Pavan Vyas is our quiet tech superstar. He arrived in New Zealand as an immigrant in the mid-90s, found he had a knack for coding and took computing at Auckland University. He became involved in start-ups (Apple once flew him to Cupertino for a meeting), venture investing, studied at Oxford University, had a stint working in finance in London and returned home to take up a role as Head of Ventures at Sky TV NZ.
Since 2016 Vyas has been CEO at RUSH digital a design and technology studio in Parnell which works with customers like Google, Z Energy and others to help “navigate their digital future”.
Originally focussed on gaming the company has expanded its remit in recent years.
At first glance its mission statement – “We design technology to better serve humankind” – might seem just another feel-good tech tag-line – until you realise that Vyas and his team were responsible for developing the Covid tracer app we use every time we leave the house.
The app was developed in just six weeks. It proved so successful the NHS came calling and adopted it themselves.
Though Vyas is one of our leading tech talents he’s little known outside the sector.
We wanted to find out a little more about him, RUSH’s projects, and if technology can really help build a better tomorrow.
Although you’ve had key roles in business and tech both here and overseas most people not in the sector know you as the man behind the Covid app. What I found interesting is that you were very early on this – getting the team at Rush to work on prototypes before there was a single case in NZ. Did you realise the implications as soon as you heard about the outbreak in Wuhan?
In February 2020 the global pandemic was creeping closer to New Zealand, and we believed consumer technology could play a part in response to the pandemic, and made some prototypes.
Driven by our purpose – To Design Technology to Better Serve Humankind – we immersed ourselves in the problem space – learning whatever we could by speaking to people in public health about the operational implications, the latest public health advice from the WHO, investigating open source pandemic response technology, and connecting with the international tech community working on the problem which, at this stage, was much bigger overseas.
Things were pretty uneasy when New Zealand’s case numbers were doubling every three days. Clients were reducing their spend, and we weren’t ruling out any options to keep going. So it was a really nervous time in the company. I remember pulling about 12 people into a room and telling them what was happening, and saying that we’ve got the chance to work on this thing for the Government that could actually save lives.
Seeing millions of people both here and overseas using your Covid-app technology must be a very rewarding experience. I mean you’ve literally saved thousands of lives haven’t you?
It’s absolutely humbling and rewarding.
Recently the Turing Institute in the UK undertook a research study based on data from the NHS Test n Trace programme which uses our QR code technology. They estimated that around 600,000 cases had been prevented last year in the UK through use of the app, which modelling suggests could have saved 6,000 lives. The study has since been published in the Nature journal.
Do you have other innovations you’re working on in the covid/pandemic space?
Compared to when the pandemic started, through amazing science and research, we have a much better knowledge of the virus – but as delta has shown, the virus evolves and our approaches will have to as well. We don’t know when, or if, the pandemic will end.
So through our work with MoH and other customers, we are well-positioned to develop the platforms that help us co-exist with the virus in a post-vaccination era.
Anticipating trends, needs and solutions that’s an especially important skill to have in the tech space isn’t it?
‘Trends’ implies that you’ve analysed the past – but right now, the world we are experiencing is very volatile. I think that spotting micro-trends via continuous sensing of the emerging landscape quickly is especially important. This is where we can identify needs, react and respond as fast as we can – almost in real-time. That’s what is important right now.
I see something of that same mindset in R/VISION – can you explain what that is?
So much of RUSH’s recent impactful and award-winning work showed us that cameras play a big role. Be it helping kids in the Starship Emergency room, or using cameras to enable transactions at Z service stations or even taking a photo and learning a language on Kūpu. We’ve learnt that it’s very difficult to get insights from cameras unless you deploy complex systems – these can be hard to manage and don’t scale well unless significant investment is made. We’d like to solve this by democratising computer vision.
Rather than investing in proprietary platforms, democratising access to computer vision and making it simple and easy to get the full benefit out of video or imagery is what we’re striving for.
R/VISION is effectively a turn-key ‘AI-Enabled’ software and hardware solution which can be used for automation based on vehicle license plates and general object detection, Health & Safety compliance, Pay-by-plate frictionless payments, digital loyalty, vehicle & crowd analytics, security automation such as stolen vehicle alerting and hazard or trespass alerting.
You’ve said that you’re passionate about large tech companies in NZ needing to develop global business models…
There are several NZ based companies such as energy companies, telcos, retailers and others that operate as local monopolies or duopolies. Whilst their market capitalisations are sometimes in the billions, their focus is solely on New Zealand.
