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The rise and rise of Māori tech businesses

“Everyone talks about technology innovation as if it’s only just arrived. It has been around forever.” – Ian Taylor.

As a proud Māori, Ian explained recently that technology and innovation are in our Māori DNA. He certainly knows what he’s talking about as founder of Animation Research, a Dunedin built company covering sports events all over the world with cutting edge technology and animation. His achievements were recently acknowledged with a CIO Award for Outstanding Contribution to Technology and Business.

Our ancestors built tools and waka, sailing across the planet using the stars and oceans to guide them. Ian knows that the key to getting more Māori hopping on the modern technology waka is to reignite the innovation in our genes.

‘Techifying’ the Māori economy

We know the Māori economy sits on a solid asset base worth an estimated $50 billion, and contributes $26.6 billion to New Zealand’s GDP. These efforts have largely been focused on land and sea though. We still have a big job ahead to get more Māori organisations - and other types of Kiwi businesses for that matter - up with the tech play and also investing in technology opportunities.

Last year for the first time the Technology Investment Network (TIN) profiled the Māori tech ecosystem, reporting a strong and diverse pipeline of up-and-coming companies. Māori TIN companies made a $93 million contribution to the tech sector in 2017, and this will no doubt grow significantly over time.

Companies like Healthcare Applications, led by Morris Pita, were highlighted in the report as ones to watch. The firm won this year’s Public Good Hi-Tech Award with its Emergency Q platform. In 11 months its pilot saved 25,000 hours of patients’ time, ultimately reducing Emergency Department congestion by 11 percent.

At Callaghan Innovation we’re seeing firsthand the broadening of Māori entrepreneurship into technology-driven ventures. We’ve had a 20 percent increase in Māori business customers over the past 12 months, as well as more companies moving up into our heavy-hitting growth group. In general, our customers are high-impact technology and science-driven businesses, which says a lot about the trend.

What is the definition of success?

For me, the unique and highly valuable thread joining our Māori tech businesses together, is that they all set out to solve a problem and they all naturally want their business model to provide social benefit. This natural motivation is a perfect foundation when you think about consumers increasingly making purchasing decisions based on social conscience measures.

NZ Trade Group, for example, was formed by three sparkies wanting to make life easier for their peers who couldn’t afford expensive smart software, couldn’t buy products at bulk prices, and needed help with how to run a successful trade business. Their comprehensive support platform is now helping a 110 business membership from Kaitaia to Invercargill get on top of things and get ahead. Banqer who won 2018 Hi-Tech Start-up Company of the Year is another example, improving financial literacy in the community with its hands-on software platform.

This need to give back to the community is also why Kōkiri, the first Māori accelerator programme launched last year, redefined its measure of success so it’s not merely about attracting investment or growing a business to a point where it can be sold for a profit. For its startups, success factors can also involve nurturing a sustainable business, solving social problems, bringing income into a community or employing local people.

And the accelerator has seen a wide range of startups through its programme, from an integrated moving app, to a process turning dydimo into fashion materials. One of this year’s Kokiri startups, Hikurangi Enterprises, saw so much interest in its Pledge Me share offer a few months ago that it ‘broke the internet’. Well, technically it overloaded the PledgeMe servers, temporarily halting activity. Eventually it doubled its fundraising goal, raising $2m in a matter of days.

It is most known for medicinal cannabis but we’re watching Hikurangi Enterprise’s broader research into a range of bioactives. Its founder’s vision is to turn around the high unemployment rate in Ruatōria by facilitating a medicinal cannabis science and training ecosystem. The company is already making dents in this noble mission nurturing locals with technical experience and skills in cultivation, extraction, manufacturing and analysis.

Challenges ahead

But there is much more work to be done and lots of opportunity to realise through better use of technology and targeted investment in R&D. Some are predicting 30-50 percent of our current jobs will disappear over the next decade, disrupted by automation. Given our current and common types employment, Māori will feel this disruption deeply.

And while Māori do have an innovative flair, we face a common challenge of taking our ideas to the next level, and ultimately through to commercialisation where they earn sustainable revenue and create jobs. That’s why a big focus for us is building business capability, connecting networks, supporting deeper R&D, and providing co-funding.

But these early stage enterprises can take inspiration from successful Māori businesses now making their mark on the world stage. Robotics Plus for example recently signed a huge US deal which will see its smart apple packing systems push through the international market.

Getting more of our businesses on this technology waka will help us create skilled jobs that will take us into a confident future.

New Zealand should have great aspirations for the new generation of Māori businesses, we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. If we are to keep up with, and thrive amid global change, we need to tap into the innovation in our blood by getting comfortable with technology as a problem solver, a future career, and a way to create positive social change. We need to think big, and this means turning our challenges into opportunities.

Aroha leads a team of dedicated Māori business innovation advisors at Callaghan Innovation, New Zealand’s innovation agency. The team provides science and innovation advice to ambitious businesses of all sizes, as well as connecting them to science and technical expertise, R&D co-funding, commercialisation support, and local and international opportunities.

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