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Griffin on Tech: The PM is off to the US to spruik our tech

Peter Griffin, Editor. 18 March 2022, 10:56 am

It's always been the big dream for New Zealand tech start-up founders, to make it in the biggest market of well-heeled buyers - America.

We've had some success in doing so, but mainly in lucrative niches and in the business to business space rather than selling to consumers, who do happen to love our Sauvignon blanc and beef.

Xero was the big hope for cracking the US market. The accounting software company founded in Wellington back in 2007 has had significant global success, but domination has eluded it in the US, where it has faced strong resistance from financial software giant Intuit.

Digital services accounted for 41% of service exports to the US last year, claiming a larger share as tourism services slumped. According to a report from the NZ-US Council released this week, the US is now New Zealand's largest services export market, and tech-related services have a major role to play in that.

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It makes sense then that the Prime Minister will lead a trade delegation to the US in May that will largely focus on the west coast and on pushing our high-tech exports. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) products will no doubt be a large part of the mix. Our local SaaS players have proven adept at appealing to US businesses with cloud-based online services. Our gaming industry, likewise, will be a topic of discussion,as will space technologies thanks to the success of Rocket Lab, which has a large presence in California.

Ardern's visit to the US comes as the Government kicks off a branding and storytelling effort designed to tell the country's "tech story". NZ Tech Story will be accompanied by a $1 million marketing campaign. It's not before time. While we have been particularly good at positioning the country in general as a great place to visit and we owe Peter Jackson a huge debt of gratitude for putting us on the map for many Americans, there's limited awareness of what we have to offer in the tech space.

Disruptive technologies

That not only goes for potential buyers of our products but prospective investors who have the cash to invest in our software start-ups and fledgling deep tech companies. What are we particularly good at? SaaS and agritech spring to mind, but we need to really map out and showcase the areas we want to be seen as world-leading in.

But the PM's trip should go further than building appetite for our exports. We need to be forging more meaningful relationships with US tech companies and research institutions, collaborating on R&D, exchanging talent to a greater degree and co-investing in the infrastructure that will power the development of the next generation of disruptive technologies. I'm talking about artificial intelligence, quantum technology, autonomous vehicles and robotics. 

Google was just made a founding partner of the CSIRO's National AI Centre across the Tasman. The Crown-owned research institute now has a pathway to the global market for innovations created through that joint venture. In comparison, we are merely dabbling in AI R&D. There was some mention in the Digital ITP document about creating a national AI centre but there's nothing concrete about that. The Aussies are already doing it, as are most other countries that have realised the strategic importance of having national capability in AI.

Tech allegiances

The world is shifting into opposing camps when it comes to technology due to the shifting geopolitical landscape. The conflict in Ukraine will only accelerate that as Russia is increasingly isolated and looks to allies such as China to keep its economy alive.

Australia has opted to go all-in with the US, its traditional friend in trade and military alliance. We've been more ambivalent, taking a neutral stance thanks to our reliance on China for agricultural exports. But when it comes to tech, our future is aligned with the US. The PM has seen the export figures and realised tech is the central pathway to higher-value exports that can create higher-paying jobs and help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

She now has a key opportunity to help put us on the map and make tech an even bigger slice of the export pie.


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