New Zealand company leads the world in eczema research

A breakthrough eczema treatment has propelled a New Zealand scientist into the spotlight, leading to the invitation to deliver a keynote speech at the top global dermatology conference later this year.

Dr. Iona Weir, CEO of Auckland-based Decima Health, will be a major attraction at The International Conference on Clinical and Experimental Dermatology (ICCED) in Chicago in May on the strength of the work done on Atopis, a treatment for eczema that convinces the body’s immune system to attack the affected area.

For Dr. Weir, this is the culmination of over twenty years’ of ongoing research and product development, while she also worked as a company director of various natural product companies, playing a central role in growing several start-ups through to successful commercialisation.  This has included the number one gastrointestinal health product, Phloe™ in the New Zealand over-the-counter laxative market.

Iona Weir

Dr Iona Weir

“Atopis™ has its origins in the research from my PhD from 1997 which proved there is a process of programmed cell death called apoptosis that occurs in plants.  This research was groundbreaking at the time and won an international award for best PhD.”

The research continued to gain accolades and a Marsden Fund grant allowed Weir to prove that, unlike animals, apoptosis in plants is reversible.  This discovery was able to be applied to human health needs and has been the basis of Dr. Weir’s ground breaking research.

Critical reactions that occur in plants were carefully extracted and scientifically combined and set in a natural carrier cream. When applied to the surface of the skin they gently permeate to encourage the body’s natural immune response to attack the affected area and repair damaged cells.

“By manipulating this reversibility in plants I have been able to create Atopis™ to manipulate apoptosis and immune function in human cells to stimulate cell repair and growth.  A small clinical trial in the United States verified this and opened the door to a larger study”

The trial was recruited and fully completed within a time frame rarely seen in New Zealand – Iona Weir

A Callaghan Innovation grant helped ensure a second larger double blinded placebo controlled clinical trial of Atopis™ went ahead in New Zealand, and both the trial itself and the results it produced were impressive.

“Due to an innovative design and recruitment strategy the trial was recruited and fully completed within a time frame rarely seen in New Zealand and the trial results are very conclusive, showing ‘outstanding’ clinical significance in efficacy,” says Dr. Weir.

So outstanding, that when she submitted the conference abstract to the ICCED, the organisers invited Dr. Weir to share the story as a key note speech with the assembled global leading dermatologists, product scouts and experts and pharmaceutical company scientists.


Eczema on hands

“To be chosen as a key note speech on a new experimental product at an event like this, signifies that the organisers saw Atopis™ as one of the most innovative and exciting new scientific breakthroughs this year.”

Bionona Ltd, a subsidiary of Decima Health will look to partner nationally and internationally to release Atopis™.  Dr. Weir said that Callaghan Innovation’s support has helped to progress the business and ensure ongoing trials and research remain a uniquely New Zealand story, where the IP, patents and research are wholly New Zealand owned.

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The level playing field

When it comes to game development, is being small the secret to making it big? Some industry players discuss where the culture of innovation resides in game dev.

Andrew Stairs, director of escpodgames and Rox Flame, KiwiGameStarter winner for Dynabrick, opened indie game dev co-working space LevelUp in January, with eight workstations in Wellington’s Cuba Quarter.

Within weeks the space is full and breaking even. Expansion plans are already being hatched.

Level up

LevelUp’s Rox Flame and Andrew Stairs: unconcerned by mace-wielding goblins

LevelUp draws its inspiration from Melbourne’s The Arcade, an 80-person space which has also spawned an Auckland namesake.

The pair did a feasibility survey among gamers in Wellington and talked to Melbourne’s Arcade founder and Australian Game Developers Association CEO Tony Reed before starting their venture.

“We did an agile process on the business,” says Flame. “We started it with a minimum viable product then expanded it once it was up and running.”

Currently that minimum viable product is a space with eight permanently-rented workstations.

“In many ways it’s good that their big companies closed down because it’s never been easier to make a game.”

Stairs says expansion is highly likely in the medium term, with a lot of indie developers making games in their bedrooms under the radar, and looking for a home.

