iMonitor’s Robin Alden. iMonitor is another successful graduate from the AUT Business Innovation Centre • Photo by Alex Wallace
iMonitor has a good idea licked into shape
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If you’ve ever had an ice cream melt faster than you can lick it, you’ll appreciate this good idea.
When Allan Weeks, a former broadcasting engineer, and electronics engineer Robin Alden stumbled across the AUT Business Innovation Centre (BIC) in 2006 they only had a concept and some thrown-together technology that could monitor changes in any part of a refrigerated environment and wirelessly signal those changes to a device such as a computer. Imagine a faulty industrial fridge full of fresh fish or ice cream and you can understand why such monitoring is important.
“What we had was something that was pretty average and certainly wouldn’t have set the world on fire. I’m surprised they could keep a straight face actually!” says Weeks. “However, I guess they realised that we, as a company, had potential to push the boundaries.”
Incubation managers Kevin Ha and Mike Aitken grilled Weeks about the technology, his team and the potential markets.
“What was surprising at the interview was they didn’t treat me like a boffo brain. They were genuinely interested in my ideas and what we had to offer.”
For most innovators, being taken seriously is a rare pleasure—yet it’s one of the key features of BIC. As chief executive Jonathan Kirkpatrick says, “You just never know who’s got the next Microsoft—you really don’t—so we’re always prepared to listen.”
The business idea
Weeks had already proven aspects of his prototype using ice cream vans and fish bait fridges. The next step was for BIC to find larger and more lucrative customers to trial the device.
“We discovered that as much as ten percent of a kiwifruit crop is lost during storage,” says Kirkpatrick. “And no one was servicing this area with anything like modern technology.”
Through its established business contacts, BIC approached a large kiwifruit and avocado packaging and storage facility in the Bay of Plenty, a major supplier to Zespri. The incubator helped broker a significant deal to create joint-venture technology company Apri, providing exclusive R&D and product development.
In addition, BIC partners provided legal, contractual and accounting advice. A key aspect of the deal meant iMonitor shared ownership of the core IP, allowing BIC and Weeks to explore other markets. In 2009 the company signed a contract with a large power company provider that needed some unique technology for its customers and wanted to deal with a reliable, New Zealand-based company. iMonitor was a perfect fit, and it’s now negotiating contracts with other major players. “Trust, particularly in this game, is paramount,” says Weeks.
Due to the many applications of its technology, and with the help of BIC, the company is exploring business relationships and markets overseas. Weeks expects existing contracts plus planned work to exceed $5 million this year—not bad for a small startup.
Asked if iMonitor could have grown without the help of BIC, Weeks is doubtful. “We certainly could not have grown into in the form that we are now. iMonitor is a very agile and diverse technology company that specialises in wireless monitoring and control technology. Neither we nor BIC had any idea this would be our speciality. What BIC did was help us get the business platform secure, make sure we had good introductions and support, and guide the company and its products down a commercial path.”
“You just never know who’s got the next Microsoft—you really don’t—so we’re always prepared to listen”
Kirkpatrick says incubators add value in areas where entrepreneurs are typically weak: disciplines such as legal structures, shareholder agreements and cashflow modelling—and in connections to investors and customers.
Getting the most
Like the proverbial sandwich, you get out of incubators what you put in. “It’s really up to the entrepreneur to put everything into the process,” says Kirkpatrick. “We offer expertise and ask probing questions, but it’s the drive of the entrepreneur that makes things happen.”
Weeks agrees incubation is a two-way street. “For it to work properly, it’s time consuming and that means money. iMonitor has grown from two guys with a goal into a company that employs 12 talented engineers; designs, tests, builds and deploys a variety of innovative technology products; is soon to expand overseas; and has good solid customers. That didn’t happen by accident—it’s called incubation.”