Research and development doesn't always happen in the obvious places. Anthony Doesburg profiles some of the companies getting taxpayer help to boost their innovation efforts.

The story Leon Toorenburg likes to tell about the inspiration for ikeGPS features a hungry lion. The Wellington company's founder and chief executive spent the late 1990s in East Africa, maintaining the Kenyan police telecommunications network.

"My job as a field technician was to run around Kenya in a Land Rover and fix radio links."

As well as avoiding being eaten by the wildlife, another of his challenges was keeping records of the network's infrastructure.

He would photograph and note the location of network towers, storing photos in a filing cabinet and his sketchy written notes in a database.


Driving long distances gave him time to dream up a more efficient way of record-keeping.

"GPS was starting to be useful at that stage, computers were getting more powerful and digital cameras were becoming cool. I was thinking how do you take photographs, locations and maps and put them together."

He brought his ideas back to New Zealand, and in 2003 started a company to commercialise them.

The technology was still primitive and there was the fundamental problem of accurately recording an object's location when the person making the recording was some distance from it.

With funds from sources such as Jenny Morel's No 8 Ventures - ikeGPS' biggest shareholder - and earlier government grants, Toorenburg has developed a $10,000 device that does everything he dreamed of. The hand-held ikeGPS lets an operator photograph an object such as a power pole, automatically recording where the photo is taken, while a built-in laser rangefinder and compass record the distance and direction to the object.

"From that photograph of a power pole you can accurately measure all the stuff on the pole.

"New Zealand has about a million power poles, Australia six million and the US has about 160 million," Toorenburg says.

Years of power pole neglect in the US, and steep fines for the owners of any that fall, mean "there is a lot of pole auditing going on."

A smartphone app is in development, which is where the 25-person company will be putting its R&D grant to use. The Spike smartphone accessory, combining software and a laser and compass phone attachment costing about $600, will open up new markets, Toorenburg believes.

"Say you're a painter, you photograph the side of a building, mark it up taking out areas like windows that you're not painting, and you can work out how much paint you need."

Toorenburg says the company knew it was on to something when Spike received pledges of more than US$200,000 from crowd-funding website Kickstarter, double its target, which he believes helped secure the Government R&D grant.

"Spike got huge validation from the architecture, engineering and construction industries," Toorenburg says. "It really changes the whole measurement game."

The killer application, however, could be for golfers: point Spike at a distant pin and it will tell you the distance to the hole and recommend a club.

What: Wellington company that makes an integrated device for photographing, measuring and recording the location of infrastucture assests such as power poles.
R&D spending: About $1 million a year.