Te Pūnaha Matatini provided much of the impetus for Nebula Data, an innovative new data visualisation company set up by physicists with the help of the University of Auckland Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Nebula Data, which aims to transform how we understand the media landscape, was co-founded by University of Auckland physics student Georgia Nixon, and Shaun Hendy, professor of physics and director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, in partnership with physics students Toby Bi and Nickolas Morton.

Origins traced to Te Pūnaha Matatini research project

“The idea for Nebula grew out of a Te Pūnaha Matatini research project for the BioHeritage National Science Challenge,” said Georgia.

“They were interested in analysing the concept of “predator free” in New Zealand and wanted to devise a new method to explore the nature of this conversation in the media.

“For this project, we did a large-scale search of organisations and people who were influencing the “predator free” media landscape and built a network to reflect those who were central, those who were peripheral and how this was changing.

“After the success of this project, we were approached by a number of other organisations looking for a similar analysis.”

Team benefits from university’s entrepreneurship programme

Being involved in the University of Auckland Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Velocity programme in 2018 gave the team the practical business skills they needed to turn their idea into a viable venture. It provided opportunities for mentorship and introductions for support from other organisations such as ATEED and the Icehouse.

“Velocity really sparked my interest in entrepreneurship and helped me imagine what our venture could look like,” Georgia said.

“I think that often scientists aren’t in academia because they are avoiding the commercial world, but because academia offers them the freedom to research what they love. Also, a scientists’ career pathway in academia has been largely determined by the number of publications they’re able to produce.

“Commercialisation has, therefore not been given equal spotlight. Recently, there has been an encouraging rise in getting scientists to not only come up with the research ideas but to also guide it through to an end product.

“It’s great to be part of this process and see your work contributing to a bigger solution by having a positive application. Rather than treating the science as independent to commercialisation, entrepreneurship combines the two and we have been fortunate to find that middle ground with Nebula.”

Several successful projects now completed

Since being involved in the Velocity programme, the team have completed seven major projects spanning a number of industries but all rooted in network visualisations of data, natural language processing text analysis or surveys.

Types of question they have answered include:

  • How has the discussion around global warming changed in New Zealand over time?
  • What biases in language are used in the media when discussing nutrition vs. agriculture?
  • Who the main influencers are in New Zealand’s political media landscape.

Why are Nebula data visualisations useful?

Nebula’s analytical techniques have a huge number of potential applications, in particular deciphering the impact of specific actions such as product market launches in the private sector and new policy initiatives in the public sector.

The type of analysis in critically important for any organisation interested in ways to profile issues and influence behaviours. Their compelling value proposition includes being able to translate complex data sets into visuals that can be more readily understood by decision-makers in organisations.

Interest in Nebula’s data visualisation outputs has increased rapidly since they started. The team has grown to four, but they all continue to wear multiple hats. Georgia is currently pursuing a PhD in Physics at the University of Cambridge, Toby is currently at the University of Auckland as a postgraduate researcher in Physics, and Nickolas is working as a data scientist at Arkturus Business Research.

Nebula’s future plans

In the next year, Nebula plans to expand operations.

“We are starting to pick up clients that give us reoccurring work which gives us more consistency,” says Georgia. “We’re in no rush though; we would like to keep growing at a sustainable level and enjoy the journey”.