In my opinion, their biggest blind spots are the overseas players who can swoop in and eat into their market share almost overnight. We’ve seen this in media already.
So to defend ourselves and take a wedge of the global pie, business models need to consider how they’re operating relative to their international market and what strategies are they going to pursue to take a slice of the global market.
You came to NZ as an immigrant in the mid-90s – was it always going to be a tech related career for you? How did you get your start?
Yes, it was – by the end of the late 90s I was convinced this was my path. I worked on some startups with friends at Uni, then joined a tech start-up straight out of Uni which was where the journey began.
How has RUSH found recruiting in the pandemic? Many in the sector are struggling to get skilled engineers?
We are finding it difficult, same as the rest of the sector. New Zealand doesn’t have the necessary numbers of local talent in software development and design to unlock growth, we’re losing talent to overseas companies and the salaries are tough to compete with.
The current situation is the highest amount of movement since the 70’s, so it’s definitely a problem affecting everyone in the sector.
You now work with some of the biggest companies in the world – is there an abiding respect for NZ tech businesses from those sort of players? And what is it that has made NZ companies like Rush and Xero punch way above their weight?
Taking an economist view – the factors at play include net immigration which led to a lot of growth in our country, particularly since the 1950s. We’ve got a national aptitude for maximising what we can achieve with minimal resources – that’s where innovation happens. And by and large, we’re also a wealthy and resourceful country which means that our population can adopt tech faster than many other countries. Look at the uptake of eftpos in the 1990s for example.
So what it means is that NZ is a brilliant petri dish to test, build and scale new tech – this gives us the ability to punch above our weight.
Is financial success a driver for you personally?
I’m driven by the desire to contribute to ensure our economy is fueled by knowledge and technology, and then that prosperity is evenly spread across the population.
This can only happen if the tech industry takes every region and demographic along on the journey, which is why I spend my spare time – when I have spare time – working with early-stage startups like Frankie (tellfrankie.com) and organisations like Take2 (www.take2nz.org) that create opportunities and demand equity.
I don’t see it as a success if I am the only one prospering.
What’s exciting you about tech right now?
We are on the cusp of moving from internet 2.0 to the next iteration of technology. Virtually all old school tech is moving to the cloud, there’s a SaaS product for nearly everything these days, so the next frontier are in categories like stable quantum computing, space tech, and nano-technology.
The other thing that excites me is the sheer focus on, and investment in businesses designed to make the world better such as clean tech, solar power and so on. I firmly believe that globally we will be able to solve a lot of our existing problems with technology.
Who are your heroes in the tech space?
I had the privilege of knowing Reid Hoffman at Oxford, he’s so humble. He thinks of problems and solutions from a first-principles place. He’s all about giving his knowledge away for free. I highly recommend his ‘Masters of scale’ podcast if you have the time to listen.
I also admire Vinod Kohsla who went to America in the 70s and grew the first generation of tech companies and now invests in cleantech and biotech, and Jack Ma in terms of rocking the boat, speaking his mind and trying to act for good.
What’s your view on cryptocurrency?
I’m a firm believer that there is a place for it – and cryptocurrency will take a large share of future market. I read a quote recently that said something along the lines of; “We’ll soon realise the kids of tomorrow arent opening bank accounts, they’re signing up to crypto wallets instead.” That’s fascinating.
Right now we are in the wild west phase of crypto, parallel to the internet boom of the late 90s when we didn’t know who the dominant players were and what companies would come out on top. We’re watching and learning, but right now we don’t know who will win the crypto race.
I will say that unless you have lots of disposable income, it would be a risky choice right now.
I report on the many problems one encounters with Big Tech – privacy, security, monopoly etc – what’s the biggest challenge facing the sector at the moment in your view?
There are more and more bad actors playing in the space of capitalising off privacy or security breaches. I would guess most non-tech industry people can’t understand truly how our lives would be affected if a major breach were to happen.
For example, what if a security threat brought down AWS? That’s 80% of the internet gone.
And I think we will see an event like this in our lifetime.
Rush’s vision is – “we design technology to better serve humankind” – that’s an ambitious goal – how would you rate the company’s progress so far?
We have evidence and feedback that the products and solutions we have created absolutely are making an impact. Where we need to mature is in how we can continuously measure the impact, and find ways to increase that through the work we do globally.