PowerbyProxi is powered up but people-poor

After failing to find engineering talent in New Zealand, company is now looking for staff offshore

Three years ago, PowerbyProxi was a three-man start-up based in The Icehouse, the University of Auckland’s business incubator. It was founded in 2007 by Bachelor of Commerce and Engineering graduate Fady Mishriki together with seasoned entrepreneur Greg Cross.

Today, PowerbyProxi has offices in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour and in Cincinnati, Ohio, US. The company employs 20 staff and is actively looking to hire more.

One of the start-up’s biggest challenges is the being able to source good engineers in New Zealand. After failing to find staff locally the company has advertised internationally. The company is looking for engineers with a power electronics or embedded systems background. In addition to technical ability, they have to think innovatively, as well as interact with customers and stay focused on the customer’s needs, Mishriki says.

“There is a real shortage at the moment. I know we train a heck of a lot of engineers at university. But I don’t know where they all have gone, they are certainly not in New Zealand.”

The company develops wireless power technology for the unplugged powering-up of, for example, industrial robots and wind turbines, as well as wireless charging of smaller devices, such as cellphones. The company’s first break was a deal with US agricultural machinery giant John Deere, which became both an investor in the start-up and its biggest client.

Besides heavy machinery and industrial robotics, the wind turbine sector has become a strong focus for the company. Spain is the third-largest wind turbine market in the world, says Mishriki who has been to that country at least half a dozen times in the past year, he says.

“We are doing a number of trials over there with some of the leading maintenance service providers and OEMs, and Siemens is one of them,” he says.

The trials focus on replacing old, conventional slip rings with PowerbyProxi’s wireless technology. The challenge with wind-generation has always been maintenance costs, he says. Slip rings use brush contacts to transfer power and data to the pitch-control systems in the hub of the turbine, in order to improve power output in changing wind conditions, Mishriki says.

The standard, friction-based systems need replacing every three years and also require cleaning and maintenance on an annual basis, he says. PowerbyProxi’s products can provide a 10-year-life, maintenance-free, which helps increase uptime and cut maintenance costs, he says.

“The cost of maintaining and replacing a conventional slip ring is astronomical on a 30-turbine farm,” he says. “We have estimated it is up to $500,000 a year [for a 30-turbine farm].”

And that is only a small farm, most farms in Spain would have hundreds of turbines, he adds.

The company is also involved in a number of other projects in different industries and is working with eight of the world’s largest companies, says Mishriki. He is unable to give any information other than that the company has five customers in the Fortune 100 (the top 100 of Fortune magazine’s annual Fortune 500 list) and eight customers in the Fortune 1000.

More than 90 percent of the [company’s] revenue is export revenue. He is reluctant to reveal numbers, but says revenue has doubled every year since the company started in 2007. PowerbyProxi has also raised capital from investment groups Movac and Evander Management.

Greg Cross, the company’s executive chairman and cofounder has previously held positions such as managing director of Microsoft New Zealand and CEO of Advantage Group. He is also the chairman at SLI Systems and The Icehouse. His experience has been instrumental to the company’s development, says Mishriki. The pair met through The Icehouse.

“I guess we ‘dated’ for a while before deciding to set up the company together,” he says.

“Greg is my business partner and cofounder, but also my mentor,” he says. “I think it is a great model for young entrepreneurs to partner with more senior, experienced entrepreneurs.”

There are many successful partnerships built on that concept – for example Google, with the two young cofounders and veteran chairman Eric Schmidt for “adult supervision”, he says.

Kunal Bhargava, a fellow engineering student at Auckland University and now PowerbyProxi’s product development manager, was also part of the company from the start. The company ‘graduated’ from the business incubator and moved to the office in Fanshawe Street in central Auckland two years ago. Mishriki spends his time between New Zealand, the US and Europe, travelling every six weeks, he says.

PowerbyProxi currently offers 16 wireless power products to customers, which is quite a few compared to its competition, he claims.

“Being able to develop and support that range of products is our greatest achievement, but it was a huge challenge to get there.”

The company initially licensed the IP from the University of Auckland and a licence is still in place, however all the products developed by the company since have their own IP, he says.

Mishriki was also involved with founding Spark, a student-led entrepreneurship challenge in partnership with the University of Auckland Business School and The Icehouse. He was involved for five years, first as team lead, then CEO and chair. Now he is informally involved, giving presentations and offering support.

“Spark is something I am very passionate about,” he says. “It is a way to give back and stay connected to the university.”

Mishriki grew up in Bahrain, a country he describes as “very business minded”.

“Entrepreneurship was always in my upbringing. At university I had the opportunity to get involved in Spark and at that point I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

One of the lessons learnt along the way is that everything takes longer than you expect, especially when dealing with large companies, he says.

“When we secured our first customer, I [had previously] looked at how long I thought it would take and then doubled it. That was still not long enough.”

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