There’s a revolution underway. Deep within the Auckland Viaduct lurks the beginnings of our own tiny Silicon Valley. At GridAKL, more than 50 startups, in industries as diverse as medicine, robotics and augmented reality, are running the entrepreneurial gauntlet looking to build a high-growth business – or at least get a second funding round.
In On the Grid, a sponsored series with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), we tell their stories. In this, the sixth instalment, guerilla eyecare specialists oDocs.
Believe it or not, that 12 megapixel, optically-stabilised, six-lensed powerhouse of a camera on your iPhone is good for more than just Snapchat dog filters. In the right hands the iPhone can transform itself from vanity mirror to approved ophthalmological device with just a single, 3D-printed add-on.
Launched at TedX Auckland by founder and executive director Dr Hong Sheng Chiong, the visoClip and visoScope are lightweight, unpowered iPhone attachments capable of capturing sufficient detail to enable accurate eye assessment deep in the field. Considering the vast majority of the world’s preventable blindness occurs in the developing world, they’re potentially revolutionary devices for the millions of sufferers without access to treatment.
oDocs are currently based out of the GridAKL tech cafe, and I met CEO Hanna Eastvold-Edwins and her beautiful bear-dog Juno on a bench outside.
The Spinoff: Your product ships in a couple of days. What emotion are you feeling as the product goes out? Getting to this point must have been quite the journey.
Eastvold-Edwins: I always think it’s great. I think most artists or musicians or anybody who’s doing work and then sees the product of their mind go out into the world feels that pride. Also with all the teamwork that was required to get something to that level, it was an Instagrammable moment. We took a few photos. I mean, you’ve gotta. You have to celebrate those times. We don’t have the time and money to put as much into as it probably deserves in terms of fanfare and things, but for me personally it was good.
It’s the same feeling when a magazine comes out. It’s one thing to have an idea, and think it’s a good idea, but then actually seeing it in the flesh is something else altogether right?
Yea, and that’s why you do it I guess. That’s why you work so hard. And it also makes the quality of the work go up, I think. Knowing that people are going to see it, and that it’s going to be a reflection of your work, it’s a good thing.
In terms of your business journey, in brief, what was the set-up? How do you go from nowhere to shipping this crazy-ambitious project?
I know. I guess it’s a bit of luck, a bit of hanging with the right crowd. You put out a dream and if other people believe in that dream and you can coordinate something then it snowballs from there.
What was your initial idea?
The original idea came from an ophthalmologist, an ophthalmology registrar called Dr Hong Sheng Chiong. He had an idea for a portable eye-care product, and so some of the designers with BizDojo and I sat down with him to try to get his idea out of his head and onto paper. I always start there, I always say ‘What is the idea? Describe it exactly.’ And that’s almost the first prototype. That’s not to say it’s the perfect prototype, but for inventors they want to see that that idea, how it works, and then to test it against how closely it matches with their dream. We did that with him and made some refinements from there.
He launched at TedX a year and a half ago, and got a lot of attention. We said “Hey, that’s a good validation that the product is worth pursuing.” We thought “There’s definitely a business in there.”
I think a scaled business, one that actually can grow and innovate and reach that many people – having a commercial business – is probably more impactful than just giving stuff away for free. That’s when we decided to make commercial models, and realised that we could get it to customers for cheaper than they could print it themselves. Plus if you’re wealthy enough to own a 3D printer, you’re not our target market.
When you’re working in the social enterprise space, it seems like there’s a big bridge to cross in terms of that target market not being the sort of people who can afford 3D printers. If it’s mainly people in developing countries who need this sort of tech, where does the monetisation come from?
It’s a fine balance. I mean, we spent about a month when we first started just wrestling over this question, this fundamental question – are we a charity or are we a business? We thought through that and at the end of it we decided that Plan A, if we get this big grant we’ll become a charity. Plan B, if we don’t get the grant, we’re going to become a business. Plan C, split off.
So I’m sitting there at BizDojo and I look over my shoulder, there are guys in the meeting room and I see on the whiteboard, ‘Are we a charity or a company?’ And I was like ‘Oh my gosh, so many other people are wrestling with the same problem’.
There’s no business structure in New Zealand that caters for this. It’s a brand new thing. There’s only a limited amount of literature and all the mentors are kind of learning how to do it as well. It’s been a struggle, I’ll say. But it’s been a very good learning experience. I guess that’s what happens with something new. You’re always struggling with “‘Is this right or not?”, and so you test it a little bit. I’m not a business person but I guess there are analogous stories to that in product design and so on. You have to test out the thesis on investors: “Hey would you invest if we did this? No? OK, well we’re not going to do that.”
I guess that’s the benefit of being in the position you’re in – you don’t have a warehouse full of stock you need to move, you’re testing before you enter production.