He is unequivocal that, when it comes to developing games as an indie, small teams are often better.

“Indies want to be indies – working for larger companies is often a good stepping stone or fallback option.

“When the large Australian studios shut down that’s when the Arcade started. So in many ways it’s good that their big companies closed down because it’s never been easier to make a game.”

Flame says they want LevelUp to achieve the key innovation benefits of co-working, in particular retaining the nimbleness of a small operation while being able to scale up to get the work done.


EPIC, Christchurch: game developers CerebralFix are a key tenant

“A space like this allows indies to form small teams – one person on art, someone else on code – so the diversity of talent produces lots of good ideas, and the collaboration with other devs gets the game into production.”

By seeding the initial space with some experienced developers they aim to provide for informal mentoring as well.

Stephen Knightly, New Zealand Game Developers Association chairperson, agrees the genius of co-working is that it emphasises collaboration rather than competition.

Co-working spaces dedicated to gaming are opening across New Zealand. As well as LevelUp and The Arcade Auckland, Christchurch’s EPIC Centre has CerebralFix as its biggest tenant, which has expanded to Westport, while Dunedin has just opened its own co-working space.


The NZ game dev sector in 2015

But Knightly – perhaps not surprisingly, as he represents the whole industry – has a slightly different take on the role of indies vs big players.

“A healthy industry has a mix of larger projects and small projects. There’s a role for those 50 – 100 person productions to provide experience, skills and international publishing connections.”

Knightly notes that many of the residents in Level Up are alumni from Wellington’s largest games studio PikPok who have started their own businesses.

To Knightly, the term ‘indie’ can easily encompass a studio with dozens of employees.

“There are two senses of the term ‘indie’ – the indie ethos of unconventional and original work, and being independent in the sense of owning your own IP.



“There are two sense of the term ‘indie’ – being unconventional and being independent.”

“For indies, doing something alternative that doesn’t initially appear ‘commercial’ is in fact a smart business ploy.  Innovation in a creative industry means originality and novelty, something people haven’t seen before.  There are a number of two-to-three person game studios in New Zealand with plus-million dollar revenues. But having New Zealand-owned IP is what makes the industry sustainable.

“When you own your IP, you are the publisher as well as the developer, so you have more vertical integration. You manage the marketing and the customer experience, and it means higher margins for your work.  With a hit game and a scalable digital product, those margins can be significant.”

Knightly says just 15% of game development revenue in New Zealand comes from off-shore contract and service work, a figure he contrasts with the screen and IT industries, where the bulk of work is service work for others.

A key difference is the lower cost of entry.


Stephen Knightly

“For a smaller initial investment you can put something in the market, measure success then continue to expand. You can treat the game as a service and update it as you get feedback from players.  Game startups typically get far faster market traction than most SaaS startups, although there are many other business similarities.”

So when it comes to game development, it seems the indie culture of innovation can transcend size and scale.

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Start-up highlights: February 2016

There’s a faint chill in the evening air, and days are getting shorter already, but you can relive the summer with highlights from all the emerging business action from February.


The fourth and final block course in the Sprout series, “Capital Raising and Finance,” took place at the ILT Stadium Southland Centre. The primary focus of this block was information on early stage company capital in NZ, seed stage company valuation, pitching, founder roles, the exit journey and start-up governance.

Teams are now preparing for the 2016 Agribusiness Investment Showcase. The showcase on 17 March is a core part of NZ Agri Investment Week where people can meet to learn, collaborate and invest in New Zealand’s agri sector.

SUHFeb16 1

Julian McCurdy and Peter Bennett of Bee’z Things touch down in Invercargill for the final Sprout block course

Designer Wardrobe

After the completion of Lightning Lab AKL in 2015, Designer Wardrobe – co-founded by Donielle Brooke and Aidan Bartlett – has continued to grow and currently have approximately 45,000 users. Their last funding round attracted $700,000 of investment from ICE Angels and SCIF, at a valuation of $855,000.

Following the recent exit from The Icehouse, they are embarking on new plans to expand offshore.

