Tech start-up a life calling for award-winner

University of Otago and Wayfinder founder Julia Imo. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
University of Otago and Wayfinder founder Julia Imo. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
"It was like making diamonds under pressure."

Julia Imo was describing how she came up with her business idea while dealing with mental health issues.

Earlier this week, the University of Otago bioengineering student won the premier award at Startup Dunedin’s semester one Audacious showcase for her business idea Wayfinder — a piece of technology, fitted into a shoe, designed to predict and track a person’s mental health through gait analysis, the assessment of someone’s walking or running habits.

The 29-year-old, whose parents are Samoan, was born in the Auckland suburb of Papakura and moved to Sydney at a young age.

The path that led her back to New Zealand was "a bit unconventional".

"It seems to be you go to school, then to university and finally get a 9-to-5 job but that wasn’t my thing ...

"I discovered my life’s purpose, serving the Pasifika community," she said.

After leaving secondary school, Miss Imo got a job working at her family’s construction business and stayed for about four years.

She then moved to Bond University on the Gold Coast, initially studying business — "I dropped out, thought it was a bit boring".

She eventually switched to a biomedicine degree and "loved it".

After graduating, she landed a job at Spanish medical start-up Randox, designing type 1 diabetes technology, based in Sydney.

It is a job she credits for gaining a lot of experience and confidence.

Miss Imo then moved to an Australian global diagnostics company.

In that job in 2019, she attended a toxicology conference in Adelaide — her breakthrough moment.

She was sitting through a presentation about the use of cannabinoids in New Zealand which identified that Maori and Pasifika people were the majority of users, which ended up affecting their mental health.

"I was sitting in a room with 300 people, no-one else was Maori or Pasifika, and I realised those were my people.

"They were just turning them into a statistic and I felt like I had to do something to help."

Miss Imo spoke to a researcher after the presentation about the idea she had to create Wayfinder.

"I wanted to let people know we are more than just a statistic, more than just a number."

About a month later, she quit her job and moved to New Zealand, ending up in Hamilton.

She started volunteering at a local kitchen, The Serve, and never wanted to leave the city.

"I could have gone to Wellington, but Hamilton was where it all started for me and no regrets whatsoever."

After two years in Waikato, she knew it was time to try to commercialise her idea for Wayfinder and moved to the Dunedin in February to study a postgraduate course in bioengineering.

Not long after arriving, she saw the Audacious programme on social media and applied.

At Wednesday night’s showcase, Miss Imo also won the best positive impact award and the people’s choice award.

Wayfinder, named in honour of her ancestors, was not just a business to her — "it’s my purpose, it’s my calling".