A New Zealand educated scientist turned entrepreneur Dr Privahini (Priv) Bradoo, Cofounder and CEO of US AI startup Plank, returned to New Zealand from the US earlier this year to connect with early-stage investors at multiple Angel Association New Zealand (AANZ) events.

The AANZ with support from New Zealand Growth Capital Partners (NZGCP) hosted Bradoo in New Zealand in February 2024 to attend the Startup Ecosystem Enablers Meetup in Auckland, their annual Angel Summit, and to run exclusive workshops in both Auckland and Wellington.

Michelle Cole, Executive Director of the Angel Association New Zealand, said that the opportunity to have a high performing entrepreneur, such as Bradoo, return to the New Zealand startup community offered many chances for learning and reflection for both founders and investors alike.

“I would describe Priv as your perfect entrepreneur. She’s a global citizen, and she has confidence in spades. She has such a deep understanding of the realism of growing a business. This was made particularly clear when she was talking to the founders she met. Priv has also been successful with bootstrapping her latest company without seeking external funding,” says Cole.

NZGCP’s Investment Manager Clay Stevenson noted Bradoo highlighted that, “US founders have big ambition for their startups and Kiwis need to mirror this attitude because, with big ambition comes bigger outcomes.”

After her return to the US, I sat down with Bradoo to discuss her reflections on the visit and her insights on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Aotearoa.

Michelle Cole, Angel Association New Zealand.

Bradoo was born in India, grew up in Oman, and then moved to New Zealand to study. She graduated with a First Class Honours Biomedical Science degree from the University of Auckland and completed her PhD in Neurogenetics and Drug Discovery. She obtained her MBA from Harvard Business School after winning a Fulbright Platinum Entrepreneurship Fellow scholarship.

She worked with pioneering Kiwi startup Lanzatech before founding e-waste recycling & precious metal recovery company, BlueOak. In 2019 she founded Plank to help companies build and scale AI-enabled, remote engineering teams and to train the next generation of computer scientists. Bradoo has been named a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum since 2012.

“I was amazed to see the amount of time and emotional investment angel investors in New Zealand put into their portfolio companies. They seem deeply involved and very committed to the success of the founders,” says Bradoo.

She highlights that ecosystem building takes decades and that New Zealand is still in the early few decades of growing theirs.

With relation to what we could learn from other ecosystems she notes, “Every population, every society, every country is unique. So, you want to take the aspects that make sense for your ecosystem.”

Back in 2003, Priv helped set up the University of Auckland’s Entrepreneurship Program, Velocity, which was based on programs that had been successful at Cambridge and MIT. The program recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary.

“It’s important to set things up in the right way, because that will set the foundation either strongly or weakly for the future. The things that we do now, we will not see the impact of until the next five, ten, or twenty years, so we need to have a long-term view,” stated Bradoo.

There were several themes that arose for Bradoo from interacting with New Zealand investors and founders, which she summarised as follows.

“Valuations aren’t value creation. Value creation is many things — such as revenue and profits, IP, jobs, environmental impact, or adding value to the life of a customer. I think if, as an ecosystem, we can focus on value creation rather than vanity metrics and hype — with the objective of directing the limited resources to things that will actually drive impact in the long run — we will drive more meaningful results. Impact is important but equally important is wealth creation.

Clay Stevenson, New Zealand Growth Capital Partners.

“Keep the bar high at every stage. Successful founders are resilient and care about following the truth and we should treat them as such. This means being able to have the difficult conversations that need to be had or make the difficult decisions that need to be made. And with limited resources to support them, we need to ensure the people who are signing on to this path understand how hard the startup journey is going to be, and the high level of agency and tenacity that is needed to succeed.

“Even after you’ve kept the bar high, recognize that most startups will still fail –so celebrate the successes but also support the founders that didn’t succeed the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Because the ones who are crazy enough to keep coming back to this journey and don’t keep repeating the same mistakes will find a way to eventually succeed.

“First time founders focus on products; second time founders focus on distribution. It’s cheaper and easier than ever to build software so your access to customers will become proprietary. Also, there’s a lot you can do without raising a single dollar or writing a single line of code to validate your idea and get your wheels in motion. Have you spoken extensively to your prospective users and customers and gotten validation they will use your product once it’s built? Have you identified your first five hires and made sure they are ready to join once there is money to pay them?

“Double down on areas of wins. Successful, high-growth companies generally see their early employees go on to create their own companies and this can often create virtuous cycles of success. We need to double down on the sectors we have wins in and support the people coming out of these ecosystems in their entrepreneurial journeys.

“People who are forces of nature will make things happen. I think we need to seek those people out and empower them. No single place has a monopoly on those people, they exist everywhere.

“It’s individuals that drive change, not institutions. Even through this trip, seeing a few force-of-nature people like Michelle Cole, Bridget Unsworth and Suse Reynolds — their high level of agency, passion, and ability to drive massive impact was awesome. It’s that difference between acting and not acting on every level that can have a pretty tremendous impact on the trajectory of what we do in New Zealand.”

Story by Katherine Blaney

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