Philanthropists, an actor, scientists and businesspeople were among the successful Kiwis celebrated at this week's Kea World Class New Zealand awards, at a gala dinner in Auckland's Viaduct Events Centre.

Supreme Award winners: Neal and Annette Plowman

One of New Zealand's leading philanthropic couples, Neal and Annette Plowman received the Supreme Award for their significant contribution to New Zealand, most recently through the Next Foundation which they set up four years ago.

The Foundation invests in educational and environmental initiatives, pursuing goals such as a predator-free New Zealand, equity in our education system and supporting babies and parents in the first 1000 days of life.

The Next Foundation was set up with $100 million to be gifted over 10 years.

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Kea Global chief executive Craig Donaldson said the Plowmans' contribution to various projects had benefited the country immensely.

"Neal and Annette are two of New Zealand's most generous and truly humble individuals – their strategic philanthropy fund, Next Foundation, has already touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders," Donaldson said.

"Their contributions are too many to list. Despite the incredible difference their support has made throughout the country, they've always opted to keep a low profile, shunning publicity and recognition for their work.

"It would be difficult to find two individuals more deserving of this year's top honour."

Before setting up Next, the Plowmans were major donors to projects such as Rotoroa Island in the Hauraki Gulf, Project Janszoon in Abel Tasman National Park, the University of Auckland, The Salvation Army, Auckland City Mission and Lifeline.

Their career accomplishments include New Zealand Towel Supply, which was sold to US firm ALSCO in 1998, and multiplex cinema chain Hoyts, which they started and then sold.

The couple used the occasion to encourage other wealthy New Zealanders to consider donating or other methods of giving back. They referred to "the golden figure in philanthropy" - giving away half of your wealth over your lifetime - and said they plan to do more than that.

Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 Supreme Winners Neal and Annette Plowman. Photo / supplied
Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 Supreme Winners Neal and Annette Plowman. Photo / supplied

Next Foundation chief executive Bill Kermode described the Plowmans as a "truly inspirational couple", saying he admired their generosity and passion for helping Kiwis, as well as their humility.

"They have an appetite for the big issues," he said. "They do not want to just 'help some people out'. They want to address the root causes, and change systems. They are after breakthroughs, not band-aids."

Friend of NZ award: Brian and Matthew Monahan

American brothers Brian and Matthew Monahan were named 2018 Kea Friends of New Zealand for their contribution to local business. The pair established Wellington-based organisation Kiwi Connect and set up the Edmund Hillary Fellowship in partnership with the Hillary Institute.

They also played a critical role in developing the Global Impact Visa, designed to attract innovative and entrepreneurial talent from around the world.

The brothers became famous after co-founding San Francisco company Inflection. The business, which specialises in records searches, sold its genealogy website archives.com in 2012 for US$100m (then $122m). The brothers purchased their first property in New Zealand in 2011 and have added to their portfolio over the years.

Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 award recipient Brian Monahan with NZTE chair Andrew Ferrier. Photo / Supplied
Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 award recipient Brian Monahan with NZTE chair Andrew Ferrier. Photo / Supplied

"Innovation is about finding better ways to solve problems, and unfortunately, our world faces serious environmental, social, and economic challenges," said Brian Monahan. "Aotearoa has a very creative society and we are happy to do our bit to help connect Kiwi innovators with global networks."

Kea Award: Peter Beck

For most of his life, Peter Beck's goal has been to build rockets. In 2006 he took a step closer to that dream, founding Rocket Lab. The company hopes to revolutionise access to space by regularly launching small satellites from Mahia Peninsula, for a fraction of the current cost.

Rocket Lab has so far launched two test flights and is preparing for its first fully commercial launch this year. The billion-dollar company has more than 200 staff in New Zealand and the US and is recruiting four or five new staff every week to keep up with growth.

The launch of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket made history this year as the first successful commercial space launch in the Southern Hemisphere. The company has received funding from New Zealand and international investors including high-profile firms Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and Lockheed Martin, among others.

Kea Award: Cliff Curtis

He has starred alongside Hollywood actors including Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins and George Clooney, and has more than 20 years' experience in the film industry, but actor Cliff Curtis remains committed to New Zealand.

Born in Rotorua, Curtis has established himself as one of the country's most successful actors. His film credits include Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider, and he has spent the past two years starring in the TV series Fear the Walking Dead. Last year he landed a lead character role in all four of James Cameron's upcoming Avatar movies.

Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 award recipient Cliff Curtis with Nick Hall from ATEED. Photo / supplied
Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 award recipient Cliff Curtis with Nick Hall from ATEED. Photo / supplied

In 2004, Curtis formed Maori film production company Whenua Films with cousin Ainsley Gardiner. The company was involved in producing films including Tama Tū, Eagle vs Shark and Boy. In 2013, to continue his commitment to indigenous storytelling, Curtis created production firm Arama Pictures. The company helped produce award-winning feature The Dark Horse, in which Curtis starred, and short film Ahi Ka, based on Curtis' grandmother.

Kea Award: Mark Sagar

Two-time Oscar winner and Auckland University professor Mark Sagar is the brains behind the lifelike digital avatar Baby X and spin-off business Soul Machines. After the success of the intelligent, emotionally responsive avatar, Sagar raised US$7.5m ($10.82m) to launch the artificial intelligence (AI) company.

Soul Machines is developing human-like avatars that aim to enrich the user experience for customers and markets adopting AI-based platforms. Sagar's technology combines models of neural systems and faces to create "live" interactive avatars capable of learning and emotional response.

After completing a PhD in engineering at Auckland University and a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, Sagar was employed as special projects supervisor at Weta Digital and Sony Pictures Imageworks, where he developed technology for the characters in movies such as Avatar, King Kong and Spiderman 2.

Dr Mark Sagar at the University of Auckland Laboratory for Animate Technologies. Photo / Doug Sherring.
Dr Mark Sagar at the University of Auckland Laboratory for Animate Technologies. Photo / Doug Sherring.

This technology has been credited with capturing the subtlety of emotion in the faces of digital characters. His work in computer-generated faces won him an Oscar in 2010 and 2011.

Kea Award: Dr Delwyn Moller

As well as working with Nasa as an award-winning radar systems engineer, Scientist Delwyn Moller has been a medical technician for the Los Angeles fire service, a qualified helicopter pilot, tornado chaser, mother of twins and a brown belt in Jiu-Jitsu.

After her work with Nasa, Moller has returned to New Zealand. This year she took up a role in Alexandra as director of research at the Centre for Space Science. While at Nasa, Moller worked with radar technology in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 award recipient Delwyn Moller with Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon. Photo / Supplied
Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 award recipient Delwyn Moller with Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon. Photo / Supplied

Over this time she helped develop state of the art remote sensing systems for measuring aspects of the Earth's surface, and led numerous Nasa projects. She has won many awards for her work which has had results in the commercial, government and humanitarian spheres.

Kea Award: Mitchell Pham

Mitchell Pham's life in New Zealand began with not a lot. At 12 years old, his parents put him on a boat from Vietnam with 67 other refugees, and 15 months later he and his uncle were accepted by the Government as refugees.

The entrepreneur describes himself as "born in Vietnam, made in New Zealand". In 1993, as a fresh graduate from Auckland University, Pham and four friends co-founded software company Augen, which has since grown significantly and now also has offices in Vietnam.

The refugee-turned-entrepreneur wears many hats. As well as Augen, Pham has co-founded several organisations including the Kiwi Connection Tech Hub, a platform to help New Zealand tech businesses grow in southeast Asia; and Smart Links Swiss, a tech company focused on blockchain technology.

Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 award recipient Mitchell Pham. Photo / supplied
Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 award recipient Mitchell Pham. Photo / supplied

He holds roles with a number of non-government organisations, and business and government groups in both New Zealand and Vietnam, including being chair of NZTech and FinTechNZ.

Kea Award: Jennifer Flay

With more than 30 years' experience in the art world, Auckland-born Jennifer Flay is a leader in the industry.

Jennifer Flay talks about her achievements overseas and here in New Zealand.

After studying art history at the University of Auckland, Flay continued her studies in France with a French Government scholarship. From 1982, she worked for a number of contemporary galleries before opening her own Paris gallery, Galerie Jennifer Flay, in 1990.

After a car crash in which she broke her neck, Flay decided that rather than slowing down, she would take on what was then a small Paris art fair - FIAC. She was appointed general director of FIAC in 2010 and has spent her time since then restructuring and developing the event into one of the most prestigious and influential art fairs worldwide.

Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 Award recipient Jennifer Flay. Photo / supplied
Kea World Class New Zealand 2018 Award recipient Jennifer Flay. Photo / supplied

The event attracts more than 240 exhibitors from about 30 nations each year, and results in hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. In 2015 she was awarded France's highest decoration, the Legion of Honour.