SUHF16 2

Designer Wardrobe co-founders Donielle Brooke & Aidan Bartlett (pic:

Lightning Lab XX & AKL

Lightning Lab XX, New Zealand’s first ever female founder-focused business accelerator and Lightning Lab AKL have announced the teams that have secured a spot in its 2016 programmes. Take a look at the LL XX teams here, and LL AKL teams here.

SUHFeb16 3

XX Factor: Lighting Lab XX has announced the starting line-up for 2016.

Lightning Lab CHC and Property Plot

A company that helps people manage their property portfolios is the first Christchurch Lightning Lab team to close its investor funding after raising more than $200,000.

Property Plot, co-founded by Nicola Valentine and Seth Reid, was one of 10 hi-tech companies to take part in the inaugural Lightning Lab in Christchurch in 2015. You can read more on Property Plot here.

Proerty plot

Property Plot’s Nicola Valentine and Seth Reid


Leading a start-up can sometimes be lonely. Peer-to-Peer (P2P) is a programme designed to create a peer-support advisory environment for start-up CEOs, guided by an experienced facilitator and an investor-as-a-mentor. Four start-up companies of similar business stage and wider technology bases – Vigilance, iotStream, Moxion and Fishery Logistics – will comprise the 2015 Auckland P2P cohort.

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From Xero to hero

Give people the space to express their own culture, and they will call themselves Cheese Weasels and thrive, says Xero’s Julie Reddish.

With 1300 employees across 20 offices globally, Xero is an unequivocal Kiwi growth success story. In less than a decade, the Wellington-based accounting software firm has doubled in size annually.

It’s gone from a handful of local SMEs to well over half a million users worldwide, reconciling $300b a year in transactions through the company’s “beautiful” cloud software.

So how do you keep the start-up mentality alive in a company where, among other challenges, their employees are working in seven different time zones?


Julie Reddish presenting to Callaghan Innovation staff on her role at Xero

Julie Reddish, Xero’s Happiness Engineer, works in the Global Product Team – where the developers make and improve the aforementioned beautiful software. It’s the guts of the operation, or as Reddish puts it “without a product, there’s no company”.

Reddish’s job is essentially free reign to walk the floors (actual and virtual) of Xero’s six product offices, listening, and acting on, the helpful suggestions, heartfelt grumbles and flights of fancy of 450 developers.

A company where “Happiness Engineer” is a job title tells you something about the prevailing culture. Other teams are named the “Cheese Weasels” and “the “Vampire Squids”, and Reddish stresses the importance of authenticity arriving at this point.

“A company’s values can be BS if they’re not authentic. Letting values sort themselves out at an individual level is best.”


Xero’s Wellington HQ

The quirky team names, the ice-cream days and the ironic donning of suits on special occasions to talk about “synergy” and “moving forward” are the fruits of a group of people who want to work in a certain way, and are allowed the room to express that preference.

Listening to insights, be they via informal discussions, contributions to CEO Rod Drury’s regular “Ask me anything” sessions, or staff surveys helps ensure the inevitable growth in hierarchy doesn’t stifle the flow of ideas.

In the same way that market insights and an online user community ensure Xero stays on top of changing customer demand, the various antennae focused on staff issues (including Reddish) help keep the developers happy.

As Reddish points out, this is not necessarily out of an altruistic desire to create warm fuzzies; it makes business sense.


Go together like…

“Developers are hard to replace, and they can get work in a lot of companies. It makes much more sense to keep them.”

As for the tyranny of distance, that’s only an issue if you want uniformity across offices. Reddish doesn’t subscribe to that approach:

“As a head office, we can’t impose a mono-culture. We let each office own their culture.”

Which is not to say Xero is a series of city-states from Wellington to San Fransisco. The organisation is linked by five core values:

* Human (real people making a difference in the world)

* Beautiful (creating engaging and inspiring interactions with customers)

* Challenge (using data and insights to stay ahead of changes in demand)

* Champion (being a business partner who champions small business)

* Ownership (each individual being accountable for their part in the company’s purpose)

The values as written are the embodiment of what the organisation’s 1300 employees want their workplace to be. They weren’t cascaded from above, but bubbled up from below.

