Sectors where New Zealand startups are poised to win

As a remote island nation in the middle of the South Pacific, New Zealand is experiencing the stirrings of a burgeoning startup scene. The country has historically been capital-starved, but recent investments from the government and foreign investors have significantly increased access to early-stage venture capital funding. Now, certain industries are emerging as potential areas where New Zealand can win in the tech space.

Deep tech, medtech/biotech, climate tech, and crypto and blockchain are all areas that investors say they’re either actively investing in or watching for signs of scale.

Note: All monetary amounts are listed in New Zealand dollars unless otherwise stipulated. 

Deep tech

New Zealand has the right mix of deep tech-focused capital and resources, strong engineering schools and major success stories that are helping create technologically sophisticated, globally scalable startups.

During the first half of this year, total investment in New Zealand’s early-stage sector increased 78% from the first half of 2020, 42% of which went directly to deep tech startups, according to PwC. Much of that funding came from New Zealand Growth Capital Partners (NZGCP), a government entity established to create a vibrant early-stage environment in New Zealand, via its Elevate fund of funds program that provides capital to New Zealand VCs investing in Series A and B rounds.

Last October, Elevate allocated $20 million to a fund managed by deep tech VC firm Pacific Channel. More recently, Elevate committed $17 million to Nuance Connected Capital’s fund focused on deep tech innovations, as well as $45 million to GD1’s Fund 3, which focuses on deep tech as well as connected hardware, enterprise software and health tech.

New Zealanders make really good founders. … There’s something about just growing up on a farm or, you know, playing beer float out in the lakes and rivers; New Zealand is just really resourceful. Blockchain NZ Chair Bryan Ventura

Then there are groups, like Outset Ventures, formerly LevelTwo, that are geared toward helping seed and pre-seed deep tech startups get going. Outset is home to New Zealand’s only two deep tech unicorns, Rocket Lab and LanzaTech, both of which have spun out numerous other deep tech companies. Outset continues to be a resource for seed-stage startups that need not only money, but also connections to larger companies and access to workshops and labs. Just last year, Outset and Icehouse Ventures, a VC firm, partnered to raise a $12 million fund, which launched this April, for early-stage science and engineering startups. Imche Fourie, CEO of Outset, said the company has already made 17 investments from that fund.*

Notable deep tech companies out of New Zealand include Foundry Lab, a startup that creates metal castings quickly and cheaply with a microwave; Soul Machines, a platform that creates lifelike digital avatars that animate autonomously, responding to interactions and interpreting facial expressions, with personalities that evolve over time; and Dennisson Technologies, a wearables company that’s developing soft exosuits that incorporate 4D material technology to actively assist people with limited mobility due to physical or neurological disability.

The most Kiwi of deep tech startups, however, is Halter — a company that spun out of Rocket Lab and produces solar-powered smart cow collars that allow farmers to remotely shift and virtually fence and monitor cows in order to optimize pasture time. Founder Craig Piggott grew up on a dairy farm watching his parents struggle with the relentless work. After studying engineering at Auckland University of Technology and working at Rocket Lab, Piggott combined his experience to come up with a somewhat wacky and ambitious hardware and software play. Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, who backed Halter, told TechCrunch he thinks it will be a globally scalable billion-dollar company.

The epitome of New Zealand’s deep tech scene is its over $1.75 billion space industry. Rocket Lab, which is now a U.S.-owned company after a SPAC merger, put New Zealand on the map as a place with minimal air traffic, clear skies and favorable aerospace regulations. As a result, companies are forming that can either send payloads into space or provide services to existing space companies.

Outset-backed Zenno Astronautics, for example, is developing a fuel-free satellite propulsion system that uses magnets powered by solar panels. Dawn Aerospace is working toward a remotely piloted aircraft that could take off like a normal airplane, drop a satellite payload and be back home in 15 minutes. And Astrix Autonautics, a startup founded by three Auckland University students, is being trialed by Rocket Lab to see if they can more than double the power-to-weight ratios of solar arrays used today.