Collaboration key to growth for agri-tech business

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Hamilton agricultural software development company Rezare Systems has gone from strength to strength since its launch in 2004.

Rezare has its origins in the Crown Research Institute at AgResearch in Ruakura, where five colleagues got together 13 years ago to launch a commercial company. “Essentially, it started out as a decision-support group,” says Rezare co-founder and chief executive Andrew Cooke.

Now based at Waikato Innovation Park, the company provides ideas, guidance, software and product development expertise to those working in the agricultural sector.

“What we do is we take data and run it through mathematical models and is it to predict things,” says Andrew. “The core of what we do involves mobile and web-based apps, and using database modelling to make predictions, especially related to farming.”

From a company of five owners, Rezare has grown to a company with 27 staff. They take a design-led approach to projects, inspired by design thinking from Stanford University’s design school, The school, which focuses on how real users will behave, think and feel when interacting with the end product.

“It’s not just about understanding the task at hand, but how someone might use the software or app, including their environment and what they are trying to achieve,” says Andrew.

Importance of working with others
Collaboration has been key to the growth of the business. “Collaboration is very important, a lot of projects we do involve working with multiple partners,” says Andrew.

In the early days of the business Rezare signed a strategic partnership agreement with AgResearch, which set them on a collaborative path. “That agreement gave the industry confidence in us,” says Andrew. “It’s worked out well long-term as we’ve worked on projects together.”

Since then Rezare has partnered with the likes of DairyNZ, Fonterra, Gallagher and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on innovative IT projects of national significance to the agricultural sector.

“We are constantly thinking ahead of the curve to develop what is needed by the industry,” says Andrew.

One example of collaboration is Rezare’s partnership with the Gallagher Group to develop a dashboard that allows farmers to directly share and analyse information online.

Pairing Rezare capabilities with Gallagher’s channel and reach was a positive collaboration for both parties, says Andrew.

Hamilton-based business advisor Craig Purcell, who works with Rezare, says the company is a great example of a collaborative business. “Collaboration has benefited Rezare. Many small and medium-sized businesses are limited in their ability to do research and testing to get a product to market, but if they can get together with a large company or an industry association they have more reach than just by themselves.”

Craig leads Waikato Innovation Park’s Business Growth team, a group which offers free advice and business support to Waikato-area entrepreneurs and start-ups.

It is funded by the Regional Business Partner Network (RBPN) which is supported by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) and Callaghan Innovation. Their aim is to support businesses who have high-growth aspirations, are export focused, technology-driven or have innovative products or services with real commercial merit.

“My relationships with Rezare goes back a long way,” says Craig.

Over the years Craig and his predecessors have provided advice and support to Rezare “often over a cup of coffee”, says Craig.

And like many other start-ups and growing Waikato companies, they’ve assisted Rezare in applying for Government funding and grants. “They’ve come to us for assistance with Callaghan Innovation project grants and student grants.”

The grants have enabled Rezare to trial ideas and develop technologies that the company could build on for future products and services, says Andrew.

They have also utilised the Callaghan Innovation R&D Experience Grants, which allow companies to employ undergraduate students for small research and development projects over their summer breaks. “We’ve found a number of employees that way as well as testing product ideas,” says Andrew.

“The scheme has also contributed to a good working relationship with Waikato University.”

Craig says another strength of Rezare is that the company’s senior team are “willing to take risks, but do so in a managed way”.

“They are quite systematic in the analysis of the projects they will and won’t do,” says Craig. “They make use of the Callaghan Innovation grants to de-risk. In deciding whether or not to do something, they approach us for funding, which enables them to assess the relative risk so they can make a decision about each project.”

Craig leads a team of business advisors including Kahurangi Taylor, Hayley Smith, Peter Davey, Novell Gopal and Waikato mentor manager Tony Kane.

The business advisors meet with around 500 businesses every year. About 60 percent of those are outside Hamilton, and once a month advisors travel to seven regional Waikato towns – Thames, Paeroa, Tokoroa, Taupo, Raglan, Huntly and Tuakau – to meet with start-ups and other businesses.

An initial ‘discovery’ meeting is typically followed by an action plan that details opportunities as well as barriers to growth.

To date the team has engaged with more than 1400 businesses.

Craig says it is important for those with innovative business ideas or products to get advice early on, as they may be eligible for a Callaghan Innovation ‘Getting Started’ Grant. Others can access Regional Business Partner co-funding through the NZTE Capability Development Voucher Scheme. These vouchers enable people to upskill in areas such as strategic planning, marketing, capital raising, business systems, finance, sustainability, managing resources, governance and exporting – with access to around 60 local coaches and trainers.

The value of independent business advice
In addition to support from Waikato Innovation Park’s Business Growth team, Rezare has benefitted from other outside advice to grow its business.

One of the key milestones for the business was the appointment of an independent director, says Andrew. “If there is one piece of advice I would offer a start-up business, particularly those with more than one shareholder, it’s get an independent director. When you own the business and you are working in the business, you only see the business. That neutral viewpoint is important as you live and breathe it so you only see struggles from your own perspective,” he says.

That person was accountant Peter Rogers, from Finn & Partners in Te Awamutu, who was appointed director of Rezare in 2007. “He brought expertise in governance and experience as the director of other companies and trusts, and has been very effective,” says Andrew.

Knowing when to let go
One final piece of advice Andrew would give, in regards to business, is knowing when to move on.

In 2006 Rezare partnered with Waikato University in a new business venture called Rural Link, (now Lightwire), focused on providing fibre and broadband to rural customers.

In 2014, Rezare sold Lightwire to IT Partners. “It needed significant investment to grow,” says Andrew. “We had two growing businesses and couldn’t do both, so had to let it go.”

What’s next for Rezare?
The company has plans to expand into Australia, and their latest hire is a business development manager based in New South Wales. “We are still growing in New Zealand and still trying to make the most of every opportunity, but there are lots of international opportunities,” says Andrew.

He says that Australia has a lot of similarities to New Zealand, which makes it an attractive place to expand into. “They are not the same as New Zealand, but there are a number of things that are similar, in terms of the need to manage livestock and lots of investment happening in technology.”

Investing in agri-tech is vital for primary industries both nationally and internationally, says Andrew, especially given increasing demands on farmers.

“We are trying to produce better milk, look after the environment, look after animals better and we want to tell the story of the product and where it has come from. We believe technology will help farmers with all of these things. It’s an exciting space to be in,” says Andrew.

No matter what the future holds, Andrew says collaboration with others will remain a key part of Rezare’s focus, to continue innovating in the agri-tech space.


TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATION
from Craig Purcell, business growth advisor at Waikato Innovation Park

Collaborate to grow. “If you collaborate with someone you can innovate a lot faster in the medium term,” says Craig. For a small or medium-sized business, collaborating with an industry association or larger company can aid credibility, help share costs and research, and improve customer reach.

Do it consistently. “Collaboration is recognised as important [in business]in principle, but doing it is hard,” says Craig. “You have to do it year-in and year-out. It’s a larger commitment than just a one-off project. It means catching up and sharing information with people you trust, but get some good advice on how to protect your idea.

Give back to help others. As your business grows, take time to support up-and-comers in the industry.  “Andrew [Cooke, CEO of Rezare] is very good at giving back, and always happy to give anyone a call or talk to people and give advice, and that’s part of his collaborative approach.” When you give back, you connect with potential business partners and opportunities for business grow from there, says Purcell.

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