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Māori innovation celebrated at New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards

open this image in new window: Robotics Plus with Callaghan CEO Vic Crone

This article was published on 27 May 2019

Four industry-changing companies and the Māori innovators behind them have been recognised at the 2019 New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards (24 May), with Robotics Plus taking top honours and being named Hi-Tech Kamupene Māori o te Tau and Most Innovative Hi-Tech Agritech Solution.

Agritech start-up Robotics Plus has developed automation systems – powered by robotics and sensing technologies – that are helping to solve labour shortages in horticulture and forestry businesses around the world.

The Kiwi company has attracted US$10 million in investment from Yamaha and its technology solutions are being used locally and in major international markets to automate processes including picking, packing and sorting fruit and crops.

The other finalists for this year’s Hi-Tech Kamupene Māori o te Tau award, sponsored by Callaghan Innovation, were:

  • Healthcare Applications for their Emergency Q app which gives real-time information on wait times, fees and distances to local clinics, to help reduce congestion and delays in Emergency Department waiting rooms.
  • Augmented Reality Applications (ARA) for their augmented reality wayfinding technologies designed to connect people to cultural stories about Aotearoa’s land, mountains, rivers and real iwi stories.
  • Takiwā for their technology platform which enables timely collation, analysis and presentation of vital data to help District Health Boards, iwi and educators to make better, more informed decisions.

Robotics Plus owner and board chairman Steve Saunders says the driving motivation behind his award-winning company and its automation technology is ‘helping to feed the world’.

“It’s estimated we will need to feed 10 billion mouths by 2050 and labour is becoming one of the biggest constraints to meeting that challenge, especially in the crop food supply system. Our whole goal is solving those very simple labour pain points using automation, robotics and sensing technologies.”

Thinking big and looking to solve global, scalable problems has been integral to Robotics Plus’ success. A philosophy that is well expressed in Saunders’ favourite whakatauki: He rangi tā Matawhāiti, he rangi tā Matawhānui.

"The person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon, the person with a wide vision sees a wide horizon."

Award finalist Augmented Reality Applications (ARA) co-founder Amber Taylor says the early Auckland-based projects they completed with their AR wayfinding character Manu – delving into the stories of Puhinui Stream and Totara Park – have the potential to be expanded across the country and overseas.

“There is the opportunity to use Manu as the wayfinder and connection point right across Aotearoa and to use him to encourage people to visit those sites that are often overlooked.”

“We’ve been invited to showcase at Asia’s biggest tech conference, the Rise Conference, in Hong Kong in July this year, which will bring us together with all the people and companies who are redefining tech.”

Taylor says while the focus is on New Zealand at the moment, long-term they want to reach out to other indigenous cultures and other indigenous peoples so they can tell their stories using ARA’s technology.

“Our plan is to nail it here and then take it to the world,” says Taylor.

Callaghan Innovation’s Māori business and relationships manager Vincent Campbell says the cutting-edge products and services being developed by all the finalists in this year’s Hi-Tech Kamupene Māori o te Tau award are indicative of a broader shift toward technology-based solutions in the Māori economy.

“While Māori businesses have traditionally been focussed in the primary industries there is a growing understanding of the need to look at what is happening overseas, and to look at technological innovations and advances and anticipate how those are going to disrupt our industries”, says Mr Campbell.”

“We have more and more Māori companies, including those we have worked closely with like Robotics Plus, that are true innovators and that are absolutely leading the way in their sectors. But we want to get more on this waka because if we don’t, innovation will happen to us, not with us.”

While business imperatives are a critical driver for Māori business, as they are for any business, Campbell says it is notable that the awards finalists are also focussed on solving problems and better social outcomes with their breakthrough technologies.

Campbell says Callaghan Innovation’s annual Matariki X conference – being held in Rotorua on Friday 26 July – will provide another opportunity to celebrate and learn from some of the Māori companies and innovators who are developing globally significant technologies, products and services.

This year’s event will feature speakers including: Vaka Interactiv’s Jesse Armstrong, B’DET founder Billie Jo Ropiha, animator Nikora Ngaropo, and Wakatū director Miriana Stephens.

Matariki X will also feature practical workshops covering a range of topics including: Agile fundamentals, best practice governance, investment, crowdfunding, exporting, environmental innovation, and social impact.