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New Zealand's top 10 influences for 2011

Published 10 October 2011, from unlimited

Privahini Bradoo

Privahini Bradoo

Talk about being on a fast track. Priv Bradoo is one of those people whose accomplishments, when reeled off, can make your head spin.

An edited highlights package would show: arrived from Oman to study at the University of Auckland aged 16; completed a first class honours Bachelor of Technology programme in just three years, during which time she also discovered a passion for entrepreneurship and served as the inaugural CEO of student-initiated innovation competition Spark.

Okay, take a deep breath now. Then, continue: completed her PhD under Sir Peter Gluckman at the Liggins institute aged just 24; graduated MBA at Harvard; managed business development for cleantech outfit Lanzatech and, finally, became founding CEO of San Francisco-based Biomine, a venture focused on extracting valuable metals from discarded electronics (e-waste). For that last effort, she took top honours in the 2011 Harvard MBA alumni new venture contest.

Geoff Whitcher, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Auckland, mentored Bradoo for much of that time.

"Priv has got it all. Very smart, very empathetic, catches on very quickly, creative, and has an enormous breadth of knowledge, both technically and increasingly on the business side."

Whitcher characterises Bradoo as a role model for a new breed of entrepreneurial scientist capable of making a big difference to New Zealand. "She's shown other students at Auckland, whether they be technologists, engineers or scientists, that you can become business-savvy."

On the line from San Francisco, Bradoo says those two worlds of business and science aren't quite as far apart as commonly imagined. "We tend to define entrepreneurialism as being about starting a business. I think it's more about a mindset that you can have as a scientist, an engineer, an artist, to be opportunistic and seek the best outcomes for your ideas."

But what about her ongoing influence? Is Priv Bradoo destined to be one of those New Zealanders who does all her best work overseas?

She says she is committed to New Zealand and sees an ongoing role as a mentor and motivator. She returns frequently and was recently a keynote speaker at an Auckland technology conference.

"I feel really strongly about it. When I got done with business school the first company I led the commercialisation of was Lanzatech, a New Zealand-based cleantech startup. I'd love to stay involved, and to help to shape the future of science entreneurship and leadership in New Zealand."

— Matt Philp

Geoff Whitcher

Geoff Whitcher

Photography and video: Jason Dorday

Some bright spark suggested that if we'd cloned Geoff Whitcher we would have a whole generation of young Kiwi entrepreneurs taking the world by storm.

His official title - director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at the University of Auckland Business School - doesn't describe the half of it. Whitcher is responsible for spreading the spirit of entrepreneurialism throughout the school with programmes like the Spark Entrepreneurial Challenge, which has nurtured the creation of more than 75 companies selling into 22 countries.

Between them, Spark's offspring have raised more than $50 million funding. You ain't seen nothing yet. Mention a recent column claiming New Zealand missed the Knowledge Wave and Whitcher sighs. The Knowledge Wave conference in 2001 was supposed to spark development of a high value, knowledge-based economy.

Good things take time, says Whitcher, who reckons we are almost at tipping point.

"If you look at Silicon Valley, its genesis is traced back to Hewlett Packard starting up in a garage in Palo Alto in 1939. The entrepreneurial ecosystem at Cambridge has been growing for around 40 years. We really have just got through the first decade."

Whitcher likes to joke that the only serial entrepreneur in New Zealand at the start of the 21st century was Dick Hubbard. Now we have people like Rod Drury leading the charge. Smart money is coming here from offshore and we are becoming more experienced at commercialisation.

Through his mentorship of students like Priv Bradoo and his patient nurturing of Spark and Chiasma - which aims to foster entrepreneurship among the University of Auckland's biotech students - the former Fletcher Challenge executive is growing a generation of business savvy, ambitious Kiwi entrepreneurs helping transform the economy.

Mark Revington

Greg Cross

Greg Cross

First things first. Greg Cross does not have shares in Unlimited. Nor does he hold a file of compromising photos of the editor (Can we double check? - Ed). Nope, he's here purely on merit, because we reckon his bold plan to see a New Zealand team contest the world's greatest bike race could put the cycling world in a spin.

And Lord knows it's a sport that needs a clean and novel vision.

Cross is the business brain behind PureBlack Racing, a professional cycling team of Kiwi riders aiming to be on the startline of the 2015 Tour de France.

