Philip Fierlinger, Upstock

Our region hosts some very familiar companies – Bostock, Rockit Apple, WineWorks, Now, Furnware, Unison, Yummyfruit, Pan Pac. But for every one of those, a host of remarkable – but largely unknown – others are beavering away, some proven, some at the exciting starting gate. All evidence of Hawke’s Bay’s full business depth and potential. Here are some lesser-knowns, profiled by Simon Shattky. Future ‘nominees’ to include are welcome!

[As published in Jan/Feb BayBuzz magazine.]

Ready to order

I’d never heard of Upstock to be honest, and Havelock North founder Phil Fierlinger, wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Upstock isn’t for you and me, unless you’re in the food service trade. It’s sort of an online place for ‘shops to shop’. With Upstock, gone are the days of a chef scribbling an unreadable note by the phone reminding someone to order more eggs, only to discover later that someone else had already done it. 

Upstock is deceptively simple, as most clever things are, and no surprises really, from someone who used to be Head of Design for Xero, a company once described by Forbes as the most innovative growth company in the world. “Design isn’t just about making things look pretty,” Phil explains. “It’s about making things useful and usable.” 

The way Phil tells it, Upstock happened by chance. A mate who is involved with the iconic ‘Foxton Fizz’ brand was looking for a simplified way to streamline his ordering for his customers and got Phil to look into it. “My first thought,” he explains “was, oh this is an e-commerce solution, there’s plenty of those.” Turns out there wasn’t, at least not for businesses, and so, well here we are. 

At its most basic, Upstock helps save time and waste, which in the food industry can be massive. One UN report estimated that if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest carbon emitter in the world. 

But beyond inventory management the real genius of Upstock is the marketplace it creates. With over 30,000 buyers connecting with 1,000 or so suppliers and over 100,000 different products, buyers have a whole new product line-up to choose from, and sellers get in front of a whole new customer set. In the Bay, companies like Bostock are sellers and Bellatinos are buyers, whereas Brave Brewing and Bay Espresso are both.

Having always used a recipe as a loose guide, with varying degrees of success, I press Phil to see if there’s a consumer version in the works. Sadly not. “Consumer behaviour is quite different,” says Phil politely. “Retail customers have a different set of expectations to the wholesale trade.” Which I pick up as code for ‘we’re difficult’. 

In any case there’s enough to keep Phil and the Upstock team of 26 more than busy. Roughly 10% of the business is in Australia, and in 2024 they’re gearing up for a big push into the states. Onwards, and very much upwards.

Biowaste to protein

There’s no signage on the nondescript building that is home to Mara Bio in the middle of Hastings. 

Steve Boggs and Mark Balchin have got no frills down to a fine art at their exciting start-up, as we sit on mis-matched chairs, comforting I’m sure, to any investor or bank – unless they didn’t get to sit in the ‘good’ chair which was offered to me. 

It’s a bit deceiving though, considering the high-tech nature of what they’re up to. 

They have developed a process that uses edible fungal organisms and fermentation to create natural proteins and fibre in a sustainable way from what Steve describes as food industry ‘side streams’. 

“It’s actually waste product,” he explains, when I quiz him further on what a side stream is, “but waste doesn’t sound very appetising.” I asked Steve to explain further. “Companies that juice apples, press grapes, process vegetables or even brew beers produce a huge amount of waste product, like pulp, skin and grains, that would probably go to landfill or animal feed.” It’s this raw product that Mara Bio will take, adding a natural and native fungal organism. Through a fermentation process, the waste is turned into protein that can then be added to say, oat milk to create ice cream, or flour for pasta, or just a high value protein supplement. 

The implications are huge. 

“Food security is a massive issue” explains Mark. “Protein is getting harder and more expensive to produce.” Having just walked past the dairy chiller at the supermarket, the point Mark makes is obvious. 

“Producing plant-based proteins such as pea and soy isn’t much better,” he explains, highlighting sustainability and the insecurity of global freshwater supply which will no doubt be felt when El Niño finally hits. 

The third team member, who I’m betting is their secret weapon, is Maya. Well, Dr Tangestani to be completely accurate. She is an experienced scientist and biotechnologist with a PhD in microbiology from Canterbury University, who joined Mark and Steve after falling in love with the Bay on a road trip. Serendipity brought them all together, and it’s Maya’s job to isolate the perfect organism and refine the process, so that Mara Bio can commercialise production on a whole range of products. 

It’s early days and getting to market is a few years away yet. But even with everything they’re not telling me, the positive signs are all there.

Pet fine dining 

Rob Achten used to be creative director of Icebreaker prior to setting up ‘Animals like Us’ with another local Craig Hickson, and Icebreaker founder Jeremy Moon. 

“I sort of had two ideas in my head,” says Rob as he recounts the birth of the company. “The first, was that pet food looked awful. You should be able to see what’s in it. Sort of like muesli.” 

I’m about to ask if looking like muesli was really all that important to dogs, or even cats, but Rob is quick to point out that it’s for the owner’s benefit. They’ve done extensive research on this trend called humanisation. “It’s where we treat our pets like people, like part of the family,” explains Rob, hence the Animals like Us name. “We want our pets to eat better too,” he adds. 

