A problem shared is a problem halved for StretchSense CEO Ben O’Brien.
He may be an international award winner with his Auckland technology firm StretchSense, but Ben O’Brien still has a lot to learn from his peers in the start-up world.
At the Innovation World Cup event in Munich in February, StretchSense launched their smart wearable stretch sensor, which can be sewn, glued or clipped onto clothing, giving athletes valuable real-time information about their movements via Bluetooth.
The product earned StretchSense – which began life as a spin-out from the Auckland Biomimetics Institute at the Auckland University – title of best Sport and Fitness Innovation.
In the works are self-powered sensors with energy-harvesting technology. Using the movement of the stretchable sensor to generate power to run the sensor, you could make permanently embedded wearables.
“They would be like a magical, enchanted item which comes to life when an athlete is working, and shuts down when not needed.
“We think this will be the next big thing, making wearable technology sticky and persistent. It opens a range of opportunities for sports clothing manufacturers to create value.”
StretchSense also has a PhD student, supported by Callaghan Innovation, working on sensing technology which can withstand wet environments.
The award-winning StretchSense fabric sensor was developed with the help of one of two Callaghan Innovation project grants awarded to the company over the past 2 years. The second grant assisted mass production of the sensing technology.
In fact, StretchSense has been an enthusiastic client of Callaghan Innovation since 2013, saying the case management approach of a dedicated Business Innovation Adviser makes things happen.
As well as the grant support, StretchSense has taken advantage of innovation skills courses, such as IP management course Innovation IP, and organisational culture programme Better By Lean.
The latest is a pilot peer support group for chief executives of start-up firms. The concept has only been used on an initial group, and is yet to be fully rolled-out, but O’Brien says the benefits to someone in his position are immediately apparent.
“Most of the advice out there around start-ups in structured towards investors, rather than entrepreneurs.
“At the peer-to-peer group, you learn from the others. It teaches you techniques and strategies that others are using to cope with the pressures of a start-up environment.”
O’Brien says the most valuable aspect of the group sessions is the ability for CEOs to speak freely on subjects that would unsettle staff or investors.
“It’s the environment that works. You can talk quite frankly about your business.
“As a start-up CEO it’s impossible to get people to talk to – everyone around you is conflicted. It can be quite lonely.
“You can talk about anything from a tough conversation with a Board member of member of staff, to a crisis with a deadline or an issue with cashflow.
“There’s also a strong accountability aspect to the groups, with members expected to report on progress with the problems they bring to each session.”
If Callaghan Innovation rolls out the peer group to other customers, O’Brien says the real trick will be to accelerate the trust-building at the beginning.
“Once people open up, it gets really good. People challenge things and discuss in detail.”
His advice to CEOs in a peer-to-peer group: “Make sure you give it time to build these relationships. It’s worth it.”