Variety on display among Hi-Tech finalists

Mix of start-ups and veteran firms vie for awards

The hardware and software categories of the 2010 New Zealand Hi-Tech Award offer a smorgasbord of locally developed technologies — some already competing on the global market and some just taking their first steps out of the startup phase.

With nearly 30 years in the industry, Christchurch-based AuCom Electronics is a veteran among this year’s finalists in the Dell Innovative Hardware Product category. The company designs and manufactures soft starters, devices that reduce stress on motors during startup and hence extend the lifespan of the whole system. AuCom introduced its first range of soft starters in 1981, based on an energy-saving technology developed by none other than American space agency NASA. Today, AuCom’s soft starters are used throughout the world for a large range of applications, says the company’s director of design, Craig Tuffnell.

AuCom has developed advanced control algorithms over the years that optimise starting and stopping, while reducing the risk of damaging the motor, says Tuffnell. The company also puts a huge focus on usability, making sure the products are easy for customers to work with. Also contributing to the success of the product is AuCom’s ability to easily customise and brand the devices for a particular customer. For example, giant Danish distributor Danfoss sells the products under its own brand, with the user interface and branding matching the company’s existing products. AuCom has done similar customisation for English and French companies, says Tuffnell. The company also has a generic brand where the outer plastic shell can be labelled to match products of specific, smaller customers. This approach has led to the company now offering four different-looking products, with different branding and user interface, but under the plastic hood they are basically the same. The interesting thing is that these product ‘siblings’ compete against each other in the marketplace, allowing the company a bigger market share.

Tuffnell thinks the company has managed to stay relevant for 30 years because of its awareness of the market it is in.

“We have got to be out there with our customers and competitors, trying to stay one step ahead.”

The company is currently putting processes in place to encourage creativity and innovation among staff and becoming “more formal” in capturing ideas, says Tufnell.

Also based in Christchurch, solar product developer Enasolar is only in its second year. The company, which is owned by electronics company Enatel, designs and locally manufactures solar inverters that convert DC power into 230V AC.

“Most people don’t even know solar inverters exist,” says Alan Booth, Enasolar’s business development manager. “They just think of solar panels and forget that the power needs to be turned into AC.”

The company’s products are pretty unique in New Zealand – even in Australasia. As far as Booth knows, Enaolar is the sole developer of solar inverters in Australasia.

The company is currently developing 2kW inverters, targeting the consumer domestic market, but is now looking to develop larger 3kW to 5kW units in the near term and then much larger units over the next few years, says Booth.

Being a finalist in the Hi-Tech Awards is “great for recognition”, says Booth.

“It is proving that local, relatively small companies on a global scale, can step up to the mark when it comes to producing high-tech products.”

Norwegian company Navico, which bought the marine division of Navman from Brunswick in 2007, is also one of the finalists in the hardware category.

Navico emerged when the two giants in marine electronics, Simrad Yachting and Lowrance Electronics, merged in 2006. Today, Navico’s portfolio of marine electronics and Global Positioning System products are represented in more than 100 countries. Headquartered in Norway, and with 2500 employees globally, the main R&D centre is still in New Zealand.

Auckland-based EROAD has found a niche in the area of Road User Charge (RUC) systems. The company has developed a “world-first” electronic vehicle-charging platform that includes a secure electronic hubodometer, the eHubo, and a bank grade web-based payment gateway, called dEPot. The platform has won the company finalist status in both the hardware and services categories of the Hi-Tech Awards.

EROAD’s platform aims to modernise and solve problems for the $1 billion a year RUC business in New Zealand. The efficient, autonomous system requires no roadside infrastructure and eliminates paper-based processes. Road user operators simply buy their RUC licences online. The licence is then automatically displayed on the eHubo’s LCD screen, mounted in the vehicle.

EROAD’s CEO, Steven Newman, the previous CEO/COO of Navman leads a large development and support team in Albany on Auckland’s North Shore.

The EROAD system has been operating in New Zealand since February this year, when the last of 11 government approvals came through. It took the team about three years to commercialise the idea, Newman says. EROAD is now looking to export the technology. The company is currently conducting a research trial in Sweden and is presenting to decision-makers from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland in May. The overseas opportunities for the company are “humongous”, says Newman. Many OECD countries are looking to introduce RUC systems to solve road maintenance problems, he says. Older RUC systems generally use gantries and other roadside infrastructure. In addition to the costs associated with this, administering the collection of road user charges typically eats up a third of the charges. With EROAD’s system, this cost could be cut down to around 5 percent of total charges, says Newman.

Before closing its North Shore factory, Navico used to manufacture the devices for EROAD. The company now uses a company called QuickCircuit, located “just down the road”, for assembly.