For cats and dogs this means raw, and it’s taken Rob and the team ages to develop the unique formula of kibble and freeze-dried raw organs that’s not only nutritious for pets, but convenient for the owners. They’ve done more research on this too. With customers, and also consumers, using colonies of cats and dogs located in a specially designed facility at Massey University that measures palatability. 

It’s probably this simple fact of doing their homework that has given the company its edge. 

In 2022 the pet food market was worth over US$100 billion dollars globally. At this scale, even a tiny product differentiation can have a huge impact. “It’s the supply chain that has proven the most challenging,” he says, that and scaling up, which along with product development is an ongoing process. Freeze dried raw pet food is expensive, but Rob reckons they’ve found the pricing sweet spot for the product that’s made locally in Waipukurau. 

“Covid didn’t help” he adds. Sure, but never waste a crisis, right? The pandemic did help them pivot from Asia, where apparently cats are more a thing, often with a young female consumer, and largely due to high density apartment living; to the US market, which Rob, who has just returned from the states, explains is more like New Zealand. “They’re more outdoorsy, and they love their dogs.” 

And the dogs, Rob is betting, are going to love Animals like Us. 

Touching business

Luke Irving is hungry. Literally. I ask about a coffee, but he needs food. 

I’ve grabbed him between calls, and while I go for a long black, Luke tucks enthusiastically into a Kindred Road Tuna sammy. 

Fingermark Photo Simon Shattky

I find it interesting, because in these times of the highly managed public image, many CEO’s would probably stay hungry until after I’d left. It’s a small observation but telling nonetheless: Luke Irving is very comfortable with who he is. 

By his own admission, he failed pretty much everything at school. “The learning environment just didn’t suit me.” he reckons. Which isn’t entirely true. As a Palmy Boys High fourth former, Luke impressively convinced not just the School board, but McDonald’s big wigs to let him open a franchise in place of the school’s ‘rather shitty’ tuck shop. It won Luke a Young Enterprise award, putting a decent amount of walking around money in the shorts pocket of the ambitious teen. 

This is telling too: I doubt there’s much Luke Irving couldn’t sell you. 

I’m betting it’s this quiet determination that very much drives Fingermark, the technology company he founded. Luke’s fascination with touch screen technology led to the development of an automated shoe selector for Rebel Sport. That opened a global opportunity with Subway, which didn’t go anywhere, leading to one with Restaurant brands, which did. 

Their mastery of touch screen systems caught the eye of the American parent Yum, who worldwide own KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. As you read this, Fingermark are in the middle of a massive rollout of self-service kiosks and digital menus to well over 10,000 locations worldwide. 

The new shiny thing is something called IQ tech, which uses cameras and AI to help staff anticipate customer needs at the drive through. The next time those fries come through the window super quick, it’s a safe bet to say that Fingermark technology is behind it. IQ sort of completes their metamorphosis into a data company.

There’s something big coming down the pipe too, but Luke won’t be drawn on what. “It’ll be a bit of a coup though,” he teases. When you hear it come from the mouth of the guy who brought the Golden Arches to Palmy Boys High, you should have no doubt about it. 

Winds of change 

It’s an appropriately chilly morning when I visit Frost Fans, so I assume Andrew will be in a good mood, given that it’s mornings like this the fans earn their keep. And then some. 

‘The fans’ that Andrew Priest and the crew make, branded FrostBoss, protect delicate crops on the mornings when the mercury falls to around zero. Everything from grapes to cherries, lavender – even a ready-lawn outfit over in the ‘lucky country’ – all have escaped certain death thanks to what goes on in the shiny new Omahu Rd facility. 

There’s close to a couple of thousand FrostBoss fans in the Bay alone, each one protecting up to eight hectares of crop. “Ours are the four or five blade ones,” Andrew is quick to point out. “The difference” he adds helpfully, “means less noise and they’re more fuel efficient.” The sleek blade profile is the work of their designer, who used to help make the boat go faster for Team New Zealand, and who just might know quite a bit about efficiency in relation to aerodynamics. 

Design isn’t the only difference though. Sensors trigger the fans the minute they sense imminent danger from Mr Frost, like when a home security system triggers an outdoor light. Andrew’s app offers growers the same peace of mind, although obviously it’s not movement that triggers action, but temperature. 

He’s quite serious when he talks about it reducing stress. 

Global boiling isn’t just about heat, but climate disruption, with weather events being harder to predict. The alternative for a farmer is waking up at half past silly o’clock, wondering if there’s enough in the kitty to get a helicopter to move the still, cold dawn air around. Or risk losing everything. Such is the price of going into business with God. 

Equally tricky and inefficient is spraying the young crops with water. “It sounds counter-intuitive,” says Andrew, “but the water freezes around the fruit, protecting it.” The downside of course, is the need for a plentiful water supply. 

Rather ironically, it’s climate uncertainty that means a more assured future for Frost Fans. They’re already selling fans in every hemisphere. There’s an electric version in the works. For growers in France’s famed Loire Valley, a UNESCO heritage site, they have designed hydraulic FrostBoss units that lie down and hide from view when not in use. Still recognisable though. They’re the ones with four blades. Or five. 

Photos: Simon Shattky


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