But that's just the latest line on his CV. We'd take up the rest of this page with the full details, but to put it simply, Cross is an astute Kiwi entrepreneur, CEO and company director with a gleaming reputation for nurturing IT companies.

A former managing director of Microsoft New Zealand, he's now chairman of business incubator The Icehouse.

But it seems Cross is having the most fun with this latest venture. A Sunday bunch rider who knows his chain rings from his bidens, he was captivated when approached by former America's Cup and world sailing champion Carl Williams.

Having established an amateur cycling team, Williams didn't have the business nous to ratchet it up a gear.

Fortunately, they crossed paths thanks to mutual friend Graeme Wall, the guy behind the national cycleway concept.

They quickly figured that melding Williams' America's Cup experience with Cross' prowess in running IT companies would produce a different type of business, a different organisation and a different culture to anything seen in professional cycling before.

It's no coincidence, then, that they've drawn inspiration from Sir Peter Blake who did just that with Team New Zealand and sailing 16 years ago.

Since starting in the US this season they've consistently performed on the road and focused on building a solid organisational framework, creating and marketing an iconic brand and implanting a winning team culture.

If they can reach Le Tour in four years' time, it will be an astounding achievement. But Cross' philosophy is if you don't set big goals, you can never achieve them.

Knowing his background we'd be the last to bet against the possibility of PureBlack's Roman van Uden or Mike Northey pursuing the maillot jaune, the coveted yellow jersey.

— Suzanne McFadden

John Boys

John Boys

Google him and you won't exactly be inundated with information, yet Professor John Boys of the University of Auckland really ought to be a household name. The vast majority of the world's microchips are made in clean room factories that operate with wireless power because of Boys' inventions.

Your inexpensive Sony flat panel TV screens? Again, made possible in part thanks to technology originating from the electrical engineer's lab.

"John must be one of the most inventive people in the world," says Will Charles, general manager of technology development at the university's commercialisation arm Uniservices. "There are two overseas-based companies and six New Zealand companies that started based on intellectual property that began with him. He's an incredibly prolific inventor."

With more than 50 patents to his name, Boys is particularly known as a key developer of wireless power transfer - or the ability to transfer power across a gap without contact - a platform technology which, as suggested above, has produced diverse commercial applications.

Most recently it's been rolled out by Uniservices spinoff HaloIPT as a way to wirelessly charge electric cars.

That might sound like a gimmick, but one of the barriers to electric car ownership has been people's reluctance to lug all those cables around.

Looking further ahead Boys has set his mind to the possibilities for 'dynamic in-motion charging', a technology that would allow drivers to charge their vehicles while they drive.

"John is very forward thinking," says HaloIPT Asia Pacific CEO Dr Anthony Thomson. "He doesn't have the normal boundaries that you or I have got and he's bordering on genius in his ability to visualise technology and how things might work."

Adds Charles, "He has an incredible mind and is always thinking about a problem and how it can be solved. He's really one of a kind."

— Matt Philp

Alison Stewart

Alison Stewart

Photography: Jason Boa, Andrew Gorrie

It's not sexy, but it's imperative for New Zealand's economic survival. What is it? Protecting our borders and primary products from invading nasties and enhancing their commercial edge against numerous global competitors.

Sitting slap bang in the middle of this is Alison Stewart, director of the Bio-Protection Research Centre and professor of plant pathology at Lincoln University.

New Zealand depends heavily on its reputation as a trusted supplier of safe food and fibre products, says Michael Dunbier, former head of the old Institute of Crop and Food Research and chair of the Bio-Protection Centre.

"Influencing the development of skills and technologies, enabling production of quality products in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner is critical to our future. Alison's leadership ... is pivotal to its success."

Stewart is commended for turning the Bio-Protection centre into one of New Zealand's leading research centres.

More than that she's passionate about achieving her goals to protect New Zealand's economic foundation and move it into the next century, says Shaun Hendy, Industrial Research scientist and deputy director of the MacDiarmid Institute.

"She's forged collaborations between our universities and our crown research institutes, overcoming some very entrenched institutional barriers. Definitely someone that is listened to."

As well as her roles with the Bio-Protection centre and Lincoln University, Stewart is chair of the Association of Centres of Research Excellence and an advisory board member of Better Border Security (B3) - a multi-partner, cooperative New Zealand science programme that aims to be one of the world's leading providers of biosecurity research and tools.