Yea, that’s what it was, it was a test and a validation. Even now there’s testing still going on, clinical validation which is kind of a form of testing so to speak. But yeah, eventually that might be the case. You gotta get to a point where you can sustain yourself before that happens. You don’t want to be mortgaging your house on a test. But you lower the risk with every test that you do and eventually you have to take a punt, you have to say “OK I’m going to take the risk here, because it’s worth it. It could be huge.”
You’ve taken another risk in releasing the CAD files for free. Is that because of the fact that anyone who has a 3D printer isn’t a customer anyway?
3D printing, although it’s awesome technology – it will revolutionise manufacturing, and already has to a certain degree – it’s still not there yet in terms of scale and refinement and precision. I always make the analogy with water. Water is free, but everyone still buys it in certain areas. We want everyone to have access to clean water, but you realise that people pay a premium for a nicely packaged product or nicely executed product. Can you take that, and use it to actually get everyone clean water? And that’s what I think social enterprise fundamentally is – democratising wealth and access to care.
Using that same analogy with water, you always find an evil Nestle-level dude who wants to monetise it entirely. Do you ever worry that you will come to a crossroads where you will have to make a decision around accessibility versus profitability?
Definitely. You worry about that every day. Decisions like that happen almost every day, but then the other contrary decision is that you just go nowhere. It is about balancing one versus the other, and even so, look at the people who are making an amazing impact on the world like Richard Branson or Elon Musk or Bill Gates. They made huge commercial empires and then used the money to go and do something.
To some degree at the end of the day, if they can affect not just a hundred thousand people but a hundred million people, is that worth it? I would say to some degree it is.
But in the same way that traditional investors think about financial return, social impact entrepreneurs need to think about impact return. What is the actual impact? You always want to achieve the biggest impact you can, you know? That’s what I think.
Your team is located across the country, right? You’re not all based in the same spot. So do you have these discussions around the rights of your customers and so on?
We catch up on weekends and nights and evening meetings over the phone, and then over Slack. A lot of those heavy discussions get filtered through me, but are had in meetings with other advisors, such as the Akina Foundation and impact investors or other investors and advisors.
I noticed in terms of start-up culture your team is relatively mature and qualified. Some people already have other things going – like being an established opthamologist for example. What advantages are there in having that experience and wealth of knowledge?
We’re a unique team I think. Part of it is because we’re from the Dojo. I think when I met a lot of the guys, BizDojo was very careful to bring in residents that had that level of expertise [which meant that] to some degree you always were able to talk to someone with ten years experience on something.
There’s a huge advantage to it. I guess also a lot of us are part-time, or were part-time, so you couldn’t necessarily have hired those people for that same amount of money, and you won’t be able to get 40 hours from them in a week, but that 10 or 20 hours you do get is really high quality, and that’s our strategy.
Did you have confidence coming into this, teaming up with these people and throwing your lot together, that they were switched on and suitable for the role they were taking?
Culturally I think it’s a beautiful thing that we’ve got. If people feel at home there then they stay, and if they don’t then they leave, you know? But I guess we’re still early on yet. We have a team with good energy, we’ve stuck together, but in the future… I’m an engineer to a certain degree, I’m not an HR person. I just try to work with people who I can trust, who I believe, and who seem capable and motivated. If you’re a contractor you do the same. You think, “If I give my work to this guy, if I refer this guy, is it going to damage my credibility?” It’s that same thing. I just try to work with good people.
How did being in a scene like BizDojo help you to develop the skills that are necessary in your position, skills that you may not have come to through a mechanical engineering degree?
It’s a good question. They definitely raised my awareness about start-ups. When I first came in I wasn’t thinking like that, but I guess my interests were kind of to help entrepreneurs and startups. At some point I came to the realisation that I couldn’t just make money working for big companies in New Zealand that are manufacturing goods, and that my chances were probably better focusing my efforts on a singular product and trying to launch that or commercialise that.
It never sat well working for these big corporations, and yet I hadn’t done it myself, so I had to find a good product to actually try to bring to market, and after Hong approached me it was the same sense of “Wow, this guy is really amazing, this is a good opportunity and it’s for a good cause which I also think is important, I can’t just pass it up.” I won’t get an opportunity like that again. That’s I guess how it started and how it’s gone.
I’ve learned heaps through this whole process. I was telling my husband I don’t think you could go through an entrepreneurship degree, which I considered doing eight or nine years ago, and get as many learnings as you do when you run your own startup. And then of course there are always sessions going on here, guest speakers and so on, too.
I was probably one of the only engineers that came out to BizDojo trying to do something like that. We started this group called the Popcorn Collective, it was me and a few designers, and I was always trying to group them together, saying “Let’s work on a program together!” because I knew we could just smash it. But the problem was always around how do you motivate them to discard their other projects and focus on one project. I think that Bizdojo actually helped just as a silent partner in the background because one of the guys, Gil, who was like an office manager at the time, heard us talking and he said “I read this book called Slicing Pie, you should read it.”
