiwi companies, and we're working with a bunch of them to prepare their offers over the coming months."

Gene genie

Dr Jo-Ann Stanton with the Freedom diagnostic machine.

Dunedin executive David Pickering has been on the road in California this week selling the virtues of a colourful, brick-sized device.

The machine, developed at Otago University, is shaking up the molecular world. The portable battery-powered instrument is essentially a genetics laboratory, capable of identifying the presence of an infectious virus or bug in an hour, by analysing DNA in the target sample.

Instead of having to gather samples in remote sites and send them uncontaminated to a testing clinic, Dunedin's Freedom4 diagnostic tool permits lab-quality analysis in the field.

Biologist Dr Jo-Ann Stanton, whose team created the machine, says it "anywhere, anytime" ability allows for the clinical diagnosis of viral infections in humans and animals. She says it has other applications such as border security, forensics work and environmental monitoring.

Says Pickering, CEO of Ubiquitome, a university company created to commercialise the instrument: "The Otago device has for the first time made available this technology in a fully mobile in a package that fits in the palm of your hand. This is a very significant scientific and engineering challenge that the team have overcome."

He has been at a genomics conference in San Diego, where interest was strong. "Many have asked for a device like ours, but this is the first time anyone has actually seen it done and be commercially available."

From a disruptive point of view, the machine sells for a fraction of the cost of, say, the investment behind a $1 million lab. The device works by using technology called quantitative PCR, which stands for polymerase chain reaction. A lab technique that can identify DNA sequences in real-time, the result means a technician can detect and analyse the sequence without the need for further processing. In essence, the device can confirm the presence of, for instance, a norovirus infection in under an hour, which means that health teams can swing into action knowing exactly what they are dealing with.

In testing, Freedom4 worked as well as full-size laboratory DNA sequencing machines in identifying samples infected with E. coli and respiratory viruses, including the H1N1 strain of swine flu that caused a global pandemic in 2009. Last month, the Dunedin company signed up with a US partner to produce accurate and consistent results for the Ebola virus.

But it is the domestic market where the 2.5kg box could really take off. The device has appeared just as a revolution is sweeping medicine, especially in the US, driven by smartphones. Doctors are taking a back seat as medical apps make it possible for patients to diagnose infections, monitor heart rhythms, or even keep track of mental health — before advising on the best course of treatment. In other words, healthcare is shifting to the palm of our hands.


Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, left, controls the ball past Stoke City’s Marc Muniesa during their English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Stoke City at the Emirates stadium in London, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, left, controls the ball past Stoke City’s Marc Muniesa during their English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Stoke City at the Emirates stadium in London, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Coliseum plans to access global sport for those willing to pay.

For years, all sports tragics could do was turn on Sky Television. The pay broadcaster had a lock on heavily watched codes. A rare exception was the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, when everyone screened it. But for the most part, if you wanted to watch live sport, you paid Sky for the privilege. Eighteen months ago, an upstart in the form of Coliseum Sports Media bounced along and stole UK premier league football from the heavyweight broadcaster. It then did a deal with Telecom, which further challenged Sky's grip on the nation's eyeballs, though subscribers still had to pay.

Digital infant Coliseum has since added golf and French rugby — where Dan Carter will next season join the three dozen or so New Zealanders plying their trade — to its menu before last month folding itself into a joint venture with Spark to create Lightbox Sport.

Coliseum's three-year football deal has a season to go, by which time Sky, which invests millions in sports' rights, might get back in the bidding room. But for now, Lightbox Sport managing director Tim Martin — he was the boss at Coliseum — is happy with the direction things are headed. He says the focus remains sewing up, for viewers prepared to pay, any sport that could have a significant following in this country. (As an aside, the company has pushed its premier league pass into Taiwan and the Philippines, where the growth potential is large.)

"There's so much great sport out there that New Zealanders currently don't have access to (French Top 14 being a good example) so we see lots of opportunity," says Martin.

The company last year bid for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but Sky secured the rights with a higher offer. Martin says Lightbox Sport remains on the lookout for action which he thinks will appeal to Kiwi audiences.

He thinks consumers will be a winner in future digital services because their choice will broaden.

"Customers will be able to pay only for the sports and TV that they want to watch. If you're paying for TV because you want the All Blacks, you may not want to be paying for the Kardashians. Right now, that's what you are doing. That will change and because of that, the cost of sport will ultimately be cheaper, because it'll just be the cost of the sport."

He agrees that the company has created a stir.

"We didn't set out to be disruptive, we set out to provide greater access to sport at a more affordable price than what was currently being offered and we used new technology to do that. As the market is driven by a monopoly, I guess that makes it disruptive."


Neil Roberts founder of Harmoney picture supplied
Neil Roberts founder of Harmoney picture supplied

Neil Roberts, founder of Harmoney.

All of a sudden, if you want to borrow money you don't have to go to the bank or finance company. You can simply jump online, make an application and the loan, according to Auckland-based Harmoney, could be approved in 10 minutes.

On the flip side, the financial newcomer will invest your money where you want it to go. The arrangement is called peer-to-peer lending.

Online provider Harmoney was first out of the peer-to-peer blocks after the Financial Markets Authority last year gave it a licence to operate. Harmoney's chief executive, Neil Roberts, said the feedback he is getting from borrowers and investors told him the time was right for a new way to access credit.

Though novel in this country, the mechanism is entrenched in the US and Europe where online agents are taking on banks in the lucrative personal loans market.

The idea is simple: Rather than turning to your bank for an unsecured loan, you could pay a discounted interest rate on the peer-to-peer lending platform. Or, if you are willing to lend money, you could earn better rates that the banks are offering.

Christchurch's Heartland Bank invested approximately $3.5 million in the startup, and just last week, TradeMe sunk $7.7m in Harmoney for a 15 per cent stake. TradeMe chief executive Jon Macdonald said the model could work well in New Zealand. He thought the banking industry needed to move more online and undergo "some disruption".

Reached at the Heineken Open in Auckland, Roberts squeezed in some comments between the action on the court. A Welshman who came to New Zealand almost 20 years ago, he has a history in consumer finance.

He says technology had streamlined the loan process, while checks in the system kept it robust. Without the need for huge capital investment, costs could be kept low.

Banking expert David Tripe cautions that investors should tread carefully around the newcomers. Associate Professor Tripe, head of banking at Massey University, says potentially, peer-to-peer operators could upset banking markets, but so far had not moved beyond niche operations. Overseas, some had run into trouble dealing with borrowers who didn't repay loans.

Banks had defaulters "pretty well sussed out" and could seize assets. It was not so clear how peer-to-peer institutions recovered debts.

"Do you put your money where you'll get your money back, or do you put it where you'll probably get it back?"

Roberts' answer to his doubters is that Harmoney is well-capitalised and has confirmed access to funding.

"We're here to stay," he insists.