Move over Kiwi ingenuity based on the old No. 8 wire mentality. Now's the time to celebrate cutting-edge Kiwi technology enhancing the lives of people around the world.

Some of the best developments have been celebrated in the new book by Auckland University nanotechnologist and Weekend Herald columnist Michelle Dickinson (known as Nanogirl), and David Downs, No. 8 Recharged - 202 World-changing innovations from New Zealand.

The book profiles a range of world-beating innovations - from drones to electric farm bikes, medical breakthroughs, online gaming and much more. In this edited extract we profile some of the Kiwi innovations. First up, Rocket Lab, the Auckland-based space company that could bump up to $1.55 billion into our economy over the next 20 years.

Rocket Lab and the space-flying Kiwis


'Made it to space, team delighted. More to follow!' - so read the tweet on 25 May 2017 that announced New Zealand had entered the community of countries who had successfully sent a rocket into space.

Rocket Lab is based in Auckland. CEO Peter Beck is an engineer with no university degree who has learned rocket science by doing it. At 18, Beck left his home town of Invercargill to work for Fisher & Paykel in Dunedin. He set up Rocket Lab in 2006 with funding from rocket-mad angel investor Mark Rocket (not the name he was born with). Now, barely 40, Beck already has a long history of innovation, multiple awards and a good reputation in the aerospace world.

Since the first test launches in 2009, Rocket Lab has begun to make world-first technologies. In late 2012 it demonstrated a rocket to representatives of its US military clients. The rocket runs on a viscous liquid monopropellant (VLM) fuel, which is thixotropic - neither a solid nor a liquid.

It has all the best properties of both sorts of fuel, and will be a major advance in rocket science.

Rocket Lab has continued to innovate with its rockets. The latest, the Electron, is the cheapest rocket per launch. As Beck says, 'Space, like business, is all about time and money. The space shuttle cost $1b per launch. It still costs $130 million per [traditional] rocket and needs a two-year wait.' Until now.

Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab.
Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab.

The Electron costs just $4.9m on average per launch, and is largely reusable. It's serious business, too - a recent report found Rocket Lab's establishment of a rocket-launch industry in New Zealand would contribute between $600m and $1.55b to the economy over the next 20 years.

Perhaps just as impressive as the rockets, however, are the business and logistics behind it. Creating a rocket that can go into space was only part of the challenge Rocket Lab faced - another part was the need to convince the New Zealand Government to set up what is basically a space agency under the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE - nearly as catchy as Nasa). New Zealand had to accede to a number of international treaties on space, joining a pretty exclusive club.

Yes, in what might have seemed worthy material for Flight of the Conchords just a few years ago, New Zealand now has its own space agency.


Rocket Lab then needed a permanent launch site - and again, New Zealand proved to be the ideal place. The established site is on the Mahia Peninsula, on the East Coast - somewhat poetically the location is also known as "Te Matau a Maui", the fish-hook of Maui.

Rocket Lab's electron rocket.
Rocket Lab's electron rocket.

In the legend, it was this hook that the demi-god Maui Potiki used to fish up the North Island of New Zealand. Mahia gives clear skies and a large (empty) sea to launch above -
although it did need extra roads and other infrastructure, as well as a launch pad. It's the world's first commercial orbital rocket launch site. In Mahia.

Beck says that although New Zealanders are often bemused about a Kiwi space programme, it isn't hard to interest overseas companies in his developments. "If you've got a technology that's superior, people will listen."

After their successful pilot launch, two additional test flights are scheduled for 2017. During these flights, Rocket Lab's engineers will look to optimize Electron's performance for delivering commercial satellite customers to space.

The Electron launch vehicle will allow constellations of small satellites to provide services like affordable internet from space, more accurate weather data and live-Earth observation for activities such as environmental monitoring, natural-disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data and search-and-rescue services.

Among Rocket Lab's clients are Nasa, Planet Spire and Moon Express. Beck says Americans often introduce him by saying, "This is Rocket Lab, the New Zealand space industry!" Then they laugh because they think one company is our whole industry. We laugh, too, because it might be at the moment, but the sky is a big place and the only way is up.


Protecting the most vulnerable

Sir Ray Avery - Kiwi inventor, scientist and social entrepreneur - is on a mission to save lives. On a visit to Nepal, he was dismayed to learn that, every year, millions of babies die, particularly in developing countries, in their first few weeks of life.

Premature babies in Nepal were struggling to survive, placed into plastic boxes with only a blanket for warmth. These babies don't have access to incubators to help them survive when they are so vulnerable. Avery decided to do something about that, and set about finding a way to improve the incubator and make it more cheaply available.

Incubators allow premature babies, or those needing extra support, to have a safe, warm, sterile environment to protect them. In developing countries, these devices are often expensive, and prone to failure. They get old and dirty and often don't work effectively, breaking down and rendering them unusable.

Avery's improved incubator is called the Lifepod - it's a futuristic egg-shaped device, which can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost of a traditional device. In creating it, he set about solving all the issues he saw that made other incubators unsuitable for developing countries - he created air and water filters, more reliable hinges and moving parts, built-in power back-ups and improved humidity controls.