Her research areas include integrated plant disease management and fungal molecular genetics, and she has commercialised three biocontrol products based on the beneficial soil-borne fungus trichoderma.

Stewart was awarded the 2008 MAF Biosecurity Award for Excellence and in 2009 became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to plant pathology.

— Lesley Springall

Donna Rose Addis

Donna Rose Addis

Donna Rose Addis frequently returns to South Auckland's Aorere College to give motivational talks and awards. In 1995, her final year at Aorere, she was dux, head girl and the country's top scholar of Pacific Island descent that year (she's part Samoan).

And last year Addis scooped the Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize aged just 32, in recognition of her work in cognitive neuroscience.

Addis uses brain imaging scans to study the area of the brain that plays a crucial role in memory and imagination. Her research could result in therapies for diseases such as Alzheimers and depression.

"One benefit to winning the Emerging Scientist prize is that it has increased my effectiveness and visibility as a role model for Pacific people thinking about a career in science as well as students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds," says Addis.

"Having grown up in South Auckland and not having many academic role models myself, this is something I am really passionate about. As a teenager in Mangere East, I never imagined I could become a world class researcher working at Harvard."

After gaining her Masters in Psychology at the University of Auckland, Addis completed her PhD in Toronto and post-doctoral study at Harvard, where she learned brain imaging techniques new to New Zealand.

"I'd say she is at the cutting edge in the use of brain imaging to study brain processes involved in memory and imagination of future events," says University of Auckland emeritus professor of psychology Dr Michael Corballis.

Addis is driven, creative and dedicated to her research. She's had to overcome the 'tall poppy syndrome', work long hours for many years and spend months away from home.

Her 2006 study of the brain's ability to imagine the future was highly novel - only two other labs in the world were pursuing this area in 2006.

Back here after three years at Harvard, Addis has set up The Memory Lab so postgraduate students can train in neuro-imaging and make use of Addis' network of collaborators in North America.

The fact the two PhD researchers in the lab are from Canada and the Netherlands is testament to Addis' reputation internationally, says Corballis.

- Amanda Sachtleben

Paul Callaghan

Paul Callaghan

Sir Paul Callaghan has made science cool by talking about it in a way we can all understand. Not only is he smart, he's incisive and concerned about the future of New Zealand and its people.

Callaghan's not afraid to speak his brilliant mind about what needs to be done to make this country great. No surprisingly, he believes companies with a science and technology foundation can transform our economy and bring about an abundant future.

He's willing to put his money where his mouth is, too, helping launch Magritek, a company created with a clutch of former students, exporting specialised nuclear magnetic resonance instruments. It won the Prime Minister's Science Prize last year.

He's built a reputation as a world leader in his area of physics and was a founding director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. And he chose to do it all here even though broader horizons beckoned after he earned his PhD from Oxford in the early 1970s.

Now he's telling other bright young sparks they too should become world famous from New Zealand, with a plea that gently appeals to their egos.

"In the metropolitan capitals of the world one can be surrounded by talent and quality, but there is little chance to make a really significant difference to those societies," Callaghan recently said.

"Come back to New Zealand, where the talent pool is undoubtedly shallower, you have to step up and be the inspiration to others. It's tougher, but here, you have the chance to offer real leadership that makes an enormous difference to New Zealand's future."

Not that he's afraid to give New Zealand a blasting.

He's called us hypocrites for harping on about our clean, green pitch to the world, our lack of political inspiration and our low productivity - it's comparatively low in the OECD rankings. He delivers lines like, "We are poor because we choose to be poor" and points out we're not as savvy at biotech as we like to think we are.

He's even, dare we say it, had a crack at lazy journalism.

Living with metastatic cancer (or cells misbehaving as he likes to think of it), Callaghan believes in the paradox, "To live each day as though it were our last and at the same time, to live as though we will live forever."

We'd say, "Thank God for that", but he's an atheist.

— Suzanne McFadden

Roberta Farrell

Roberta Farrell

Photography: Iain McGregor, Antony Kitchener

It's becoming less remarkable for New Zealand scientists to be comfortable moving between the lab and the world of business, but the ones who do it particularly well still stand out.

Case in point: Waikato professor Roberta Farrell, a biologist with an international reputation in her fields of enzyme and fungi research, cellulose and bio-control, but also a founding scientist of two Waikato-based biotech companies that are now selling their products globally.