So I did, I read it, and I knew it was exactly what we needed. So when Hong started talking about trying to bring people in I said that I thought we should use the slicing the pie method. He read the book and he said “let’s do it”. It’s all about share allocation based on time input, and that was really what powered us through that first six months and even now. I think that without that we wouldn’t be where we are now. It treats everyone fairly, it motivates people, it leverages the cash that you’ve got. All the things that people need in an environment like New Zealand. So I definitely think there’s a huge role to play in this small ecosystem.
With the product being targeted at the disadvantaged in developing nations, when it comes to actually field testing, are you going on the ground overseas? Or have you been able to conduct most of your research in New Zealand?
We’ve been working with people that take the units around, and the people who are buying are optometrists or ophthalmologists that go and volunteer or do research overseas. So we hear back from them. In the future to some degree we’ll do more, because we’ll be working with distributors in those regions. That’s kind of the take. I think the main thing is that we aim the business right so that we become sustainable and then in the next year, financial year 2018, we’ll be looking at going into those regions and selling and giving discounts to those who need them so that they can use the product.
It’s a cool space when healthcare meets philanthropy, almost the Doctors Without Borders style. It’s an exciting space to me. Does it give your team more motivation knowing you’re literally giving people their sight?
I think that’s why a lot of people go into eye medicine to be honest. There’s a purpose. I think that if more people worked for companies with a purpose the world would be a better place. It’s cheesy for me to say it, but I just didn’t see it that often elsewhere. Companies have models based on disposables. They could make reusables, but they make disposables because it makes more money, as well as more waste. That never sat well with me. You can make money in other ways, you don’t have to create single-use devices to be tossed in a bin. I didn’t like that. So you choose to work for who you choose to work for. I knew I had value to add, but I didn’t want to add it to those projects.
If you’re an opthamologist, you don’t have to help people overseas. You can make seriously good money just doing what you’re doing. Same for you as a mechanical engineer, you could make good money working for a big corp, but there’s something extra that motivates you.
We get great volunteers and it’s a good thing. It depends who you’re talking to, if you’re talking to an investor you say “the impact thing is great marketing” and if you’re talking to your team you gotta be more realistic: “Look, I know this doesn’t make sense financially sometimes, but we said we’re going to do it this way and so we have to do it this way.” It’s all about keeping a balance.
You can’t just tell an investor that helping people is the right thing to do.
They know that, but you’ve gotta frame it up for them as “But it will also help the business, and help you make money too,” otherwise they won’t invest. And I do believe the people who make the most impact are the ones that make commercial profits. You have to keep up with all these other competitors who are just focused on profit, and if you don’t keep up with them, your R and D doesn’t keep up, you’ll eventually get phased out. So you have to think that way.
Did you think when you first decided to move into the startup space, did you view it as a huge challenge? Obviously you have to be clued on to be a mechanical engineer, did you expect this to take a lot of work?
I did. I said to my husband, “You sure that you’re OK with this?” I’ve got a young kid, she’s three now, and I had tried to start a business in the past and I knew it was hard. I had no idea actually how hard a startup was compared to a business, but he was like “Yep, it’s fine,” and I said “OK, well you’re in for it now,” and we still struggle with it sometimes. He’s having to take a lot of the burden at home and financially, and it strains everything, but you just have to try not to break, or to let it break you. That builds resilience and tolerance and all the things that you need and require to actually build a successful business.
Within your team, how do you spread that message? I’m sure everybody else has their strains as well. What’s the motivating message?
I guess everyone builds up their tolerance together. If your friend needs help you go and help them, and that’s kind of what I think it takes, right? Share the load, share the burden, even family. It’s not just me, it’s not just Hong, it’s all the people that are around us and in our circles. They call it the ‘beg, borrow and steal’ phase, and it sounds bad, but I’m sure Hong is asking his wife to help out more, and my family realises I’m not going to buy them great Christmas presents and stuff like that, but it’s just what you’ve gotta do.
Are there certain unseen benefits? For example the way that I’m thinking about it is that you start running for your health and get sick abs as a side benefit.
Totally, we’re building our entrepreneurial core. You always get smarter or more educated and you try to develop a positive attitude. You probably see all these people around here and they’ve got a similar culture, you bring your dog in for example. I worked in an organisation before where it’s a little bit demoralising, doing the same thing every day; it wears on your patience a little bit, but you don’t get that here. Every day you’re challenged, every day it’s fresh and you feel like you’re doing something. Plus you get to work with awesome people, meet new friends, and go to awesome parties.
GridAKL is Auckland’s innovation precinct, located in Wynyard Quarter – powered by ATEED and run by BizDojo. New spaces are leasing soon – click here to find out more.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.