“The values really say what you are as an organization. They have to be done authentically.”

Xero faces2

Xero tolerance: Xero makes a conscious and deliberate effort to increase, promote and celebrate diversity. They do this because they believe it is good for business, with Reddish referring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study where they found the biggest predictor of team performance and success is an equal split of men and women.

Also helping to retain the culture of innovation as the company grows is the belief at Xero in the Holy Trinity of employee engagement – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

In particular, paid time is routinely given over to allowing employees to explore their own ideas. As other software companies have found, this internal hack can often yield improvements, fixes and new products that may otherwise have never seen the light of day.

This all adds up to a company that has opened the doors in Australia, the US and UK, but retained the ethos and culture of an idea developed in a Wellington living room.

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The young and the restless

From luggage damage to incomprehensible menus, Venture Up showcases the best problem solving of the millennial generation, writes Sara McFall.

“You never need to eat alone”, “the fitbit for luggage” and “have more time – eliminate errands”

These were some of the great pitches for business ideas presented by the graduates of Creative HQ’s Venture Up on Tuesday evening in Wellington.

VentureUp showcase

Venture Up is a six-week accelerator for school-leavers aged 16-21, hosted by Creative HQ.

The Wellington-based start-up hub holds bootcamps in nine centres around New Zealand during the year and then selects 40 of the brightest prospects interested in taking entrepreneurship further.

Brought to Wellington, the participants work together in teams formed around their business ideas.  They are coached, mentored, and taken on field trips to Wellington’s most innovative businesses. During the six weeks, the teams develop and test their business ideas with a goal of having paying customers by the Showcase event.

Creative HQ’s Nick Churchouse says his dream is that, in a few years, Venture Up will have generated hundreds of motivated business-savvy entrepreneurs in their early 20s who will transform our business culture.

VentureUpyouth on board

This summer’s intensive course culminated in the final Showcase, which was held at Wellington’s City Gallery on February 17, when the teams pitched their ideas.  The ideas were smart and the pitching skills outstanding.  Each team had a clear value proposition providing their customers with solutions to resolve lack of time, lack of choice or lack of security.

One team pitched a match-making service for employers looking for part-time staff; another was targeting the hospitality industry making menus more accessible to foreign tourists.

The intrude-a-lock is a device that monitors luggage in transit and records any damage giving travellers evidence to use in compensation claims.

VentureUp Intrude a lock

The Youth On Board team pitched a service for ensuring boards of directors had the voice of millennials.

Hemi Rolleston, Callaghan Innovation’s GM for Māori Economy, summed up why Callaghan Innovation is a proud sponsor of Venture Up:

“Resilience and the confidence to learn from failure are key attributes of an entrepreneur.

“One of our priorities is to inspire New Zealand’s future innovators and entrepreneurs and Venture Up both inspires and gives young people skills and confidence that will enable them to take the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.

“At Callaghan Innovation, our inspiration is summed up in our whakatauaki: ‘rukuhia te wāhi ngaro, he maunga tātai whētu– dive into the unknown, pursue excellence’.

“We look forward to following the Venture Up alumni as they dive into new challenges.”

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The plot thickens

How “QV on steroids” went from start-up to cashed-up in half a cricket season.

Just three months after completing the Lightning Lab Christchurch accelerator programme, a web-based property investment company has become the first of the cohort to close its investor funding, raising over $200,000.

PropertyPlot, co-founded by Nicola Valentine and Seth Reid, aims to reduce the risk of taking on investment property by providing property market data and likely returns from residential property across New Zealand – “QV on steroids”, as Valentine puts it. The main part of the product is the portfolio manager, where property investors can track and manage the financial performance of their property portfolio.

Proerty plot

Nicola Valentine and Seth Reid focused on revenue over quick growth

Valentine says the financial report produced on the PropertyPlot site – from council and core logic data, with bespoke algorithms – helps prevent property investment traps like buying the wrong house in the right suburb (for instance buying a one-bedroom unit in an area where demand is from large families) or overestimating yield and underestimating costs, leading to disappointing returns.