"Roberta has equal enthusiasm for the worlds of academia and commerce," says university colleague Professor Hugh Morgan. "She always has an eye out for an opportunity - 'where could we use this outside the field of academia?' It's a very strong attribute with her."

Put some of that down to her American upbringing. In addition to her work at Waikato, Farrell is an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University. There's a boldness about her, says Morgan.

"For want of a better word it's about being a bit brash, not afraid to push people a little out of their comfort zone. And she doesn't tend to see barriers; she sees opportunities and will sometimes go where others might refrain."

The evidence is in those two commercial ventures: Parrac, which among other things produces solutions to various problems created by sticky pitch in timber; and Zygem Corporation, which specialises in identifying enzymes from extreme environments to produce products with diverse uses - from DNA extraction to food safety testing.

For her efforts in establishing both companies, Farrell was awarded the Hamilton Science Excellence Award in 2008. It recognises scientific innovations that have made a significant contribution to the Waikato region.

For all her obvious entrepreneurial drive, Farrell, a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, is also clearly at home with the painstaking and unglamorous aspect of science, having spent 12 years leading an international scientific team studying the deterioration of the Scott and Shackleton huts in Antarctica and advising on their conservation.

As well, she was on the board of the now defunct Foundation of Research, Science and Technology. Morgan describes her as an effective and passionate advocate for the science cause in the corridors of business and political power and a strong advocate for women in science.

— Matt Philp

Billy Matheson

Billy Matheson

Billy Matheson left a comfortable gig as a design lecturer to help young New Zealanders solve the big problems their world will face.

Idealistic? Yes. Ambitious? Absolutely. Crazy? Maybe a little.

His grand plan was the Regeneration Project - a network that lays on events, mentoring and skills development to get 15 to 25-year-olds involved in social, environmental and community projects. If someone goes to one of the project's youth jams, they'll hear from youth workers about existing projects, learn more of what it takes to make these things happen, then get help to join existing projects or start their own.

By all accounts, Matheson's not the guy at the front rarking people up and taking all the glory. Instead he gets results by bringing people and organisations together.

"We underestimate the power of asking people to step up or join in," says Regeneration Project co-convenor Lani Evans. "It's a very important part of social change."

With a masters degree in adult education and eight years in tertiary teaching, Matheson could have taken a more traditional path, but didn't want to be constrained by a focus on clients or profit. He wanted to break down the silos he found existed in youth leadership and development. His reward for investing substantial time and money in the Regeneration Project is freedom to innovate and learn. The project partners with the Enviroschools Foundation, the Tindall Foundation and others. Matheson is a big picture thinker with a clear vision of how our tough issues can be solved.

"There are so many things that need to be done, like paying for people's surgeries or restoring wetlands, putting in decent housing and setting up training schemes. These are generational problems and the solutions will be generational as well. Investing in the next generation is where I want to put my energy."

— Amanda Sachtleben

Phil McCaw

Phil McCaw

He's tall, good looking and he's got pots of money. Rather than fishing, travelling or counting his money, McCaw's investing it in lots of little companies that might not be here without that investment. So what, you might say.

But McCaw's supporters say he doesn't just put his money where his mouth is, he goes beyond the call of duty to help his companies reach their potential. He's a passionate supporter of angel investment in New Zealand and has taken over the reins as chair of the country's Angel Association.

Through Movac, the angel investment firm he co-founded, he's set up two funds and invested in more than 20 companies to date.

Both funds were seeded with capital made during his time with Deloitte and through some canny investments in companies like Trademe. Movac's investments now include some of the country's most innovative offerings, including science company Mesynthes, cleantech firm Zeosoft, MiniMonos, Kaynemaile and PowerByProxi.

In true 'see a need, fill a need' style, McCaw and his partners at Movac have launched a third fund, seeded by $10 million of their own cash, to offer early stage expansion or venture capital to companies that are ready to fly the angel's nest and move on to bigger things - if only they could find the cash to do it.

The third fund is directly aimed at boosting confidence in the struggling venture capital sector and snaring a few more high net worth investors to make the global goal a reality for some struggling Kiwi startups.

"Basically he doesn't have to work, but he's extremely passionate about New Zealand and the early stage market," says Icehouse chief executive Andy Hamilton. "He has also put a crap load of his own money on the table."

Will McCaw change New Zealand?

Probably not, says iGrow New Zealand director Ralph Shale. "But he is supporting the people who can."

— Lesley Springall


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