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.

Louise Webster is CEO of the NZ Innovators Awards and the NZ Innovation Council - a privately run hub for New Zealand's innovation and business growth community.

What are some of the trends you're seeing among entrants to the awards?

We receive innovation entries across nine industry categories which include everything from sustainability and cleantech, food and beverage and financial and professional services - and we're now the largest innovation event in the country.

Our biggest category is design and engineering, and the second biggest is ICT and cloud solutions; a lot of those companies in particular are global from day one just by virtue of the kinds of products and services they're producing and how they're delivered, but 42 per cent of entrants across all the categories are actually already exporting, which is really high.

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Another thing we see from the awards entrants is collectively they're fairly representative of the wider New Zealand business community, in terms of the industries represented and company size. Sixty-one per cent of entrants have between one and 10 employees, and another 19 per cent have 11 to 50 employees.

What are some of the major challenges you see facing innovators in business?

One of the most interesting questions we ask entrants is 'what is the most important change you need to make over the next 12 months to be successful?'. That gives us an insight into the help or support they might need along their growth pathway, and what some of their challenges are.

Funding and investment, and product and service development are a couple of factors we ask about that are really closely linked, and collectively 29 per cent of respondents cited those as issues last year. These companies aren't waiting for a handout because they're ambitious, high growth businesses that don't wait for anything.

But they are saying 'we want to develop relationships with business partners where we can get more investment and develop new products and services with them'. They're not just looking for money, they're looking for smart money and investment partnerships that will help them do that, as well as access to international markets through global channels.

Are you seeing an increasing number of smaller businesses doing that?

Yes. What we're seeing among smaller companies is they're often looking to partner with bigger organisations that already have existing channels set up across different market verticals globally. 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.

A big trend we're also seeing now that you didn't see five or so years ago is that large organisations are actually interested in talking to smaller businesses. They've realised that there's a great deal of value in the products and services being developed by New Zealand entrepreneurs and that it's often much easier to license products and services from them, as opposed to developing them all inhouse.

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This is also an exit strategy for a lot of smaller companies. If you look at Greenbutton for example, which was our winner in the ICT category in 2013 and sold to Microsoft last year, they had been providing services to Microsoft for years and as that relationship deepened they started to talk further. So often exit can come by way of a partner you're already working with that you each know and trust.

The 2015 NZ Innovators Awards are open for entries until 4 August, with the winners announced at an awards celebration on 21 October in Auckland.