New Zealanders in general don’t think of New Zealand as a “techie” place but as the following notes will show New Zealand is a tech powerhouse. It just doesn’t know it yet.
This misperception will erode over time in face of the obvious abundance of talent and the increasing attention being paid to what will eventually be the largest segment of our economy. A segment with the potential to both augment and dwarf tourism and agriculture.
Originally I had planned to catchup with some friends in Rangiora and Dunedin and made a modest request for information on what’s happening in the Startup scene down in the Southern half of New Zealand. The response was truly off-the-hook with many thousands of views and generous comments loaded with long lists of names to checkout (see the footnotes at the end).
I decided a road trip was in order to connect with as much of the “scene” as time would allow. I also made a commitment (doh!) that I would write up what I saw. Thus the notes below. Edit: I think I have now spent more time writing than I did driving.
The route became Christchurch, Nelson, Franz Joseph, Wanaka, Queenstown, Invercargill, Bluff, Dunedin, Oamaru then back to Christchurch and Rangiora, a short sojourn of 2,647km. Thank you unlimited kilometer rental cars.
Tech is a “suitcase word” that encompasses much more than just software and the South Island proved that in spades. The ecosystem is both broad and deep, with the people, the talent, the education, the aptitude and the attitude covering a huge range of activities.
All mistakes and omissions are mine, I welcome any corrections.
I am extraordinarily grateful for the time given and kindness shown to me by everyone.
Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn
Ministry of Awesome (MoA) – Te Ōhaka
You can’t go anywhere in the Canterbury entrepreneurial community without hearing the names Ministry of Awesome or Marian Johnson being mentioned.
Founded in 2013 and moved to its current address on the ARA Campus in 2018, the MoA is hitting it’s stride with its regular schedule of events ranging from Coffee and Jam (Christchurch’s longest running lunch for budding and established entrepreneurs), ARA Activator 20 minute mentoring sessions, Startup Breakfast Club with free flowing coffee and conversation, and a wide variety of other Ecosystem Events.
Marian Johnson the Chief Awesome Officer of MoA was regularly described to me as “a breath of fresh air”, “a bundle of energy” or just “awesome.” I got a few minutes with Marian as she was running between meetings and she was all of that as well as humorously insightful.
A native of Georgia, USA, with a background in marketing that had been transplanted to Christchurch pre-earthquake she lightheartedly threw out the following nuggets…
The earthquakes scared off those who were risk averse, afraid of chaos and uncertainty but awakened and attracted those who are willing to embrace it, there are opportunities in chaos.
New Zealand’s secret immigration scheme is to send Kiwi’s out on their OE and bring back select partners to places where they are forced to evolve to thrive, in her case there was no way she could continue her career in Christchurch so it was matter of building a new career that eventually involved helping others build theirs.
MoA works together with ChristchurchNZ, Ara Institute of Canterbury, University of Canterbury, corporates, students, and startups to create a startup hub that is dense with entrepreneurs.
“We’re engineering the serendipity that propagates a rich startup pipeline.”
From the community building and outreach activities MoA filters for startups that are 4x people or less, have less than NZD $100k in funding, have a global outlook and aim to scale. MoA takes no stake in the startups that successfully apply.
Successful applicants are bought into Te Ōhaka (the Nest) which has the capacity to incubate up to 20 teams with bespoke assistance. Primarily aimed at helping them getting market validation and pitch ready for investors. They are reviewed every three months and made to fly (when ready) to make room for the next startup.
Jacob Varghese is the Incubation Manager with an Investment Banking background. Jacob likes the pointy end of business and is well aware of the “Ra-ra-ra happy bias” of incubators so it’s his mission to approach Te Ōhaka as a place that emphasises building the custom curriculums for each startup that best gets them real traction in real markets.
He also noted that MoA is working hard to foster relationships between “impending founders”, new founders and existing companies. Getting some real feedback and co-operation between these groups is an important part in putting long term foundations underneath the entrepreneurial community.
Aside from financial involvement Jacob noted that one of the most important contributions established companies can offer the startup community are real problems. Problems they have but don’t have the time, resources or ability to deal with. He sees this as one way of addressing the tendency of solutions being created without a real problem to solve.
Jeffrey Ling spent many years in the Taiwan startup scene and a large part of his role in MoA is helping local startups think about, see and connect with some of the fastest growing markets in the global economy with his deep network in the APAC region.
