After two years leading New Zealand engineering and environmental consultancy firm Tonkin+Taylor’s digital transformation, Rekha Kharbanda has left the organization to launch her own software-as-a-service start-up.
Kharbanda and her team’s work at T+T resulted in her being awarded the top spot in the 2022 New Zealand CIO50 List. The biggest aspect of the organization’s transformation was the implementation of Earth Hub, a cloud-based data platform that enables engineers and scientists to design, interpret and consume highly technical information and develop cutting edge analytics and machine learning outcomes.
The groundwork done in platform design for Earth Hub enabled T+T to quickly deliver an integrated and automated emergency disaster response, damage assessment, insurance settlement and recovery solution during flooding in Nelson. It also led to a 50% reduction in person hours for T+T, sped up delivery timeframes for client reporting and insights, and got families safely back into their homes quicker.
Regarding the recognition of her efforts, Kharbanda says the CIO50 win came as a surprise.
“I came to the event thinking if I make the top 25, I’ll be super happy,” she says. “So getting that number one spot was overwhelming. It wasn’t until the next day when it sunk in as my whole LinkedIn was buzzing with all the congratulations and messages from Australia, New Zealand, and people I’ve worked with in America.”
She adds that the recognition meant a great deal not only to herself and her former colleagues but also to her community. “I didn’t realize it until I got those messages how much it means not only for myself but for them and my community. I’m an immigrant. I’ve come from outside, and it was really good to receive those messages from my community. They feel so proud that an Indian has come into a different country and has made it to the top. It has been a very humbling experience.”
Building AI tools to tackle impacts of climate change
Along with her former Tonkin + Taylor colleague Sjoerd van Ballegooy, Kharbanda left the organization earlier this year to capitalize on her interest in using AI and machine learning to radically improve the engineering industry and founded InfinityStudio.AI.
A senior geotechnical engineer, van Ballegooy has been recognized internationally for his work in geotechnical engineering, disaster response, and disaster risk reduction, and is co-CEO in the start-up.
While still very early in their journey, the InfinityStudio.AI team has two initiatives—Athena and Aperion—in development. Athena is a disaster response platform built to accelerate how organizations respond to natural disasters, and to calculate the potential impact of future events, while Apeiron is an engineering studio for modelling design, and includes automated assessment tools for the built and natural environment powered by AI and machine learning.
“What we’re trying to do is make a change to a sector that hasn’t changed for the past 20 years,” says Kharbanda. “Engineers design new things; engineers fix things when natural hazards happen,” he says. “And we’ve already seen that with Cyclone Gabriel, the flooding, and all the things happening around us because of climate change. InfinityStudio.AI aims to empower the engineers of the world with tools and digital solutions that’ll improve the effectiveness of decision-making and efficiency in terms of delivering engineering tasks.”
It’ll also help engineers create better designs enabled by AI and machine learning, she adds, to help prepare engineers for the future of climate change impacts.
Tonkin+Taylor has invested in the start-up, and T+T group managing director Tim Fisher said the strategic partnership was of benefit to both companies.
“T+T is invested in InfinityStudio.AI as we see digital ways of work as being critical to solving significant infrastructure needs and resilience challenges,” he says. “Our close partnership with InfinityStudio.AI is part of T+T’s digital strategy to grow our market leadership in geotechnical engineering and natural hazards resilience.”
While based in New Zealand, Kharbanda says they see a global market for their platform.
“We’re definitely looking for global domination,” she says. “We started from New Zealand but the intent is to target America—especially California, which is subject to seismic hazards—and also Australia. So that’s on the plan right now and then we’ll look to expand to the rest of the world.”
Leaving the safety net of corporate life
While she’s spent the past 20 years working in the safety of a corporate environment, she said she had to shift her thinking, moving into a start-up.
“Start-up is a very different mindset, she says. “It’s been an awesome ride. There are days when it’s hard and I don’t have any energy. The team I’ve been working with has been relentless. You just keep going because the vision and the passion is so strong for all of us.”
One of the biggest benefits of a start-up, according to Kharbanda, is being able to be agile and pivot according to the market.
“You’re not bound by legacy systems,” she says. “You’re not bound by risk averseness that exists within a corporate. That’s what makes innovation very hard in a corporate environment. With start-ups, you can move fast. You can make decisions based on what the customers want from us. Customer obsession has gone several notches up with this start-up environment because we need them for our survival.”
As a founder-led start-up, Kharbanda says it’s even more meaningful because she’s invested in it.
“I’ve got skin in the game, so it’s different,” she says. “We’re solving a really meaningful problem and solving something tough, which can’t be solved within a corporate environment that keeps the people going and keeps us going as well.”
How NZ can do more to support start-ups
Reflecting on whether New Zealand is a supportive environment for start-ups, Kharbanda says there are a few things that could be improved.
“I’ve spoken to a couple of Australian and American VCs and VCs here as well,” she says. “I definitely think America is much more mature in terms of how VCs approach founders. VCs are very founder friendly in America. If you look at the history of start-ups, the ones who’ve been very successful have been the ones who’ve had founders in control and leading the vision. They’re people who believe they can change the world.”
She adds that New Zealand needs a bit more maturity in the VC market to give founders a springboard to go global.
The importance of hiring the right people
One of the biggest lessons for Kharbanda since going down the start-up route has been getting the people part right.
“If you’ve got a great idea, that’s great, but if you don’t have the right team, the idea is nothing,” she says. “Hiring the right people is so important. Hiring slowly and firing quickly is something I’d advise every start-up and every founder. You have to be very careful in terms of hiring. How we started on this journey was we got the whole team together at once, but I would have been slower to hire to make sure the culture is protected. Your team has to be as excited, passionate, and as mad as you to be able to believe it can be done.”
The other thing she says she would have been done differently is think about other ways of funding the start-up.
“You’re able to get the right environment for the company to grow the board, for example,” she says. “You’ve got to have the right skills on the board to be able to support the start-up to grow and make the right decisions. Then you need to make sure the investors you’re bringing on board understand the vision and they’re in for the long term. If they are for a short term, then nobody wins.”
The next 12 months will have Kharbanda and the team totally focused on NZ, Australia and the US for the launch of their products.
“We’re bringing out our first MVPs at the end of August, which is pretty exciting,” she says. “I hope we get the right customer love and we’re able to create value for our customers. We want to get that boost to expand into different geographies. We are a SaaS company so that’s what makes it exciting as we expand and overcome barriers sooner than any consulting or professional services organization.”
Joining the CIO50 judging panel
As well as a busy few months with the launch of the MVPs, Kharbanda is also joining the panel of CIO50 judges for 2023. She says she’s really looking forward to seeing the submissions and learning about the impact CIOs and technology and digital executives are making.
“I’m really keen to see from the applicants how they have increased their sphere of influence within the organization. How have they truly innovated at the core in taking the organization on the journey of not just doing digital, but being digital, because that’s the big mindset shift. I’d really like to see how they have used digital and enabled the success of the business, whether it’s through efficiency or new revenue streams, or something different that really adds value to the business so they can serve customers better, because everybody is working for a wonderful customer experience.”
Nominations for the 2023 CIO50 New Zealand close on August 11.