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Soul Machine’s Greg Cross on winning the 2019 NZ Hi-Tech Flying Kiwi award: ‘I’ve never had so much fun working in the tech sector’

Greg Cross.

Soul Machines co-founder and chief business officer Greg Cross, Predict HQ, Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck and Pushpay were among the big winners of the 2019 NZ Hi-Tech Awards held on Friday, which celebrates the best performing high-tech companies in New Zealand. Cross, who was nominated by his peers into the Hi-Tech Hall of Fame, shares some learnings from a career spent taking New Zealand tech companies to the world, and the direction he hopes the tech sector will take in the future.

The 2019 Hi-Tech Awards held Friday was an illustrious night out for New Zealand’s top-performing technology companies, with 1100 people in attendance at the awards dinner held at Spark Arena to ring in the successes of the past year.

One of the themes of the night was entrepreneurs who have reached new heights globally. One New Zealander who's done this better than most is Rocket Lab’s founder Peter Beck, who won Inspiring Individual of the Year.

Beck accepted his award via a pre-recorded video, as he was across town at his son’s talent show. Apologising for his absence, Beck said he was honoured to win the award and explained that his work at Rocket Lab has caused him to miss some key moments in his kids’ childhoods, so Dad duties are now a top priority for him.

He also emphasised the need for New Zealand tech companies to dream bigger beyond just the shores of Aotearoa, much like Rocket Lab has done in having global aspirations.

The other notable high achiever of the night was Soul Machines CBO and co-founder Greg Cross, who was named as the 2019 Flying Kiwi and inducted into the Tait Communications Hi-Tech Hall of Fame.

Hi-Tech Trust chair Jennifer Rutherford said Cross is an inspiring, passionate individual who has achieved a lot in his own career and is now inspiring the next generation.

“He is someone who has spent so much of his life on the road, taking leading-edge New Zealand-founded tech companies like PowerbyProxi and now Soul Machines to the world,” Rutherford says. “His relentless drive and passion is inspiring to many of our up-and-coming companies. He is truly a worthy recipient of the prestigious Flying Kiwi award.”

Cross is a serial entrepreneur who established Fact International, one of New Zealand's first software companies, in the USA and then Europe. In more recent years, he has had a hand in some of New Zealand’s most impressive tech companies, such as PowerbyProxi, a company co-founded by former student Fady Mishriki alongside Cross that spun out from Auckland University in 2007. It creates technology to charge devices such as cell phones wirelessly and was bought by Apple in 2017 for more than $100 million.

Soul Machines was founded in 2016 by Cross and Dr Mark Sagar, and its world-first Human Experience Platform allows it to create hyper-real, emotionally responsive digital humans for roles ranging from services and support, to sales and product. Cross is currently chief business officer at Soul Machines.

Speaking to Idealog today, Cross said he was “humbled” to be named into the Hall of Fame by his peers.

“I spoke at Auckland Grammar School’s 150th celebration last week and I said to the kids there that when I left school, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he says. “The career I built didn’t really exist when I went school. Certainly, my first steps into the industry were a result of an internship at Trigon Packaging with Bill Foreman.”

Trigon was one of the early adopter of IT in New Zealand, and installed one of the first mini-computer systems in the country. Cross was in charge of the Quantel model, which had 96KB of memory, 256MB of disk space and cost more than $1 million – a far cry from the sort of programming his company Soul Machines works with now.

“Bill was the guy that first got me interested in computers, software and how we can put computers to work to help us in business,” Cross says. “He was not only my entry point to the industry, but he inspired me to want to compete on the global stage and to build a successful international company.”

Cross says that launching Windows 95, the first real consumer-orientated product to come of the software industry while head of Microsoft of New Zealand, was among the highlights of his career, as was launching BellSouth NZ, one of the biggest start-up tech investments ever made in New Zealand.

However, he says the people have been the most treasured aspect of the journey.  