MoA has many more staff and mentors of the same caliber that I unfortunately didn’t have the time to meet.
I would strongly advise that if you’re in the region, get yourself along to one of their regular events or drop into their office and say hello.
- Ministry of Awesome – Te Ōhaka Kahukura Building, Level 1, Moorhouse Avenue, Christchurch Central, 8011, Christchurch, New Zealand firstname.lastname@example.org
- Economic Development New Zealand
- Ara Institute of Canterbury Ltd
- UC University of Canterbury 15 Arts Road, Ilam, Christchurch, New Zealand
University of Canterbury’s Centre for Entrepreneurship (UCE)
UCE is housed on the 6th floor of the Rehua Building and is possibly one of the tallest buildings in Christchurch with some great views across the city. I didn’t get a chance to chat with Rachel Wright who is the managing director of UCE but I did get to talk with the inimitable Mads Moller.
Mads Moller is a friendly debonair Danishman with a serious resume of sales, marketing and startup experience that extends from Europe, through Silicon Valley to New Zealand. Mads network is extensive and he kindly connected me to several Canterbury startup organisations.
He’s also lead advisor and programme lead for Growth in the Thinclab and is excited by what’s happening in Canterbury at the moment.
New Zealand is starting to realise it has what it takes to be a tech powerhouse, rich with people who have the right aptitude and the cultural DNA for thinking of outside of the box solutions.
Under the wing of University of Canterbury’s Business School is the Centre for Entrepreneurship (UCE) which encompasses The Hatchery and Thinclab. The UCE is an intersection point for students, entrepreneurs and the wider business community where real world business risks and experiences are supported and encouraged.
The Hatchery is an incubator program for students that provides hot-desking, coaching and mentoring.
Thinclab access is not restricted or limited to UC students, in fact so far nearly all of the Thinclab participants have been from outside the University. Thinclab is part of the global network of related Thinclabs and Callaghans Founder Incubators and as such provides a broad ranging network of pathways to industry experts, investors and partnerships. Thinclab runs three main programmes; Sprint, Investment Ready and Growth.
Most applicants are required to complete the 90 day Sprint programme before applying for the other two programmes. Thinclab while open to anyone filters for companies that have an understanding of their market segment preferably with some market validation, have a clear value proposition and business model and are looking to scale globally.
Both Mads and Marian pointed out that Canterbury beyond the expected agri-tech and food-tech has strong med-tech and aero-tech industries and Thinclab gives special attention to those targeting these “supernodes” of activity on the basis that the stronger the local ecologies the more it assists the growth of new entrants.
Thinclab provides office space, presentation areas, a legal clinic, access to a prototyping space, the chance to tap into the university research expertise, even university interns if your pitch is good enough, as well as tons of networking opportunities.
Well worth checking out.
- UC University of Canterbury 15 Arts Road, Ilam, Christchurch, New Zealand
- University of Canterbury’s Centre for Entrepreneurship University of Canterbury, Level 6, Rehua Building, Forestry Road email@example.com
- The Hatchery
- Thinclab (global)
- Callaghan Innovation Founder Incubators
Canterbury Tech – The Cluster (Canterbury Software Inc.)
On the advice of Mads Moller I caught up with Neil Hamilton at one of Canterbury Tech’s regular gatherings. It was extremely well attended with a wide variety of people keen to mix and mingle. Neil has been the General Manager for Canterbury Tech for the last couple of years though other attendees suggested his association with the tech and entrepreneurial side of life stretches so far back no one really knows a time when he wasn’t a part of it.
The epitome of collaboration he’s been involved in ChristchurchNZ, Te Ōhaka, Thinclab, and the NZ Hi-Tech Awards amongst many other things. He told me Canterbury Tech evolved somewhere around the turn of the millennium from your classic Kiwi beer and BBQ style gatherings.
The beer, wine and food were still strongly in evidence in what is now NZ’s largest regional tech membership organisation (and quite possibly one of NZ’s most active). Canterbury Tech is affiliated with the NZ Technology Industry Association (NZTech).
They hold an event at a different location each month with business and technical presentations. The event I made it to had 4 presentations, there were so many people it was split into two separate presentation areas. I watched Jamie Cairns, CEO of TASKA Prosthetics, show their unique robotic hand and Steve Mann, CTO at Clever First Aid, run a very gory marketing video for the world’s only smart first aid system, both were excellent.
