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David Downs delves into 'The Far Out East' and shares insights into Asia's emerging tech landscape

General manager of NZTE and author of No.8 wire and No.8 recharged, David Downs, shares gleanings from his time in Asia where he attended Rise, Asia's largest technology conference, and ran an investment showcase out of Hong Kong. 

From New Zealand, the so-called ‘Far East’, is actually to the North-west, and (to Kiwis used to travelling), not that far. This is just one of the strange things to wrap your head around when you travel into Asia.

Another is the constant feeling that you’ve fallen asleep (uncomfortably, if you’re sitting up in cattle class) and woken in a movie set in the future. Modern Asian cities are the stuff of futuristic utopian fiction – large numbers of incredibly tall buildings, gleaming marble floors, interesting bars and clubs, shops selling electronic goods that are unfathomable in their function. All mixed with heat, humidity and a mass of humanity. 

Man, I love Asia.

I’ve just returned from three days in Hong Kong – the city that blends old China with modern Asia, and adds a fair dollop of western influence to give it even more variety. I was up there for a couple of reasons, both of them work related.

Firstly, it was to attend a conference called ‘Rise’ – Asia’s largest technology conference. 15,000 attendees milling around a vast conference venue on Hong Kong’s waterfront, attending talks, doing workshops, watching demos and generally ‘networking’. I took the opportunity to try to learn (after a bit of an absence) what’s ‘hot’ in Asian tech, and I can report back that AI, Machine Learning, Blockchain, 5G and IoT are buzzwords that are used here with the same high frequency as in the USA.

I attended a number of sessions on the trends and new concepts in machine-learning, and came away thinking that what was a difficult and rarefied topic only a couple of years ago, is now almost a commodity. Most of the technical sessions I attended showed how easy it is to hook into massive amounts of compute power, and simple libraries of functions to create powerful applications quickly. ‘Hooking stuff together’ is the new trend in development. In my day we used to pride ourselves on how many thousands of lines of code our applications were; today it seems like the new measure of complexity is how deep the technology stack goes. Even for a very rusty developer like me, this stuff seems simple and accessible now.

The Rise conference blends technical sessions with interesting talks, and some great speakers – heads of large multinationals, the CEO of Hong Kong (similar to our Prime Minister), media commentators and even the odd Kiwi entrepreneur – I went to a session with Vend founder Vaughan Rowsell talking about how he started the company.

The typical conference stands were there of course – large vendors touting their cloud offerings, tech companies with crappy giveaways, and a merciful lack of the ‘booth babes’ that used to sully tech conferences. Thank god we’ve moved on. Indeed, there were dedicated lounges for women in tech, and a significant number of female attendees – good to see the gender balance near equal. 

There were also many, many start-ups advertising their wares – the conference made available spots for a couple of hundred small tech companies, which were fascinating to talk to. Coming from all over Asia (including New Zealand, which from Hong Kong is, confusingly, the Far East), these start-ups were showing products from consumer applications, to business enablement tools, to drone management systems, to ‘block-chain enabled IOT media players’. At times, it seems like the buzzwords were in overdrive - do we really need to use the block-chain for validating Facebook Likes?

As well as the technical folk, the vendor folk and the start-up folk, the other major group of attendees at a conference like Rise are the investors – like IoT bees around a block-chain enabled honeypot, these are the people who put the oxygen into the start-up ecosystem.

And that’s the other reason I was in Hong Kong – our agency NZTE was taking the opportunity of having so many investors in town for the conference to run an investment showcase. This was a two-hour session where 10 kiwi companies pitched their ideas and requests for new investment.

The companies ranged from early-stage, pre-revenue start-ups looking for their first major investment round, to experienced entrepreneurs looking for ‘smart capital’ to help them grow into Asia. Having the right investor for a company entering the Asian market can really accelerate their growth, as the right investor will bring networks, business connections and opportunities to the table.

Over the evening, we were able to tell the room of about 80 investors how New Zealand is the home of the ‘Upstarters’ (as we have started calling ourselves – www.upstarters.co.nz). While everyone in the room knew New Zealand for our landscapes and high-quality food and beverage, they weren’t all aware of the high number of technology companies, with innovation at their core. Coming from a stable and trustworthy country like New Zealand, our entrepreneurs think creatively and differently about how to solve problems, and (from what I saw at Rise), the tech is up there with the best. (Although we might need to sprinkle a bit more Blockchain into the mix).

We had a hologram of our prime minister to help open the event, which the investors in the room were really impressed by – so much so, we had to show it again at the end so that some could take ‘selfies’ with the PM. And judging by the questions and follow-up meetings requested with the Kiwi companies, it will be a worthwhile trip from an investment point of view. There are also now 80+ high-profile Asian tech investors with a more up-to-date perspective on New Zealand's strengths. In my experience, investors (and potential customers) don’t really care where you come from – they just want to know if your idea is any good, and if they can trust you to deliver. At scale.

And scale is where it’s at here – New Zealand has 15 people per square kilometre of land; Hong Kong has 7,000. A significant percentage of the world’s population lives within a four-hour flight of here. The market is huge, the people are sophisticated and savvy, and the appetite is strong. The New Zealand Trade Commissioners (the people we have living internationally looking after trade) tell me that Asia is a strong market for technology companies for New Zealand – and after just a few days in the Far Out North-west East, I’d have to agree.

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