Otago companies up for Hi-Tech Awards

Starboard Maritime Intelligence can track every vessel on the planet in both real time and...
Starboard Maritime Intelligence can track every vessel on the planet in both real time and throughout history. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
The very best of the hi-tech sector will be on show in Auckland tomorrow night at the 2024 Hi-Tech Awards. Business editor Sally Rae catches up with the southern finalists.

Alexandra is a long way from the ocean.

Yet a start-up business with its origins in the Central Otago town is making waves in the global maritime world, tracking up to 500,000 vessels globally at any one time.

Through a combination of global automatic identification system (AIS) data, multiple layers of satellite data, scientific models and other information or intelligence, Starboard Maritime Intelligence (SMI) can track every vessel on the planet in real time and throughout history.

It is one of four companies with southern roots which are finalists in this week’s 2024 Hi-Tech Awards. A sellout crowd of more than 1200 is expected to attend the gala dinner at Spark Arena in Auckland tomorrow night.

SMI is a finalist in three categories; Hi-Tech Startup Company of the Year, Most Innovative Hi-Tech Solution for a More Sustainable Future, and Most Innovative Hi-Tech Software Solution.

This week, Wellington-based chief executive Trent Fulcher said he was very grateful for the company’s origin story out of Alexandra. While he quipped it was a long way from the ocean, people and opportunities came out of the town, as they did in other regional centres.

SMI’s predecessor, the Centre for Space Science Technology — which was later rebranded as Xerra Earth Observation Institute Ltd — was established as a regional research institute in 2017.

Its mission was to help businesses, industries, government and the research community access new and existing electro-optical (EO) imagery and data and develop EO data products and solutions specific to users’ needs.

Chris Mackle
Chris Mackle
But it was not able to build a sustainable business model until it identified a "massive opportunity" in the maritime space which was where SMI — which was launched about three years ago — was born out of, Mr Fulcher said.

The platform allowed governments, border security teams, non-government organisations and fisheries organisations to track maritime activities including drug smuggling, illegal fishing and biosecurity risks , and ensuring valuable assets like telecommunications cables were not damaged.

Its first customer was the Ministry for Primary Industries in the biosecurity space and it had grown from there. It was a virtual business with 26 staff throughout the country, including Alexandra, and it was about to hire more sales staff based in the US and Australia.

The company recently undertook a $5 million capital raise, where one of the investors was Invest South, the southern fund which supports local business seeking capital and expertise for growth.

That raise was all about growth and scale, Mr Fulcher said.

Asked if anyone else in the world was doing what the company was doing, he said many had tried but only had a partial solution.

In the fisheries space, it was a market leader and, in asset protection, it appeared to have a leading product.

Mr Fulcher, who joined the company two years ago, previously worked with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise where he supported New Zealand export businesses navigating the complexities brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

He described himself as having the time of his life, saying it was the "funnest business" he had been involved in; there were very smart people and it was a really good working environment.

Queenstown’s Brad Hurndell is no stranger to the Hi-Tech Awards, having enjoyed success through his previous role as chief executive at Shotover Camera Systems (SCS).

He left SCS in 2022 to set up his own start-up, Immortal Camera Systems (ICS), where his focus was on customised stabilisation for film and television.

ICS is a finalist for Most Innovative Hi-Tech Hardware Production and Most Innovative Hi-Tech Creative Technology Solution.

Brad Hurndell, of Immortal Camera Systems, and the jet used to film the blockbuster movie Top Gun...
Brad Hurndell, of Immortal Camera Systems, and the jet used to film the blockbuster movie Top Gun Maverick.
Mr Hurndell, who has been in the United States this month and flies back in time for tomorrow’s award function, said it was "super cool" to be acknowledged.

Asked why he entered, he said it was great to benchmark against not only competitors, but also other businesses in New Zealand, and it was recognition for staff and their families, customers, the customers of customers, and suppliers.

"A whole big team makes a business run, especially a hi-tech business."

While filming in general globally was "very up and down", his business — which had a team of six — was doing well.

He was in the US testing a new system with its first customer, Xbrand, and the jet, pilot and aerial director used to film box office success Top Gun Maverick was used.

He was in the jet doing the testing and it was humbling to be working with the "best people in the world making amazing cinematography", particularly when they were saying it was the best tool they had used.

Looking ahead, he was keen to transition from a start-up to a "proper business", including growing the team, he said.

It could be tricky to get the right staff, even in a big city, but especially in Queenstown where housing had been a challenge and there was a reduced number of people post-Covid. Fortunately, being small, it was not about hiring that many people.

He and his family loved the resort town, Mr Hurndell said.

Paul Hansen
Paul Hansen
It was where they wanted to stay and build a business, which would hopefully be a generational business.

Being named as a finalist in Hi-Tech Emerging Company of the Year still has not sunk in for Chris Mackle, the co-founder of Wofo which is understood to be New Zealand’s first share economy platform devoted to the healthcare sector.

Wofo was developed by Mr Mackle and Andrew Wills in 2018 as a solution to quickly and efficiently connect workers with employers across a range of industries, including hospitality, construction, cleaning and event management. The pair later decided to focus solely on healthcare.

Mr Mackle said Otago was a region that was punching above its weight and he was delighted to see other companies in the region make the final.

Wofo was pushing into the Australian market at the moment and the recognition came as a confidence booster, he said.

It added legitimacy to what they were doing and also removed any self-doubt.

"It’s pretty exciting. We’re well positioned this year to exceed what we were doing last year as well," he said.

Decision-making software company 1000minds is a finalist in Most Innovative Hi-Tech Software Solution.

Since its establishment in 2003, 1000minds has been helping people make decisions. Latterly, the company had built AI into the software to help people get started to make their decisions.

AI was something that people were "excited by and terrified of", fearing it took control from them but, in the case of using it via 1000minds, people were "fully in control", 1000minds co-founder Prof Paul Hansen said.

The teams at 1000minds was spread around the world; two in Dunedin, three in Wellington, two in the Ukraine — they had to leave online team meetings when air raid sirens were going off — one in the United States and one in Guatemala but Dunedin was its roots and "100% where it started", he said.

The Hi-Tech Awards were the "absolute pinnacle" of Australasian recognition and it meant "so much" to be a finalist,