First published in the New Zealand Herald Friday October 11, 2013
Antony Dixon is bubbling with excitement. The chief executive of electronics-technology company Times-7 has just returned from Hong Kong, where the firm was named in the prestigious Red Herring Top 100 Asia awards.
The awards celebrate emerging technology companies from the Asia-Pacific region, so it was a big deal for a small company from New Zealand, says Dixon.
Even bigger, however, was what happened between the pitches and the handshakes. Dixon used the awards as an opportunity to visit his Asian contacts; confirming two new distributors in Hong Kong and Singapore and netting a new client in Japan in the process. “It was all really worthwhile, we got international recognition for our technology and we signed up a couple of new partners,” says an obviously delighted Dixon.
All this is a far cry from a year ago.
Times-7’s business is supplying equipment for the radio-frequency identification (RFID) or “smart tag” market.
Back then Dixon had been knocking on doors for almost a year trying to raise enough capital to develop and market the company’s new robust, slim-line antennas. His invitation to pitch at the 2012 Angel Summit – the annual gathering of the country’s angel investors (individuals who have a bit of spare cash to invest in tomorrow’s Kiwi companies) – was his last attempt to raise the $600,000 he badly needed.
“Before the summit we still didn’t have enough money on the table to make the [investment] round worthwhile. So we had to really put our best foot forward – which we did.”
Times-7 was one of 13 budding Kiwi companies asked to pitch at last year’s summit and one of six profiled by The Business last November.
It was one of the successful ones. Others were equally or even more successful; a couple, far less so. One is still trying to close the capital raising round it embarked on more than 18 months ago, making the Summit showcase a small part of what is now a long and arduous journey.
Even those who were successful, however, still have capital raising firmly on their agendas. That’s a fact of life for early-stage companies that doesn’t surprise Angel Association chairman and investor Ray Thomson.
“One of the problems with early-stage companies in New Zealand is they tend to run on the smell of an oily rag,” he says. “They don’t have enough capital to get themselves to market fast enough. It’s one of the major problems we have around commercialising Kiwi technology.”
Thomson says he encourages companies to raise as much as they can, whenever they can. Too many raise too little, slowing their potential progress and leaving them at risk of being overtaken by competitors or new developments.
Finding enough capital, however, is a problem Thomson shares with the companies. A key function of the association and its annual Summit is to encourage new angels to join the ranks and share their money, and the risks, with other angels in order to grow the total pool of money available to early-stage companies.
“That’s why we have the Summit in a different part of the country each year, to encourage more local interest.”
Last year’s Summit in Wellington, co-hosted by the local angel group Angel HQ, helped swell the capital’s angel numbers by 50 per cent, from 31 to 45. The association’s push to grow numbers also seems to be working across the country, with the official number of angels now at 420 compared with 368 this time last year.
Thomson and his association colleagues are beavering away on other initiatives in an effort to continue the momentum. A women-only angel group called Arc Angels is being launched this month in Auckland and Wellington. The group is the brainchild of Kiwi expat and staunch early-stage company supporter Bridget Liddell, now a senior partner with US investment company 212° Equity. Liddell is earmarked as chairwoman of the new group, and communications consultant Alex Mercer has been signed up as executive director.
Women-only angel investment groups are very successful in the US, says Thomson, especially at finding capital for businesses led by female entrepreneurs.
Golden Seeds, which started as a women-only group focusing primarily on women-run businesses, is now one of the largest and most active angel investment organisations in the States, investing US$58 million in 58 companies since 2005.
Thomson’s aim is to increase New Zealand angel numbers to more than 550 next year and he expects the Arc Angels to provide a significant chunk of that target.
There’s also a push to develop dedicated angel groups in some of the smaller centres, including Whangarei, Hamilton, Oamaru and Invercargill.
The latest Young Company Finance Index, produced by the Government’s NZ Venture Investment Fund, shows that angel investment increased 18 per cent to $36.5 million in the year to June, compared to $30.9 million in the year to June 2012. Cumulatively, $274 million has been invested in early-stage companies by angel investors since data was first recorded in 2006.
But Thomson says the numbers don’t reflect the true health of New Zealand’s angel sector, which is second only to the States, based on the number of angels per head of population.
“Twenty-three New Zealand angels went to the US Angel Summit this year. We were the largest country represented outside America, so there’s a huge amount of interest [in angel investing] here.”
This passion for angel investing is a large part of the reason why New Zealand can attract big international names to its Summit, says Thomson. “[International] angels like coming down here because this is one of the most vibrant angel communities in the world.”
This year the Summit’s line-up includes Canadian technology entrepreneur turned angel guru Basil Peters, a regular speaker on the US angel circuit and a strong advocate of early exits for angel investors. He is speaking for the first time outside North America, says Thomson. Others on the list include well known US angel and Kiwiphile Bill Payne; Singapore-based British angel investor Hugh Mason, who runs the emerging company accelerator JFDI Asia; and Stuart Fox, principal of one of Australia’s larger angel funds.
Driving best practice and angel numbers goes hand in hand, says Thomson. “It’s all about supporting the ecosystem. It’s no use the Government helping to build these little companies, and get the intellectual property out of our research organisations, if there’s no capital around to help them reach their targets.”
So how did our pick of companies from last year’s summit showcase go?
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If you would like to find out more about the 2014 Summit, please see AANZ Summit 2014.