Ben O'Brien

When it was launched in 2012 StretchSense was one of those businesses ahead of its time that few people really understood. Prior to incorporation its three founders believed there was a growing market for energy harvesters. The problem was their customers kept telling them the real opportunity was in sensors.For co-founder Dr Ben O’Brien it was the closest he’s come to a “lightbulb” moment when he realised the (then proposed) business needed to change course or pivot if it was ever going to become truly viable.

Turns out his customers were right. Fast forward five years and StretchSense today employs 93 staff and has become of New Zealand’s fastest growing wearable technology businesses. The company’s products are ultra-soft and precise, making them ideal for sporting, AR/VR, animation and healthcare applications.

As an engineer turned entrepreneur, Ben says his experience launching StretchSense perfectly mirrors his three step process to starting a business: quit your job, sell something and then there’s everything else.

Crediting his father for opening his mind to the world of physics and engineering by giving him books to read that included American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s writings on quantum mechanics, he says it was his uncle who also deserves credit for putting him to work in his kayak shop during his holidays where he learnt the all-important art of selling.

“A strong appreciation of both engineering and sales has been pivotal in the growth of StretchSense. In the end you need both to be successful.”

Completing a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechatronics in 2006 followed by a Ph.D. in Bioengineering in 2010 as well as a two year post doc, Ben says he will always be grateful for the unique learning environment that the Auckland Bioengineering Institute provided for the three co-founders in the Biomimetics Lab, as well as the support they received from UniServices.

“What we were able to do was very unusual for Ph.D. students and academic staff. The University effectively took a punt on us and created an environment where we were able to learn very quickly which we fully maximised and gave us a valuable head start.”

However, Ben strongly believes providing opportunities like this should be akin to creating a bird’s nest.

“You lay the egg, you warm it, then you get kicked out of the nest so that you learn to stand on your own feet; which is what we did. That’s the basis for creating an effective innovation pipeline.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Learning to deal with stress has been a steep learning curve.

“At one point I couldn’t even have a conversation. I was so completely and utterly consumed with what I was doing that I was useless when it came to interacting with others. I realised I was chronically stressed but I’ve learned to deal with that. I’ve learnt that no one is going to make mental space for you; you have to do that for yourself. These days I feel a lot more at peace; and I think it shows.”