“As much as this is the tech industry, it’s still all about the people: the privilege of working with my co-founder Fady [Mishriki] at PowerbyProxi, and more recently, Dr Mark Sagar at Soul Machines. There’s countless people along the way who inspire you, motivate you and create opportunities.”

He also has no plans to slow down, either.

“It was very genuine when I thanked the co-founder of Soul Machines Mark Sagar [in my acceptance speech], because I’ve never had so much fun working in the tech sector. I love working with love people, I love the adventure the tech industry gives me in terms of my ability to go travel regularly and interact with people all over the world – I love what I’m doing and can’t ever imagine not doing it.”

In terms of what the technology sector should be thinking about for the future, Cross says like just like every other industry in the world, the tech industry isn’t immune to disruption.

“One thing New Zealand needs to think more about is, what type of tech industry does it want to grow and build over the next ten years?” He says. “I would love to see more science, deeper research-based companies like PowerbyProxi, Soul Machines, Rocket Lab and Lanzatech coming out of our ecosystem. It’s going to be very, very important to counter-balance some of the commoditisation of other parts of the industry.”

The other piece of advice he had for emerging tech companies and entrepreneurs was similar to that of Beck’s: don’t be afraid to think global.

“The world we live in is a much smaller world today, so figuring out how to compete for capital and for clients on the world stage as early as you can is important. Don’t be afraid to beat on doors – or kick down doors – in the process,” Cross says.

Another big winner of the night was Pushpay, which was crowned the PwC Hi-Tech Company of the Year. The company was founded in New Zealand in 2011 and is a mobile app for managing church, non-profit and school donations. It has since expanded to be used in 19 countries, with more than $5 billion processed in tithing and other financial transactions through the app in the last year.

Judges said of the company, "Pushpay shows what happens when a metrics-mad company just keeps pushing. During 2018, Pushpay’s platform was used by more than 7500 churches around the world to process more than $5 billion in contributions. CEO Chris Heaslip has built a strong and enduring ‘people first’ culture that has endured even as the employee base globalised and grew into the hundreds."

Predictive software company PredictHQ took out three awards: The Duncan Cotterill Most Innovative Hi-Tech Software Solution Award, the Kiwibank Most Innovative Hi-Tech Service Award and the Coretex Hi-Tech Emerging Company of the Year Award. Robotics Plus also had a great night, taking out the Callaghan Innovation Maori Company of the Year Award and the NZTE Most Innovative Hi-Tech Agritech Solution Award.

The full list of 2019 Hi-Tech Award winners are below.

2019 Flying Kiwi and inductee into the Tait Communications Hi-Tech Hall of Fame

Greg Cross

Xero Hi-Tech Young Achiever Award

Winner: John Roy from Coretex

Visa Best Hi-Tech Solution for the Public Good Award

Winner: The Cacophony Project

IBM Most Inspiring Individual Award

Winner: Peter Beck

ATEED Hi-Tech Creative Technology Solution Award

Winner: Spalk

Callaghan Innovation Hi-Tech Maori Company of the Year Award

Winner: Robotics Plus

Duncan Cotterill Most Innovative Hi-Tech Software Solution Award

Winner: PredictHQ

Endace Most Innovative Hi-Tech Hardware Product Award

Winner: Taska Prosthetics

Kiwibank Most Innovative Hi-Tech Services Award

Winner: PredictHQ

NZTE Most Innovative Hi-Tech Solution for the Agritech Sector Award

Winner: Robotics Plus

Quick Circuit Best Contribution to the NZ Hi-Tech Sector by an Internationally Headquartered Company

Winner: Talent International

New Zealand Venture Investment Fund Hi-Tech Start-up Company of the Year

Winner: Whip Around

Coretex Hi-Tech Emerging Company of the Year

Winner: PredictHQ

Highly Commended: Fergus Software

PwC NZ Hi-Tech Company of the Year Award

Winner: PushPay

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