Canterbury Tech runs several other events including Pathways to Tech to get students, teachers and parents aware of the careers available in tech. Programmes for Internships and Placements, and Mentoring Programmes as well as being a great place to connect with their sponsors and supporters.
If you enjoy a drink, meeting people serendipitously and learning from a presentation or two, get along to the next event.
- Canterbury Tech – The Cluster (Canterbury Software Inc.) c/o Ministry of Awesome, Kahukura Building, Level 1, Moorhouse Avenue Christchurch Central, 8011 Christchurch, New Zealand
- Canterbury Tech: Event Calendar
- NZ Technology Industry Association (NZTech)
Ideas Accelerator Limited – Environmental Services
I met Louise Webster at the Canterbury Tech event and coincidentally her cofounder Andy Blackburn reached out to me on LinkedIn later. Together they run Ideas Accelerator and Aronga Whanoke both entities are focused on developing programs that innovate in the environmental space.
An astute observer and with a delicate sense of humour. Louise scared the pants off me with a pointed description of the problems facing the water table in the Canterbury plains. Then just as pointedly smiled and ran through a laundry list of ideas to address those issues. Ideas that could also have large beneficial gains as tech (and marketing) exports for New Zealand.
I have no doubt time spent with Ideas Accelerator would be time well spent.
Louise and Andy also help young New Zealand companies by Mentoring and creating Advisory Boards for them.
Eduard Liebenberger is an imposing Austrian with a big smile and a deeply curious mind so of course he invited me to meet with him at an AWS Deep Racer machine learning lunch and learn event put on by the folks at Consegna.cloud.
Eduard loves to move and explore, so much so, it’s said his wife was putting a deposit on a home within hours of getting off the plane in Christchurch to try and keep him pinned down for a few years. Not that I think that was necessary.
A big proponent of the benefits of Canterbury, Eduard ran me through the numbers, if you are a startup with some funding and looking to build a team the region has a lot going for it.
Eduard intersects with the startup ecosystem in too many ways to list and is a popular speaker so the odds are high you will meet him at some point in Christchurch. Definitely say hello if you get the chance, his forte is commercialising cutting edge technologies.
As a side note the Consegna.cloud people ran a great presentation. I dragged a friend along who afterwards noted that even though he’s heard the terms AI and Machine Learning he didn’t understand them but after the presentation he had a real idea of what they were “this is going to change a lot of things isn’t it.”
Take your friends to some of these events, the world is changing.
If you ever want dedicated, Leon Mooney is your man. On a rainy afternoon on a Labour weekend holiday with a fresh newborn at home Leon still took the time to meet me and show me his other baby.
He’s been involved with the co-working space from the start but took the leap mid-covid (of all times) to make it his own and BizDojo became Salt Works. The co-working space encompasses two whole floors filled with Europlan furnishings and quirky art.
Leon positively glows when talking about the people and businesses populating Salt Works.
He’s a natural community builder and is comfortable espousing the benefits of working with each other and not shy to invest time or money into tenants.
If you’re a business in search of a home with a heart, Leon’s Salt Works in the CBD is salt of the earth stuff.
Canterbury Angel Investors Inc
No startup ecosystem is complete without nutrients, Angel Investors are some of the earliest investors of cold hard cash and Paul Claridge’s name came up often in Christchurch. Unfortunately we weren’t able to connect face to face but Paul’s reputation as an investor, coach and mentor makes him worthy of tracking down. Hopefully on the next trip.
Amongst many other things Paul is currently the Chairman for the Canterbury Angel Investors, the Canterbury region’s angel investment network.
They regularly run workshops and events for new entrants into Angel Investing and old hands. Angels are often the unsung hero’s of the startup world.
If you want to play a pivotal role in the growth of New Zealand’s future this could be the place for you to find out how to do it.
Directions: take a long swoop up the east coast from Christchurch hugging the pacific, wave to the whales of Kaikoura. Veer inland at Cook Strait. Wine through the vineyards. Take a sweeping left hander into the Tasman Bay.
Stop at the spectacular juxtaposition of beaches backed by mountains iced with snow and topped off with crackling blue skies.
For decoration throw in a container terminal for some steam punk effect, convert an insurance office to a bar, close the streets for cafes, paint a monster squid on the walls and put up a giant peanut butter jar.