Sir Ray Avery and his Mondiale LifePod infant incubator.
Sir Ray Avery and his Mondiale LifePod infant incubator.

Best of all, the Lifepod can be manufactured for around $2000, or about a twentieth of the normal cost. Having invented the Lifepod, Avery's company Medicine Mondiale went about fundraising $2m to get the first batch produced, which will be sent to the Pacific Islands.


Medicine Mondiale have other social medical innovations in their sights, too, as they believe it is possible to use technology to bridge the gap in delivery of affordable, high-quality healthcare.

Image analysis of mammograms

Volpara Health Technologies is a Wellington-based health software company. Volpara's patented software technology takes breast mammograms and analyses the images, looking for abnormalities in the breast tissue.

Volpara can supplement the skills of specialised radiologists by scanning every mammogram image, flagging suspect areas for further analysis, or providing a secondary checking mechanism. Their software can detect the density of the breast tissue and point to where there is an increased density - a possible marker for cancerous cells.

Over 500,000 women a year die of breast cancer globally - thousands of them in Australia and New Zealand. Breast-scanning helps prevent that by finding abnormalities in the breast tissue, but previously the technology had only worked reliably in certain types of breast: those without too much glandular tissue (the part that makes milk).

In 2009 four of the world's top breast-imaging scientists joined together to work out a way to personalise breast-cancer scanning, and Volpara is the result. The company benefits from being in Wellington, too, because some of the world's experts in image analysis now live and work there, thanks to the film industry around Miramar.


It's what economists would call an "adjacency" - expertise in one area (creating high-quality images of orcs) leads to a whole new area of expertise (detecting cancer cells in images of breasts).

Volpara recently listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, valuing the company at $61m, and that allowed it to create a new product range, based in the Cloud, which helps with assessment of the effectiveness of the breast scanners and the technicians who operate them, based on the data they capture.

The technology also promises to make the process of mammography more efficient - mammograms are at best unpleasant, and at worst highly painful. The breast has to be compressed between metal plates in order for the scanning to work, so maximising the data captured by the process is important.

Volpara's breast screening technology.
Volpara's breast screening technology.

Volpara's software can tell if the machine is overcompressing the breast, as was the case in one set of machines they checked, which had been calibrated to the average Western woman, but was being used in a hospital in Asia where breast size is typically smaller. This was resulting in an unnecessarily painful procedure for the patient.

Volpara's technology is approved by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration), which has opened the US market for it. Its range of software solutions is proving to help clinic managers understand the effectiveness of their breast scanners, and whether machinery is operating as designed.

Fundamentally, here is a great example of a high-tech New Zealand company leveraging off strengths gained in one field to become a world leader in another, and saving lives along the way.


It's meat without the animal

Sharma Lee came to New Zealand on a computer-science scholarship from Fiji after the Government dropped the scholarships to Australia, which is where she was planning on going.

After graduation, she went into software programming and technical architecture, but quit her job after feeling unfulfilled and questioning her values. Learning about meat production and its effect on the environment, Sharma believed that there needed to be a different way for the world to feed its growing population without destroying its natural environment. From her frustration, the idea of SunFed was born.

Convincing her husband to join her as a co-founder, Lee re-mortgaged their house and set to work researching plant-based proteins. They thought about how animal meat was actually just plant protein converted through a living and breathing creature, and wondered if they could replace the animal with technology that was much more efficient and less polluting.

Using an offshore protein extraction technology which extracts all of the non-desirable components from the plant, SunFed uses temperature and pressure to texturise the protein into fibres so it feels and tastes like meat. Although many plant proteins are available, SunFed currently uses pea protein, which requires 18 times less water and produces 93 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef.

Scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, is the author of No.8 Recharged.
Scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, is the author of No.8 Recharged.

SunFed decided to focus initially on chicken meat, because it was an easy meat to cook at home, and its competitors overseas were already focusing on red meat. Sharma calculated that five times the amount of SunFed chicken-like meat could be produced from a pea-growing site than if birds were used to produce real meat. Suddenly the economies of environmental scale become very clear.


The product not only reduced the environmental impact of meat, but it also hit many of the health-conscious market targets with no wheat, no gluten, zero cholesterol and less than 5 per cent carbohydrate and fat in the product. Containing 25-30 per cent protein per 100 grams compared to real chicken breast (at only 18 per cent protein), the nutritional advantages were also clear.

When created, the meat has very little taste, so SunFed currently uses yeast extract to flavour the product and adds minerals like calcium, zinc, iron and vitamin B12, but steers away from any preservatives.

Initial tests show that the product cooks slightly more quickly than chicken, but has a similar stringy texture and taste to real chicken meat. The company is also working on creating other plant protein-based meats that taste like beef, as well as bringing the protein extraction technology to New Zealand.

Sharma is very clear that she wants to keep the product labelled as a meat, and strives for a day when the word "meat" is redefined to include her products.

No. 8 Recharged - 202 World-changing Innovations from New Zealand, is published by Penguin and has an RRP of $45. It is published on November 1.