NewieVentures has a smarter Newcastle in its sights

INNOVATIVE: Heath Raftery, of NewieVentures, hard at work. Pictures: Marina Neil

INNOVATIVE: Heath Raftery, of NewieVentures, hard at work. Pictures: Marina Neil

It was in late 2015 and an engineer named Heath Raftery was working at a reasonably comfortable job in the product development space. His main focus was trying to get products out the door.

Working at this job, he says, he felt “comfortably useless”.

“I could happily do it day after day, but I had a feeling that I wasn’t contributing and I wasn’t applying my talents and potential,” Raftery says.

“I tapped a couple of people on the shoulder.

“Anne was a work colleague, she had plans to quit. And Dave I know through soccer, and he was happy to come on board and be involved.”

Raftery, Anne-Laure Peaucelle and David Sayer are the co-founders of NewieVentures. Together the three left their old jobs, pulled together some ideas and pitches and moved to a new co-working space called Eighteen04.

 ON A ROLL: Heath Raftery at the Eighteen04 shared workshop in Hamilton.

ON A ROLL: Heath Raftery at the Eighteen04 shared workshop in Hamilton.

Eighteen04 is located at Hamilton’s Hunter TAFE campus and, according to its website, it’s an “inspirational incubator and co-working space for clean tech and smart city based startups in the Hunter Region”.

Eighteen04 opened in April and NewieVentures has been in the space since late last year.

“The place had been gutted. It was compartmentalised offices, classrooms, very dated,” Raftery says.

“(With) the renovations, the goal was to retain the exposed ceiling and keep a bit of the original paint work but clear all the walls out and create an open-plan workspace.”

TAFE students have access to the entrepreneurial culture at Eighteen04.

Next to NewieVentures is another startup called SwitchDin which works with rooftop solar panels and smart battery storage.

Raftery and four other colleagues are working away, playing with ideas and also focusing on their local community.

Among other endeavours, NewieVentures is working to solve Newcastle’s parking problems.  

“That’s what we launched with. We pulled together a bunch of pitches and ideas for how to solve that problem,” Raftery says.

“Our goal was to find the available parks and direct people towards them. Finding a park contributes to stress, congestion and pollution and all kinds of dramas.

“If the parks could just identify themselves that would be the way to go.”

This was their entry into the startup world. It forced them to understand what a business model was, and what pitching is all about.

Raftery and his team have trialed several different formats to fix Newcastle’s parking pains. Their latest initiative is an App called Best Park.

NewieVentures provides product services for other companies too. They team up with different people and consultancies to get products off the ground.

Individuals within companies will come to them with a budget without an idea, or an idea with no budget.

Raftery said he and his colleagues are able to be extremely efficient because they don’t have the overhead and meetings that traditional bigger companies have to deal with.

“It’s extremely difficult within an established business to generate new products, encountering cultural roadblocks,” he explains.

“(With NewieVentures) it’s faster; people love that. It’s innovation on tap.”

NewieVentures aren’t just product developers. They also work in education.

Raftery was raised by two teachers and ended up marrying one. STEM – an integrated learning approach to science, technology, engineering and mathematics –  is a passion of his.

He tutors five students per week.

With the help of his school teacher wife, Ewelina, the two run children’s robotics workshops through a program called MiniSparx.

MiniSparx is a school holiday program aimed at teaching young minds how to use technology comfortably in a team environment to solve problems. They describe it as their “big jump into the STEM game”.

“The goal there was to introduce physical inventions to young kids before the stigma sets in,” Raftery says.

“We target the eight to 12-year-olds and give them a bunch of easy-to-use basic building blocks and lead them through some simple projects.

“People can put their own interests and creativity into it. We set the same challenge for everyone, but the stuff they bring to the table is very different.”

MiniSparx launched last August during the school holidays. Raftery sees it as a great way to introduce children to tools and technology and also give back to the community.

Currently they have about 25 per cent girls involved. He’d like to see more.

NewieVentures runs community-focused workshops for smart city engagement. They attract people from all ages and backgrounds.

They are also partnering with RDA Hunter to teach an “Internet of Things” course to years nine and 10 students. They’ll provide mentorship and equipment to four different schools.

Raftery has clearly defined ideas about his work and his goals.

“There’s a terrible mindset in Australia that technology is what you buy from China, and what we provide is resources, wool, coal, metal and services and everything (else) comes from overseas. We need to change that mindset,” he says.

From the job to the space to community involvement, Raftery is engineering a specific vision in Newcastle, and the future is looking interesting.