Hawke’s Bay has always been a hot-bed of innovation.
Published records of inventions developed here stretch as far back as the mid-1880s. Napier architect and engineer Otto Peez’s centre bit mortise lock made headlines in the NZ Herald in 1886 and in more recent years, the region has gained international recognition with inventions from ergonomic furniture to mini apples. Hawke’s Bay designers are creating everything from tiny widgets to large scale robotic machines involving high-level technology and invention that is putting the region front and centre on the national tech map.
Dave France is the chair of Hi-Tech Hawke’s Bay, a group with a mandate to create a ‘dynamic world-class hi-tech ecosystem’.
Hi-Tech Hawke’s Bay connects tech specialists across all sectors to attract, retain and develop talent to meet the needs of business, while building hi-tech innovation and knowledge to help businesses scale up or ‘tech-up’ for future growth. The network is designed to “foster connection and collaboration” and share knowledge across the sector and with educators and employers.
At last count, there were 240 members made up from large tech companies, entrepreneurs and experts across the tech spectrum. Dave says there is an “exciting mix” of companies whose technologies include software, IoT (Internet of Things), data analytics, AI (Artificial Intelligence), machine learning, robotics, augmented and visual reality alongside technology specialists and training providers such as EIT.
“There’s a wide range of people in the group including some big names such as Pan Pac and Napier Port, and also a strong base of businesses that support our automation industry such as RBE Hortworx, CR Automation and MHM Automation. All are looking to develop automation to create efficiencies for businesses,” says Dave.
According to the latest TechNZ report, there are just under 500 firms in the Hawke’s Bay tech sector, a number that includes high tech manufacturing and ICT (information and communication technologies), employing more than 1,500 people. Those numbers however are likely to be conservative, as many manufacturing, processing and other businesses will have a technology arm developing their own bespoke solutions and software. And a lot of the time, they fly under the radar.
What is hi-tech?
Pinpointing exactly what constitutes a tech company or indeed its ‘hi-tech’ relation is difficult. Hi-tech covers everything from smart technology embedded in machinery to intelligent manufacturing and production systems, telecommunications, software and digital development and much more.
“If you break it down into sectors, you have quite a number of SaaS (Software as a Service) businesses developing in Hawke’s Bay including Ask Your Team, Re-leased and StockX. Businesses specialising in AI and machine learning include prominent local business and 2020 New Zealand Hi-Tech Company of the Year finalist, Fingermark, who is a global leader in this space. Many other local businesses are embedding automation and robotics in their manufacturing, processing and primary sector production processes to improve efficiencies, quality, safety and traceability.
“There are also businesses using the Internet of Things (IoT) to gather data and turn it into useful information. IoT is a network of digital sensors, online portals and apps that collect and exchange data over the internet. Examples are water and climatic sensor information developed by Hawke’s Bay companies HortPlus and MyEnviro.”
There are also businesses conquering new frontiers, including aerospace tech company Rocket Lab that uses Mahia in northern Hawke’s Bay as its launch pad and satellite preparation facility. The company also actively promotes careers in aerospace through its scholarship programme. A Rocket Lab education centre will be created in Wairoa thanks to a $6 million PGF grant, which will also see a digital employment programme and a new digital hub established in the town.
“It’s hard to define tech as one thing,” says Dave. “We’re moving fast as a region and even the most traditional industries are using or developing digital capabilities in some form or another. We still have to plant, grow and harvest and sell fruit, but with technology we are improving old systems to optimise every aspect: harvesting, quality, yield, packaging and marketing. We are adding technology to make processes smarter, to deliver to the consumer more efficiently to save costs or improve revenue. Across all industries it’s a case of speed up or get left behind.”
Hawke’s Bay is also a haven of New Zealand where tech entrepreneurs are increasingly choosing to base themselves and their businesses. Xero founder Rod Drury has not only been instrumental in moving Hawke’s Bay’s tech sector forward, but decided to house a Xero office in the Ahuriri Tech Collective, which is also home to tech businesses NOW, WebFox and Re-leased.
A breeding ground
Dave has a theory about why Hawke’s Bay has produced so many tech entrepreneurs and new tech businesses.
“Hawke’s Bay has always been a fertile breeding ground for innovators, who traditionally came out of agribusiness and industries like Wattie’s and meat processing – large companies that had lots of engineers or techies. They are creative, clever people – geniuses in their own right – and they can build anything. It speaks to our primary sector DNA, our entrepreneurial culture and our can-do mentality to solve problems. Combine that skill base with a digital skill base and you’ve got something really unique.”
Dave says using technology to make intuitive solutions or using data to mimic what a human brain can do will drive the sector forward. Robotics will continue to make its impact felt, especially when it comes to streamlining hazardous or repetitive tasks. And while most people have got their heads around virtual reality, there are other buzz words on the street including the potential of augmented reality (AR).
AR is a technology that superimposes digital content such as images or text over real-life scenes. AR captured the world’s attention in 2016 when the game Pokémon Go made it possible to interact with Pokémon superimposed on the world via a smartphone screen. AR will become commonplace for training purposes, enabling people to learn skills through an interactive screen rather than in a specific workplace.
Hi-Tech Hawke’s Bay also has a cluster group focused on the horticulture robotics and automation space. The group is collaborating, finding synergies between them and sharing what they want to achieve.
“Building trust between businesses where they can sit down and have an open discussion about areas they could share tech or source it collaboratively,” says Dave. “It’s putting people from different backgrounds and disciplines in a room and finding tech solutions and connectivity to progress both parties.”
Dave is also helping the group to access the right skills, talent and funding. Demand for people with essential skills is high in the region, and part of Dave’s remit is to build a pipeline of people with those skills, with vocational training playing a key part. “Vocational education is vital to fill the pipeline, from operational roles, programmers and talented people who can translate blue sky ideas into reality.”
He adds, “We are lucky that Hawke’s Bay is such a nice place to live and when people who were born and raised here come home, they bring their skills with them. Others, such as Fingermark’s Luke Irving and Xero’s Rod Drury, choose to call Hawke’s Bay home. Both people coming back home and those who have picked Hawke’s Bay as their new home bring a great richness of knowledge into the region and add diversity to what we do.”
The Puhoro STEM is an Iwi-led organisation commencing delivery of its programmes Hawke’s Bay in 2021, following success in Christchurch, Manawatū and South Auckland. Puhoro is working to develop a community of future Māori technologists, engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, innovators and thought-pioneers by going into schools and helping 60 rangitahi or young people to develop their tech skills and talent.
To build further depth in our Hi-tech ecosystem in Hawke’s Bay will need investment. While Callaghan Innovation provides R&D funding for individual businesses, a larger vision of industry transformation will need central and private sector funding to support growth in our tech sector.
“AgriTechNZ, MBIE and local government support are essential,” says Dave. “It’s about stamping the Hawke’s Bay mark, identifying our point of difference in the tech space. One example is to become the go-to trial region for testing sustainable agritech technologies in New Zealand with our diverse range of pipfruit, kiwifruit, stone fruit, vegetable crops and agricultural industries.
“We want to increase productivity in our region and that is driven through talent, technology, innovation and investment. If you can get those four things bedded, that’s what will drive the machine and grow our innovation community.
“Are we Silicon Valley? No. But the future is blindingly bright for Hawke’s Bay to become known as a national hi-tech centre and innovation hub.”