Danu Abeysuriya, the risk taker behind the Covid-19 tracer application


In Danu Abeysuriya’s family there is a saying: when his father decides to leave a place, it is time for everyone to sell what they can and do the same.

Her parents moved from Sri Lanka to Nigeria as civil unrest was brewing, an underlying political current that would eventually turn into a full-fledged insurgency in Sri Lanka in the 1970s.

Then her father decided to leave Nigeria just before the political unrest also broke out, family friends who made a different decision ended up losing everything.

And finally, Zimbabwe, which launched its land confiscation policy shortly after its family moved from there to New Zealand in 1996.

David White stuff.co.nz

Danu Abeysuriya, CTO and founder of Rush Digital

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“We have this joke that if my dad leaves New Zealand don’t ask questions. He’s just really good at getting out of sticky situations just in time.

Abeysuriya, 35, has a different view of risk compared to a lot of people. For him, creating a startup is not a risk, even if he always hears the opposite.

“There is good p … all risks. If you’re not doing anything criminal and you’re not exhausting yourself in terms of money, your only risks really are criminal liability and the risk of default. ”

Right now, Abeysuriya’s risk-taking is paying off. Photos of her long beard are everywhere, and she’s stretched out again under the Auckland lockdown.

One of Rush Digital's big projects was a license plate system for Z Energy gas stations.

Provided

One of Rush Digital’s big projects was a license plate system for Z Energy gas stations.

Abeysuriya covers magazines, appeared semi-regularly as a commentator on The morning show, and sometimes gives its opinion on everything from the housing market to the digital economy.

Most of the time, customers who come to his company, Rush Digital, aren’t looking for any of these things, but just want an app, which is understandable given that Rush is the company behind the Covid-19 tracker app. from the Ministry of Health. But that’s not quite the raison d’être of his business.

The name Rush is meant to represent the adrenaline rush you get after finally solving a problem, and that’s what Abeysuriya wants his business to be: a business that improves lives and solves problems.

“It’s the feeling you get as a creator or as a problem solver, or when you achieve something that you really want to achieve.

Abeysuriya, 35, has a different view of risk.

DAVID WHITE / STUFF

Abeysuriya, 35, has a different view of risk.

“And that’s just me, that’s the feeling I get when I manage the technology. I like to build something and see it work, that’s what makes me happy.

This is probably why he spent a lot of time in Papatoetoe High School solving problems. School was boring and slow. Computers and digital technology were the perfect burrow to disappear.

After the famous first person shooter earthquake 3 came out, Abeysuriya wanted to know how the whole game worked, so he started designing the game engine himself from scratch and got a little obsessed.

He would leave home to go to school, wait to be sure his parents were gone to work, then come back in a circle to continue working, until finally – after almost a year of skipping classes – he had put the engine to a level where you wouldn’t want to be able to tell the difference between the real thing and his, even though you ran the two games side by side.

Eventually, someone posted a screenshot of his work on an internet forum, prompting id Software CEO Todd Hollenshead to send Abeysuriya an email threatening him with copyright infringement. author.

“He thought I was selling it off the shelf, and I was like ‘Oh no, that’s my engine’.”

Abeysuriya’s story is full of cheesy moments like this, colored by his group of high school friends whom he describes as even more cheesy than he was. One of them got 97% on his calculus exam, even though his calculator’s batteries were dead.

The moral Abeysuriya takes from this latest story is not that the genius managed to do all this math in his head, but that he didn’t have the street intelligence to raise his hand and ask for more. batteries.

“That’s what’s great about nerds, isn’t it?” Like all the intelligence in the world and zero common sense.

Traveling between countries had given him a little more social sense than some of his less sociable friends. His sister, Saku Abeysuriya, says Danu has never been a full-fledged nerd, his personality has always been more social, and as children moving from country to country they have often had to learn to quickly make new friends.

Today, Rush Digital is a type of digital problem solving service. Sometimes the solutions it sells aren’t even digital. When customers walk in, they almost always want an app, but they can end up coming away with something much simpler.

The company developed a license plate payment system for Z Energy, an award-winning digital wall at Starship Children’s Hospital designed to reduce anxiety in young patients, and contributed software to the MAUI63 project, which uses an autonomous drone to count and follow Maui dolphins.

MAUI63 and WWF-New Zealand have developed a tracking drone to find, track and identify the Māui and Hector dolphins.

MAUI63 / Tips

MAUI63 and WWF-New Zealand have developed a tracking drone to find, track and identify the Māui and Hector dolphins.

Abeysuriya’s imprint on the company is strong – new and old employees regularly mention her charisma.

Getting Rush to where he is today involved a lot of steep pivots and mistakes. Abeysuriya studied engineering at the University of Auckland, where he befriended legendary tech investor Ray Thomson, whom Rush Digital named his godfather for the pivotal role he played in his success. .

Rush Digital’s big break came from a project with Microsoft Games and Disney. It was only a small part of the team, but after that people were much more willing to trust the company. The recent Covid-19 tracer application contract also added an extra dose of credibility.

Before the country locked down, Rush Digital had already started thinking about what might be needed in a post-Covid world. The office’s QR codes were on the list, so the company was ideally placed when the Department of Health began researching its own QR code system.

Rush Digital’s first idea was something very different. Abeysuriya wanted the company to be a developer of smartphone video games, a concept that was buzzing around the world but a tough sell to the investment community here, which was largely a group of skeptical older white men. who had made all their money in agritech.

Abeysuriya credits Thomson for never being too picky about the little details. Proposals, instructions, advice and meeting resolutions would normally be a few bullet points on a piece of paper.

“He was the only person who really believed I was going to go anywhere.”

Saku says that at this time, Abeysuriya sometimes worked 24 hours or 48 hours in a row, sometimes never coming back from the office.

Mobile game industry competitors like Unity and Epic were relatively small companies at the time, and Abeysuriya’s vision for Rush was to develop game engines – similar to software under graphically intensive video games like Epic. . Fortnite.

The Ministry of Health's Covid-19 tracker application was developed by Rush Digital.

KEVIN STENT / Stuff

The Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 tracker application was developed by Rush Digital.

At first Abeysuriya says there was little difference between Rush’s game engine and its competition, but today Unity and Epic are multi-billion dollar companies and Rush has long left the engine world of game behind him.

Ultimately, success didn’t depend on who had the slightly superior game engine, but on which company was the best to sell it. It’s a lesson, he says, that many tech entrepreneurs struggle to learn.

Former Rush Digital CFO Kate Parsons joined the team when the company’s workforce was less than a third of what it is today and was starting to transform into its current form. as a digital technology design company.

“Like a lot of tech founders, he has that kind of rambling fighter mentality,” Parsons says.

“In those early days, we were working hard in terms of money, and the management team and Danu were going through pay cuts and not being paid for a while to make sure we would be successful in moving the business forward. “

Parsons is now on an advisory group to Rush Digital and says one of the big future challenges for the company will be setting it up to survive without the presence of its charismatic founder.

For Saku however, at least for now, Abeysuriya’s presence everywhere represents far more than the success of a digital technology company.

“In addition to representing his own success, he somewhat represents the success of people like us who are immigrants or who come from immigrant families who have sacrificed a lot and are getting things done.

About Stuart M. McFarland

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