Small business editor Caitlin Sykes this week interviews a handful of small business owners involved in last year's NZ Innovators Awards about their innovations and bringing them to market.

Inspiration for a new product or service can strike in all manner of situations; in Peter Stothers' case, he was on a job installing security equipment when he first hit on the idea for his Rackstuds invention.

While holding up a 15kg piece of equipment with one hand, he then had to struggle bolting it into a rack cabinet with the other hand - a task he found nigh on impossible.

If only you could turn the nut and bolt around, he thought, it would make life so much easier.

That was 15 years ago, and the idea stayed with Stothers for years until he cracked the design and engineering challenges of executing it to produce his Rackstuds nut and bolt solution for mounting IT, AV, security and telecommunications equipment into 19-inch racks.


Stothers has now been selling Rackstuds for about 18 months and has made more than a million of the product, which is sold worldwide.

His efforts were also recognised when he was named a finalist in two categories of the 2014 NZ Innovators Awards, and he's among a handful of small business owners involved in last year's awards who I've interviewed this week about their innovations and bringing them to market.

One of Stothers' strategies for getting his product into the hands of customers has been to find distributors that have existing relationships with big supply chains. He's also been targeting the makers of rack cabinets to bundle his product with new racks when they are sold, providing a natural endorsement for Rackstuds and giving them visibility at trade shows where such cabinets are exhibited.

Louise Webster, CEO of the NZ Innovators Awards, says smaller companies often look to partner with bigger organisations that have existing channels to markets that they can tap into.

"So they've got 'widget X' and they could spend the next 10 years developing channels into the US, China and Europe themselves, or they could partner with someone that already has those channels and license their technology to them," says Webster.

Larger organisations are also increasingly interested in talking to smaller businesses, she says, realising it's often much easier to license products and services from smaller, entrepreneurial businesses than developing them all inhouse.

Funding innovation, however, seems to be a perennial challenge.

Nicola and Pat Martin are the founders of Christchurch-based company Solar Bright, whose hero product is an ice-detecting road stud called the PATeye, which Pat invented.


Nicola says the couple initially mortgaged their house against the business, later taking on investment from a friend, then gaining backing from investment group powerHouse a couple of years ago. They're now looking to gain further investment to take advantage of some of the global opportunities for their innovation.

"Really everything we've done has always been on a tight shoestring," she says.

Q&A: Nicola Martin, Solar Bright

Nicola Martin and her husband Pat are the founders of Christchurch-based company Solar Bright. Pat was named Emerging New Zealand Innovator and was a finalist in the Innovator in Design and Engineering category at last year's NZ Innovators Awards for Solar Bright's PATeye ice-detecting road stud. He was also a semifinalist in the innovation category of the 2015 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year awards.

First up, can you tell me about Solar Bright?

My husband Pat and I founded the company in 2006, and we now have seven full time employees. We're innovators in LED solar lighting for a range of industries and applications, so we supply lighting for everything from local infrastructure and road safety, to commercial fitouts, both in New Zealand and offshore.

One example of what we do is we've just won a $1 million-plus contract to supply 250 fully solar street lights on the island of Kiribati.

How did you get into this business?

I'm from a corporate background and Pat has always been self-employed, predominantly in the building industry. We came to New Zealand from the UK 14 years ago and originally Pat worked for Michael Hill for five years fitting out their shops around New Zealand.

One night he was driving along the Desert Road and thought how dark and dangerous it was and he just came up with this idea of putting a solar panel on street lights to save lots of energy, while offering visibility.

We looked into it and realised solar street lights were already in use in a few places around the world, so Pat took six months off his job to investigate, and travelled to China to source our first solar lights.

This was about seven years ago, and we got Kaikoura District Council to trial them here, which we did for them at no cost for 18 months, after which they wrote up a report of the trial for us to use. During that time Pat was also researching and developing other kinds of solar and LED lighting, which was early days for that technology, but we decided to take a punt on it.

Solar Bright won the Emerging Innovator award for your PATeye product. What's the innovation behind that?

The PATeye is our current hero product, and it's a real-time ice detection solar road stud. When it detects the formation of road ice it flashes blue, day or night, to warn motorists of the potential danger.

We've been trialling that for two years in Dunedin, Central Otago and Queenstown through the NZ Transport Agency and we've had some preliminary data back that shows 82 per cent of vehicles did slow down on the activation of the PATeye. So it really has the potential to save lives, and it's a really simple and cheap idea.

What are your plans for developing the product from here?

This winter we're hoping to set up trials in the UK in partnership with local government bodies there, and also gently going into the US and Russia with it. But that's such a massive task, and being a small company from a small country we can't resource all of that process.

So to fund trials we're looking to partner with some of the big global roading companies that have the reach that we simply haven't got, while we keep the IP here, which is ring fenced quite tightly.

Then we have a whole next phase of development planned, which is around data collection. So using other sensors and telemetry we can use these road studs to do all kinds of things - count traffic, detect types of vehicles, carbon levels - and all of this information is gold for organisations like councils, police, statisticians and road maintainers.

What's been the biggest challenge on your road to innovation so far as a small business?

It's funding. Like in any small company, it's the founders who put in the blood, sweat and tears. We mortgaged our house against the business, so we took a massive risk, then eventually we had another investor, a friend, who put money into it. Then a couple of years ago we got the investment group powerHouse in, and we're now actually looking for a higher level of investment through them so we can take advantage of some of these opportunities.

But really everything we've done has always been on a tight shoestring. Like this Kiribati opportunity. We maxed out our credit cards to get over there and get involved with that, and it took 18 months to win that contract, but if you're not in it, you're not in it. And that's not a unique story; a lot of startups do these things because they believe in what they do, but it takes determination.