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Silicon Valley royalty Scott Nolan gets set to take New Zealand's tech sector up a gear

New Edmund Hillary Fellow, high-flying Silicon Valley venture capitalist and ex-rocket maker Scott Nolan gives his take on the promise of the New Zealand startup scene – and offers some advice for Kiwi companies in search of funding. 

The latest TIN Report shows New Zealand’s top 200 tech businesses have generated $10 billion of annual sales for the first time. $7.3 billion has come from exports, making the tech sector our third largest export earner. The global index rating presents Aotearoa as the most prosperous country in the world. Our progressive, neoteric country is rated second for its business environment and first in economic quality. So not only are we positioned well, but the future looks bright as international interest grows in Kiwi startups across a range of sectors. And Scott Nolan is one of those interested parties and is helping to bolster New Zealand companies through advice and investment.

Sprouting from Silicon Valley, Nolan is setting sail for the edge of the world. With a Global Impact Visa in hand, he is ready to take Aotearoa to new heights.

“New Zealand is punching well above its weight in the startup world with a number of things happening there relative to the population size. I see huge potential, generally speaking. Based on what I’ve seen there are a few different dimensions New Zealand can exceed other startup hubs, including the US.”

Nolan has deep pockets in venture capital (VC) and a wealth of knowledge regarding emerging tech. Intrigued by rocketry and aerospace, Nolan flew into Silicon Valley as Elon Musk’s first intern at SpaceX (he built his first rocket when he was six). Now, he is a partner at Founders Fund, a leading VC outfit that has behemoths such as Facebook, Spotify and SpaceX in its portfolio and recently invested in companies like "automated manufacturing company PlethoraPlanet Labs, which was founded by NASA engineers to build a constellation of Earth-imaging satellites for humanitarian and commercial applications, and Synthego, which is focused on building tools to enable synthetic biology."

Nolan is a member of the most recent batch of Edmund Hillary Fellows, which also includes Silicon Valley royalty such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of CoinBase. The EHF is a three-year programme that aims to help solve humanity's largest problems. The initiative selects 50 international fellows, and 10 Kiwis into a cohort every six months. A key attribute is the Global Impact Visa programme (GIV). It gives Fellowship recipients access to Aotearoa, traditionally a difficult place to get entry to live, work and do business. And its intended function is to incubate world leaders from a range of backgrounds to collaborate, give local advice and invest in prospective New Zealand companies. Nolan is one of 28 fellows inducted in the first cohort.

“With The Edmund Hillary Fellowship I hope to plug into New Zealand’s ecosystem, to the startup environment and support even more great companies with investment and advice.”

Nolan’s relationship with New Zealand dates back to 2011 when he invested in Wellington startup 8i, which uses augmented reality for storytelling. 8i exhibits authenticated humans in 3D form, forging realistic holograms of human content and interactions. Additionally, as an international fellow his eyes are peeled for any Kiwi founders and companies that show promise.

“When a founder is focused on solving a really specific mission that is important to them you see a level of intellectual rigour and honesty that is really special, that is something I look for a lot. The founders should have already thought about every possible question before the investor has asked it, because they want to know that this idea is actually going to work and that it’s going to solve the problem they are focused on. They’re not answering these questions to the investor to raise money, they’re answering because they’ve answered it themselves.”

Nolan is interested in a broad range of sectors, but shows particular interest in AR/VR, film, agriculture, space and transportation. He is excited about our innovation in computer-generated imagery out of Weta, our history in agriculture and implementing drones and autonomous driving into transportation.

“The New Zealand Government is thinking a lot about building New Zealand’s space sector, drones, transportation, manned and unmanned vehicles.”

Shedding light on emerging tech, Nolan suggests New Zealand could be a world leader in deploying technologies. He cites Blockchain as a prime example. Blockchain is a digital, distributed ledger technology, which is the driver behind cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. The technology offers exchange between two parties without powerful intermediaries settling, distributing and facilitating the trade. Having immutable, unhackable secure software, the technology could replace third parties such as banks, which would disrupt transactions as we know them. 

Nolan says places like Silicon Valley, which are saturated with ideas and technology, can be less reliable in creating network effects. 

Discussion of emerging technology tends to arouse distorted thoughts of artificial intelligence and robotic beings. However, Nolan discusses the importance of looking beyond trends.

“I’m open to all areas, certainly ones that not many people are looking at, or ones that I might not be looking at this point. All over the place I think there is a huge amount of potential. At the same time, I am personally looking for founders that are looking for problems that are long-standing, where there aren’t many companies working.”