A small Waikato company is making it possible to do laboratory work, outside the laboratory.

Sagitto, founded by George Hill, helps companies improve and monitor the quality of their products, by putting a laboratory in the palm of their hand.

When most people think of entrepreneurial start-ups they often think of a 20-something innovator. That’s not George. This entrepreneur has lived many lives before Sagitto and, as perhaps Soda Inc’s oldest co-working tenant, he’s reaching lofty heights in business working with global companies such as H&M.

George was a farm boy from Taumarunui before he studied at both Canterbury and Lincoln universities gaining degrees in physics, mathematics, philosophy and economics.

“I realised I couldn’t make a living in philosophy, so I worked as an agricultural economist with MAF for a few years, then I changed to banking,” he said.

George worked at the National Bank of New Zealand before going to do his OE.

He then went on to further his banking career, working for the Bank of America in both London and Sydney for 10 years.

He said while he was there he was involved with developing “expert systems with artificial intelligence and I got the bug because that really appealed to me”.

When George finally returned to New Zealand he founded and ran a small start-up company called Buzzavox Ltd. It let travellers, spread across 18 countries, leave each other voice messages in 12 different languages. This was all before the internet bloomed. As soon as free email services such as Hotmail came to be, George’s company was destroyed.

“Who needed voicemail when email would do the trick? So, I had to close that up.”

He then became a business development manager at Hill Laboratories, a commercial testing laboratory in Hamilton.

While working at Hill Laboratories, George studied part-time with the University of Waikato’s Machine Learning Group and introduced machine learning to Hill Laboratories’ operations.

Soon after he left to start his own company, Sagitto.

“I really liked the concept of, instead of having samples going to laboratories for testing, taking the laboratory to the sample. If you can get something small enough, you can just test it there on the spot. It was a good idea, but a little ahead of its time perhaps because things like smartphones weren’t yet widely available.”

That was eight years ago and, George said, it’s really only in the past year that things have started to fall into place.

“Suddenly the word of mouth has really started to spread. It’s really hard when you’re a small business without a big profile, getting out there and getting noticed.

“I think, also, that a few years ago machine learning was a bit daunting for some people. We’d say we use machine learning and people would give us a blank look. But now it’s more current because of Google and Microsoft and the likes of Facebook, people are much more comfortable with the idea.”

George’s creation, Sagitto, helps manufacturers and growers measure a wide variety of product attributes in a matter of seconds, from almost anywhere with a spectrometer.

“We sell a spectrometer to gather data. This is really a means to an end; it’s what you can do with the data that’s the fun thing. The spectrometer measures what things are made from. We can measure what someone’s shirt is made from, or measure the quality of hops, or transformer oil. It’s quite a varied range of things.”

The spectrometer fits easily into the size of your palm. To use it you put its near-infrared sensor against the material you want to measure, it scans it and sends the information to an app on your smart phone.

“Our customers are all over the world, but I wouldn’t say we are big yet,” George says, humbly.

He said that while the spectrometer was a physical device, everything else was data.

“By itself it’s really just an expensive paperweight. It’s not until you do some smart things with the data that it becomes useful. The data comes to us through an iPhone app, goes into the cloud and goes against models we’ve built for our customers and then they get the results back.”

George had worked by himself for seven of the eight years Sagitto has existed.

“Then I got to the point where I really needed staff.”

That’s when he moved into the co-shared office space provided by Soda Inc with two full-time employees and a few part-timers.

Soda Inc is a Hamilton-based business incubator which works with founders from all industry sectors and also provides co-working office space.

“Soda has been really great, it’s allowed me to have the space to employ people and work together and have a little team, it’s flexible and convenient.

“It doesn’t matter where we are based in the world, we can work with our customers from anywhere thanks to the internet.”

George said Sagitto had done two main things that turn conventional laboratory testing on its head.

“One, our spectrometer costs a tenth of traditional laboratory instruments, because we’ve shrunk it and put all its controls in a smartphone app.

“And, two, we harness the power of modern artificial intelligence techniques to squeeze amazingly high accuracy from our tiny spectrometers,” he said.

Sagitto has customers in a wide range of industries including plastics, textiles, brewing and natural plant extracts.

To learn more about Soda Inc which works with founders from all industry sectors and also provides co-working office space, visit their website here.

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