“If you’re interested in property for a financial gain, then it’s got to make money. New Zealand’s got a debt problem because a lot of people make investments based on bad advice and don’t see the returns they expected.

“Our product is essentially about financial literacy.”


“If you’re interested in property for financial gain, then it’s got to make money”

PropertyPlot was originally only a business plan submitted as part of Valentine’s MBA, but the idea was so strong Valentine co-opted Reid and put the start-up in motion.

For Valentine, that meant leaving the security of a digital strategist job with Intergen to pursue the grind of getting PropertyPlot off paper and onto the web.

“It’s a hard road. You need to be a master at every part of the business, compared to working at a big company, is a big step up.”

But the road has now made it past a key milestone, with investors fully signing up to the company’s goal of $200,000 initial investment – enough to keep the business, which has two developers on the payroll along with Valentine and Reid in business for 10 months.

The original target was a lot higher – $450,000 – but the co-founders decided to focus on a smaller number of discerning investors and grow revenue, rather than headcount.

Nicola Valentine’s start-up finance tips

1.    Talk to your customers

Make sure there is going to be a market for your product.

2.    Get help

There’s so much free help available. In Christchurch there’s CDC, Callaghan Innovation, Ministry of Awesome and EPIC, to name just a few.

3.    Refine your pitch

You need to make a good first impression. I rewrote my PropertyPlot pitch 20 times, and learned it by heart, so when I delivered it, it hit investors.

4.    Provide the stats

You might only get one chance to get in front of the investor, so have the data on hand, so if you get some interest, you can instantly show you’ve got a market, and you can show the return on investment.

“As a founder, you get a lot of mixed messages on investment. Some people say you should only take as much as you need, some say get as much as you can.

“We originally wanted to get as much as possible, but changed our focus. We could employ more people and grow the business quickly but we prefer to focus on revenue and go from there.”

Regardless, the company reached its goal before the end of summer, so what set PropertyPlot apart when it came to closing investment agreements?

Firstly, Valentine says, investors understand an investment business, so fear of the unknown was not an issue.


The rest was proactivity and polish.

“We did pitches to angel investors in Auckland and Wellington. And we worked on our numbers beforehand, so when interest came through we could provide our terms sheets straight away and not leave a potential investor waiting.

“I also rewrote my pitch 20 times, learned it by heart, so when I delivered it, it hit investors.”

The result is Valentine and Reid can now focus on growing revenue at PropertyPlot, with an eye on future expansion in scope and markets.

That includes potential forays into commercial property data, and expanding across the Tasman, where Valentine has personal experience in residential property investment.

For now, though, the focus is firmly on the newly-secured next ten months.

“Right now it’s about financial literacy. We’re going to do it really, really well before we do anything else.”

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Start-up highlights: Jan 2016

Just in time for the end of the summer holidays, here’s a small but perfectly formed start-up highlights package from the last two months.


Intellectual property and Go-to-market strategies made up the latest block course of the Sprout Agritech Accelerator. Eight teams from all around the country got together at the LIC Innovation Farm in Hamilton. Speakers include Richard Alderton (CEO Seadragon & ChangeQ) and David Chin (Territory Manager, LIC). Networking at Wintec culminated this third block course. Follow Sprout for real-time updates.

Sprout for Jan highlights

Richard Alderton, Seadragon and ChangeQ CEO, talking to Sprout teams at LIC

Venture Up

Young entrepreneurial New Zealanders can unleash their enthusiasm for building companies at Venture Up. Over the summer break, 16-21 year old participants will engage with fellow young entrepreneurs and mentors in building teams, validating customers and products, forming partnerships, pitching, mapping growth plans, building advisory boards and showcasing their arts. Currently in week 3 of 6, you can follow their whereabouts here.


The Venture Up crew at TradeMe HQ 

Lightning Lab Updates

Just in time for the Christmas break, applications for the 2016 Lightning Lab AKL and Lightning Lab XX came to a close. Jonathan Miller, National Technology Network Manager for ICT and Francene Wineti, Maori Business & Relationships Manager participated in the screening of shortlisted teams to come to the final 10. Follow Lightning Lab for more updates!


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