Among the finalists in the Duncan Cotterill Innovative Software Product Award category is Wellington startup iPredict. The product can be described as a place to buy and sell predictions of future political, economic and social events, according to iPredict CEO Matt Burgess.

The software harnesses the “wisdom of crowds” by offering a way for companies to tune into the thoughts of staff. By getting staff to bet on the success of current or planned projects, managers can see what people really think.

“iPredict is a way to cheaply aggregate and quantify opinions on any factual question,” says Burgess. “We use iPredict to aggregate opinions on politics and economics — who will win the next election, how high will interests get this year, and so on — but almost anything can be asked on iPredict software.”

The software can help companies figure out what combination of features on a particular product will maximise sales. Or you can ask for a prediction whether your largest competitors will merge this year, he says.

Market prices on iPredict emerge from the buying and selling of people, and as such reflects the wisdom of crowds, says Burgess. “That is the special sauce that iPredict uses to beat pollsters in elections and official forecasts in companies,” he says.

The company, which is owned by Victoria University and the Institute for the Study of Competition and Regulation, launched in September 2008. The team is now close to rolling out a product where customers can set up their own markets from scratch online in minutes, Burgess says.

Burgess is honoured to be a finalist, he says, and he is hoping that the awards will give the startup exposure.

He sees great opportunities for his company’s technology, both locally and overseas.

“For example, right now there is no forward market in meat and wool commodities in New Zealand. This has real information and hedging costs for farmers, which can be solved with iPredict’s technology in combination with our Securities Commission authorisation to operate these markets,” he claims.

He is aiming to start exporting the technology later this year.

Palmerston North-based Unlimited Realities is an intriguing Kiwi success story. Founded in 1996 by brothers David and Russell Brebner, who still run the business, the creative software company inked a deal with Dell last year in which Unlimited Realities’ Fingertapps touch technology is pre-installed on the multi-touch Dell Studio One 19 PC. Lexus is another global customer that uses the Fingertapps technology.

But that is not all. Video analysis software company Verusco uses Unlimited Realities’ 3D engine, called Umajin, to play back entire games in 3D, allowing for analysis from any player and any angle, says David Brebner.

“The All Blacks now use the engine to analyse games in 3D,” he says.

Another company, Go Virtual Medical, has used the engine to develop an integrated simulator for learning surgical and clinical procedures in virtual reality. The simulator features a combination of pre-rendered anatomy, live action video and real-time 3D to allow surgeons to really immerse themselves in the process of operations.

Among the software finalists is Wellington-based Aptimize, which develops the Aptimize Website Accelerator — a software product that aims to speed up websites and intranets. Aptimize’s Runtime Page Optimiser eliminates the multiple trips between the user’s browser and the server, often necessary to fetch each separate element of a web page.

Auckland-based Wherescape is also quite a success story. Since changing its focus from data warehouse consulting to offering a prototype tool for data warehouses born out of experience, its Wherescape RED has been picked up in the US and UK. Nearly 60 percent of the company’s business is done offshore.

Services finalists tackle enterprise pain points

Among the finalists in the service product category is Christchurch-based Arc Innovations. The company, a business unit of Meridian Energy, develops and manages advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) technology and services. According to the company, Arc Innovations has delivered AMI services to more than 125,000 New Zealand homes and businesses.

EROAD, which is a finalist in both the hardware and service category for its electronic Road User Charge system, has developed an online application that allows users to buy road user licences online, from anywhere at any time. The RUC licence is instantly sent to the in-vehicle eHubo device. When the licence is about to run out, the system will automatically send an alert that it needs to be renewed, making sure users are always compliant. The application also provides integrated RUC management and services, such as vehicle activity monitoring.

“It is a simple solution, really,” says CEO Steven Newman. “But to develop it we had to put together a bank grade application, because of the large amounts of money involved.” The online service has been live since September last year.

Wellington-based research and development company Harmonic develops innovative technology-based solutions for a number of sectors including telecommunications, agriculture and energy companies. Its solutions range from lifecycle management and network performance measurement to planning and designing interactive tools. What is slightly different about Harmonic is that it involves expert partners in its project teams to develop solutions. The company frequently works with experts from the industry, government and research sectors.

Auckland startup Litmos, founded in 2007, has developed a new learning management system (LMS) that is quick to set up and easy to manage, according to the company. Customer service and “keeping things simple” is at the core of this Devonport-based company.

The system enables users to build and manage professional-looking online courses by themselves. The hosted training system means users don’t need help from the IT department to set it up, says the company. Training administrators have access to real-time reporting allowing them to see when students have completed their training and their scores.

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