Seachange founder Max Olson. Photo / File
Venture capital might be suddenly much more scarce amid the economic slowdown and rising interest rates, but three savvy startups are still set to expand in 2023.
Kai Education KaiBot is still a
couple of months away from release, but the miniature, AI-powered robot has already gained international recognition.
In early December, Kaibot won the Learn-to-Code category at the Smart Toys Competition in Dubai – an event run in collaboration between the Dubai Future Foundation and the World Economic Forum, designed to highlight the best emerging AI (artificial intelligence) toys in education.
“Kai” is te reo Māori for food. In this context, founder Bruce Jackson pitches it as “food for the brain”.
The KaiBot is used in tandem with physical cards and visualisation software to help five to 15-year-olds learn the principles behind software programming. After scanning a series of cards, it will execute a series of moves on the floor or on special KaiTiles.
The Pakuranga-based Jackson has been able to self-fund Kai’s Education, thanks to the runaway success of a company he founded back in 2010 – 3D Printing Systems, which became the largest distributor of 3D printers in New Zealand.
He’s already had an international hit with Kai’s Clan, an AR and VR-friendly robot that integrates with Minecraft.
If you’ve never heard of it,, that’s because Jackson has concentrated much of his sales efforts offshore.
The endorsements on his website feature teachers from Mississippi and Texas, alongside an educator from Raumati.
Jackson has eschewed big retailers, or the likes of Amazon, in favour of doing deals with public school districts in the US. Those are state-level bodies that can administer anything from a handful to hundreds of local schools.
The strategy allows him to stay under the radar of the big toy makers while achieving considerable success.
He tells the Herald he’s already landed a major order from a school district in New York. And after considerable logistical pain, 2000 units of the designed-in-Pakuranga Kaibot have already been made in China, ready for the New Year launch.
Everything KaiBot does in the real world exists in the virtual world also, and with the addition of Kainundrum, its exploits can be viewed in an interactive 3D environment as an additional reward for the trainee coder.
Those who want to go further can develop their own game using lasers, gates, mirrors, and lesson plans for teachers.
This allows the educator to choose the amount of technology that is brought into play, depending on the age and stage of the participant, using a blend of the physical and the digital worlds.
“KaiBot is designed for a five-year-old-kid, with no coding experience – or a teacher who’s never coded before,” Jackson says.
The price is also a lot more accessible. Whereas a Kai’s Clan Start Pack sold for around $1700, the KaiBot will be priced around $149.
Seachange has tested a prototype hydrofoil technology it hopes will one day power electric ferries carrying cars over Cook Straight.
In 2023, it has the more modest aim of getting a 10-seater hydrofoiling electric vessel on the water.
The startup is partnering with Fullers on the “F8″, which will have a top speed of 30 knots and range of 55 nautical miles on one charge – which founder and CEO Max Olson pitches as enough for a zero-emission jaunt to any of the inner Gulf islands.
Fullers is pitching in by buying the first F8. The ferry company’s CEO Mike Horne says this will represent the first time hydrofoiling EV technology has been commercialised, anywhere in the world.
Horne won’t put a price tag on it. But he says the F8 won’t operate on commuter runs but be used as a tourist vessel.
The F8 will be the first of its kind offering a silent and calm experience thanks to the combination of its electric engine and foils, Horne says.
Olson says Seachange’s hydrofoiling system and carbon fibre hulls come from technology developed for the America’s Cup.
“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says.
“What’s different there is that we design for safety and efficiency rather than top speed. We care a lot more about passenger comfort.”
Horne sees the F8′s glide the Gulf as a luxury experience. A party could hire one for a day trip to Waiheke at $95 per head, while an evening “thrill ride” around the harbour could cost $145 per person.
On the shareholder side, investors include Icehouse Ventures (the largest outside backer, with a 25 per cent stake), Blackbird Ventures (12 per cent), Sir Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 (6 per cent) and Ports of Auckland (2 per cent).
Seachange trialled its technology at Marsden Point but now has its own boat-building facility in East Tamaki near McMullen & Wing.
McMullen & Wing’s sister company EV Maritime was involved in the effort to put five pure-electric and two hybrid EV/diesel ferries on Auckland waters by 2024, which will be owned by AT and operated by Fullers.
Olson says like an EV vehicle on the road, the F8 will have a higher up-front cost than a conventional boat, but much lower running costs.
The “8″ in F8 stands for 8 metres in length (26 feet). Seachange also has 10, 14 and 18-metre vessels on its roadmap.
Fullers customers grappling with cancellations and delays involving a current fleet of ageing diesel vessels might roll their eyes and think “we’ll believe it when we see it”.
The firm, which under a recent change now operates vessels owned by AT, has been hit by a labour crunch, and until recently was mired in talks with AT and the Government over future ferry investment, which saw several deadlines for ordering new boats come and go.
But Horne says the F8 should be on the water by September.
And he sees potential for Seachange’s technology to ultimately power commuter ferries to Waiheke and, down the track, larger, hydrogen-powered vessels around the Gulf, and between the North and South Islands.
A new surgical device currently in development in New Zealand could simplify a complex procedure and reduce the time patients need to spend under anaesthesia – improving the outcomes of major surgery.
Avasa, led by New Zealand GP and bioengineer Dr Nandoun Abeysekera, has created an arterial coupler technology designed to reconnect major arteries, doing away with the need for surgeons to carry out time-consuming and risky stitching together of arteries.
Abeysekera tells the Herald that during today’s reconstructive or organ transplant procedures, it can take even a skilled surgeon up to 45 minutes to sew two arteries together. His firm’s coupler device can reduce that to as little as five minutes – meaning a much narrower window of time when the patient is at risk.
“Every minute that we save a patient from being under anesthetic is a win. While modern anesthesia is a safe process, it is not without its risks, particularly for older or medically vulnerable patients,” Abeysekera says.
“If any part of the process of reconnecting an artery goes wrong, the tissue it’s connected to will die. It’s rare, but the main cause of tissue death after surgery, unfortunately, is technical error.”
The thinking behind the coupler is that it works by loading arteries onto the device, automatically moving the arteries into a position primed for healing, then establishing a firm vascular connection to restore blood flow.
Avasa has won $750,000 in backing from Callaghan Innovation locally.
Avasa enjoyed none of the no-strings-attached perks of the funding of the past, and the grant is repayable. It also secured an injection of seed funding from California-based Bridgewest Group, which has taken a one-third stake in Abeysekera’s startup.
The founder sees Bridgewest – a private investment firm whose punts cover everything from real estate to wireless internet technology to medtech – as a crucial conduit to the key US market.
After completing a successful trial of its coupler on a pig (pigs have a similar-sized vascular system close to people), Avasa will now push for approval from the US Federal Drug Administration. If the influential regulator approves Avasa’s product, other agencies around the world are likely to follow.
In partnership with Callaghan, Bridgewest Group has created an incubator in New Zealand called Bridgewest Ventures.
Abeysekera was introduced to the US company by Auckland University Department of Surgery Professor Greg O’Grady. O’Grady is also the co-founder and CEO of Alimitetry – a startup that recently raised $16m in Series A funding to help get its abdominal sensor to market.
Abeysekera is angling for similar Series A success but anticipates that will be around mid-2024.