Animated plea to help small firms' innovators

New Zealand can be a lonely place for innovators, especially for a small business, award-winning Animation Research founder Ian Taylor says.

The founder of the Dunedin-based computer graphics company, which produces real-time three-dimensional sports graphics used in major sports events around the world, has been named 2012 World Class New Zealander in the creative category.

Taylor, speaking at a Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce event in Christchurch this week, was critical of processes in New Zealand which made it "almost impossible for small companies to compete".

The words "government" and "innovation" were diametrically opposed and the Government needed to figure out how to attract people who were innovative into decision-making roles.

Small, innovative local companies were often overlooked for contracts that would make a huge difference to them, he said.

Taylor started Animation Research in 1989 as a joint venture between his television production company, Taylormade Productions, and the computer science division of Otago University, to explore the business potential of 3D technologies.

For Taylor's company, a significant win was when Ashley Smout, then chief executive of Airways New Zealand, entrusted the firm with designing a new air traffic control simulator.

"Ashley took a huge risk giving us this job."

Animation Research successfully designed the simulator, complete with photo-realistic images of airfields, aircraft and weather conditions – even including simulated rain splashes on the control tower windows.

"That's what you can do with a blank piece of paper and no track record, when someone in a position of power and influence steps up and says 'I believe in you'."

A similar thing happened when the company was tasked with designing ball-tracking technology for a client in India. The first demonstration did not work and Taylor thought they had lost the $1.5 million they had invested in developing the technology.

But the client said: "Go back and make it work, because I know you will."

The company went back to the drawing board and, with a $2 piece of wood, Jaffa sweets as cricket balls, a batsman and a bowler cut out of cardboard, and a $250,000 camera, developed its ball-tracking technology now used for sports events around the world.

He praised New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) for its support. "We've had a great relationship with NZTE because we've run into people prepared to bend the rules."

After being reminded several times by NZTE to complete an application for funding, and not having done it because the form was too long, Taylor said "a guy" from NZTE eventually walked into their Dunedin offices and informed Taylor he was there for two days.

The firm gave him some office space and after two days handed Taylor the application form, completed on his behalf, and told him there was $374,000 coming his way. "Now that is innovative."

Taylor insisted he had done "absolutely nothing" to deserve the World Class New Zealander award.

"The reason I'm up here is because every day for the last 20 years I have got up and gone to work with world class Kiwis."