SAN FRANCISCO — A group of Kiwis emerged from stiff competition back home to represent New Zealand here in the pursuit of fame and fortune.
But the competition wasn't on the water, where Emirates Team New Zealand continues to dominate Oracle (ORCL) Team USA in the finals of the 34th America's Cup.
This one was held safely on Pier 32, as nine Kiwi companies Wednesday hoped to duplicate their countrymen's sailing success in the venture capital world to bring home millions of dollars in U.S. funding.
The nine were selected after a competition organized by the New Zealand government to win the right to pitch 130 venture capitalists and entrepreneurs at Emirates Team New Zealand's base at Pier 32. They represent the tip of a New Zealand tech industry that saw its 200 largest technology companies grow 2.2 percent between 2011 and 2012 to $7.2 billion in sales, according to a New Zealand government study.
Forbes last year named New Zealand the "Best Country for Business" and technology represents New Zealand's fastest-growing, highest per-capita earning industry.
Combined, the nine companies that made their business pitches are seeking more than $80 million in U.S. funding, said Calvin Cheong, senior business development and investment manager for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, the country's business development agency. More important, they'd also like to take home some of the entrepreneurial magic that defines Silicon Valley, and saw the Cup as the perfect opportunity.
The Kiwis -- the nickname comes from the rotund, flightless birds endemic to the island country, not the bright green fruit -- have been getting congratulations for their countrymen's success so far on the bay.
But Scott Houston, chief executive and founder of GreenButton, would rather the VCs and entrepreneurs who heard his pitch Wednesday cling to New Zealand's reputation as an underdog.
"When people think of New Zealand they think of sheep and wool and meat and milk," Houston said. "But culturally we're similar to the U.S. and everybody likes to see the underdog win. And in this case, we're the underdog."
The companies were not expecting to get million-dollar checks written on the spot after their five-minute presentations.
Instead, they just wanted to generate enough interest to get investors' attention for potential partnerships down the road.
Rebecca Lynn, a partner with Menlo Park-based Morgenthaler Ventures, has mentored young New Zealand companies and has been impressed by what she's seen in the past five years, "not only in their technology but how they think about marketing and who their customers are," she said. "The America's Cup gives New Zealand a platform to stand up and tell Silicon Valley what they're all about."
Five minutes wasn't nearly enough time for Houston to tell the entire story of how GreenButton was born from Houston's job in 2003 as chief technical officer for filmmaker Peter Jackson during postproduction for "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," the third installment in the movie trilogy that helped draw attention to New Zealand's expanding tech capabilities.
To create the spectacular battle scene at the battle of Pelennor Fields, which involved 14,000 digital horses and riders clashing with 84,000 "orcs," Houston had to hastily buy and ship in 1,000 processors, then build an entire data center to create one scene.
"As an IT manager, it was crazy to buy this capacity for what we literally needed for only three or four weeks," Houston said.
So GreenButton allows customers in need of high-powered processing capability to quickly get time and cost estimates to use other companies' data centers.
GreenButton's clients and partners now include filmmakers, including Pixar, NASA, the British Library, the U.S. Department of Energy, Microsoft, SAP and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).
Houston hopes to attract $5 million in Silicon Valley investment to help market GreenButton "and provide the connections that will allow our company to grow."
If Emirates Team New Zealand ends up beating defending America's Cup champion Oracle Team USA, Leon Grice, New Zealand's consulate general in Los Angeles, doesn't think American investors will hold it against the nine Kiwi companies.
Quite the opposite, Grice joked:
"Americans love winners, don't they?"
Follow Dan Nakaso at Twitter.com/dannakaso.