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All ideas are welcome at AUT’s business incubator

For most investors, the prospect of some random guy turning up with a ‘worldchanging idea’ is horrific. Why waste your time with nutters and dreamers, they typically ask.

For the tolerant folk at AUT University’s Business Innovation Centre (BIC), dreamers are not only tolerated, they’re encouraged.

“You just never know where the next Microsoft will come from, so who are we to judge,” asks BIC chief executive Jonathan Kirkpatrick.

And in the case of Enervate, who would have guessed that a builder from West Auckland might be powering traffic booths and building sites in Asia with a novel, green energy scheme that could attract millions in Singapore investment?

Clean dreams

Enervate started nine years ago when builder Justin Robertson had an epiphany in his car. He saw a line of traffic brake simultaneously as it approached an intersection. “What a waste of power,” he pondered. Most of us would shake our heads and move on but the former aircraft technician scribbled down some maths and figured out that the power, if captured, could be turned into useful, clean electricity.

The thought bubbled for six more years and when in 2006 he’d completed his equations, Robertson had invented one crazy idea: a speed bump that turns the movement of a car into electricity. Sounds clever. But what to do next?

Tested

At this point Robertson did a second clever thing. “I’d done the theory but as to how it would work as a business, well, I needed guidance.”

Kirkpatrick points out that this single act of humility and self-knowledge sets Robertson apart from many other wannabe entrepreneurs. “Justin had a good idea, actually a terrific idea, but he realised that ideas are insufficient if you want to create a business.”

Robertson knew about business incubators and investigated the five available in the Auckland region. “I researched all five, ranked them, then chose AUT because of its unique combination of academic and technical expertise and its real-world connections into business.”

I first sat down with Kevin in February 2007. Within a year I had a working prototype and discussions with an international investor. There’s no way I could have done that by myself.

The BIC requires applicants to meet four criteria: a proven market for the product, ownership of intellectual property, the right attitude, and proven technology. An interview with the incubator managers Kevin Ha and Mike Aitken quickly established Robertson had the first three. The next step was to assess the technology. “We took Justin’s calculations to some of the engineers at AUT who said they were largely correct.”

He was in.

Hard yakka

Once you’re in the programme, BIC rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. “They really take mental ownership over your idea,” says Robertson. “I was worried I might lose my zing as an entrepreneur if I went into a formal structure, but actually they drove the process so hard it became exciting.”

BIC began a multipronged assault covering all aspects of the business development: securing IP using IP specialist James & Wells; assessing the value and dynamics of the green energy market; creating a business structure using Chapman Tripp that allowed for funding and growth; securing some initial funds from friends and family; developing the first prototypes and opening discussions with Singapore investment partners.

A key benefit of BIC is the connection into the business world. Robertson was thrilled to receive free advice and assistance from a wide range of businesses, including engineering firm Hansen, which provided valves and pipes, and industrial design firm Procreate.

Singapore sling

BIC also has well-established relationships with the Economic Development Board of Singapore. By the time the first prototypes had been built, Ha and Aitken had organised a trial to occur in partnership with the Singaporeans on one of the busiest stretches of road in our region: the Malaysia-Singapore border.

“It blew up after a two days due to the volume of cars, but basically it came back with flying colours,” says Robertson. “More importantly we identified things we need to fix, which we have done now.” The small prototype successfully powered the lights and electricity of the border patrol booth for two days. On an industrial scale the machine could generate 15kW an hour, enough to power 12 good-sized homes.

Now into version three, Enervate is at a critical juncture. With a successful prototype and proven market, it requires investment partners to commercialise the idea. As of mid-November Enervate is seeking investment to match a Singaporean government grant that is expected to be confirmed prior to Christmas. The Singaporean government has asked that within 15 months Enervate locates part of its operations in Singapore.

Conclusion

Robertson says that without BIC, his idea would still be on paper. “I first sat down with Kevin in February 2007. Within a year I had a working prototype and discussions with an international investor. There’s no way I could have done that by myself.”

Perhaps not everyone has as good an idea as Robertson. But Kirkpatrick’s point rings true: you don’t know until you try.

Contact:

Jonathan Kirkpatrick
Jonathan.kirkpatrick@aut.ac.nz
09 921-9507
www.aut.ac.nz/innovationcentre

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