Nelson is the geographic heart of New Zealand, and it celebrates one of the fundamental particles of the New Zealand psyche the “quirk”
Not the full-blown European eccentric nor the divisive American narcissism of small differences, just that good old off-the-beat quirk.
First port of call Sacha MacDonald, as the old sonnet goes “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”… actually it’s really hard to count the ways Sacha has impacted the region.
Founder of Rezource, founder of Arewa, alumni of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, facilitator and mentor of first Techstars Startup Weekend in Nelson, the instigator of He Tangata Startup Weekend (New Zealand’s first Start Up weekend specifically designed for Kaupapa Maori), Board member for Nelson Tasman Business Trust, provider of overnight food and lodgings for Troy. The list goes on and on.
She’s the big cheese at Rezource which provides “fractional” work for busy mums and flexible support for busy companies. Founded when she was frustrated as a young mother trying to look after kids, work around school schedules, sports events and still have some part time income.
What I really liked is she doesn’t just talk values she walks them. The business is built on trust and respect, you’re an adult you do the work, no micro-managing, times cards or petty administrative trivia. And guess what, people return the favour in kind with trust and respect.
Arewa is an extension of the same approach and philosophy used in Rezource but specifically tailored to Māori needs and encompasses capability development, business coaching, startup programmes, project and management services.
It’s that trust, respect (and giant welcoming smile) that’s allowed her to do so much in the community. From startup weekends to active support for the broader Maori community while still being a busy mum.
Much thanks Sacha.
The Mahitahi Colab
Sacha deposited me at The Mahitahi Colab, it’s got that well trafficked government office feel.
We briefly said hello to Ali Boswijk, CEO of the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber shares the Colab address. They work with businesses of all stripes to happily help people connect the dots in both government and private networks.
In the adjacent space you will find Sarah Fitchett the Mahitahi Colab Community Manager and Growth Adviser with the Nelson Regional Development Agency (NRDA).
Before going further I need to clarify that the Mahitahi Colab co-working space is a partnership between its founders, Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce, Nelson Regional Development Agency and Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. Not to mention it hosts a front desk for the Nelson Angels Inc, a working space for the Nelson AI Institute as well as co-working and hot desk areas. It’s likely that nearly everyone in Nelson passes through it at some point.
Back to Sarah, she is a recent arrival to Nelson from Auckland. A lawyer by training, she had the automotive startup Tootsweet under her belt before the move down south. She caught the role of Kaiwhakahaere (Community Manager) just as the world was catching Covid.
The role is only part time yet she is determined to make changes to the space and gave me that look of the dedicated curator “there’s so much more this can be!” It seemed busy enough already but I have the definite feeling Sarah will get her way and even more will be happening there in future. Keep an eye out.
Update: this is great news Sarah is now full-time, watch out Nelson.
Coincidentally one Mark Houghton-Brown walked by as Sarah and I were wrapping up our chat. Mark is the Chair of Nelson Angels Inc with that wonderful southern ability to be charmingly and disarmingly direct.
He warmed up with something along the lines of… As far as the Nelson Angels are concerned incubators are almost a dirty word, they’re focusing too much on founders and not enough on teams.
There needs to be more “venture” focused incubators to get better outcomes. A startup is much more than its founder and depends heavily on getting the team right if it is to succeed.
I never knew but Nelson is one of New Zealand’s hottest beds for artificial intelligence. Mark is not averse to taking things into his own hands. He’s the Chair of the Nelson AI Institute as well as the director or chair of at least 8 other active companies and organisations.
What are they putting in their coffee in Nelson?
I was supposed to meet Mark the next morning for a bit more of an in-depth discussion but we got our wires crossed on the timing. I did manage to have a chat with Mack Delany and Cris Lovell-Smith two artificial intelligence engineers with the Nelson AI Institute. They’re doing some pretty extraordinary things with computer vision, deep learning and automation.
No hesitation, check out Nelson.
The Mahitahi Colab 322 Hardy St, Nelson, 7010, New Zealand
The Bridge Street Collective
A five minute walk from Mahitahi Colab you end up at The Bridge Street Collective, tucked away behind a cafe. A bright airy space with open beams and a sunny courtyard.
Founded in 2011 by Galen King, it’s a Nelson co-working stalwart. Galen is also the founder of Lucid the award winning Shopify solutions provider.
Keegan Jeffries is their friendly studio manager. He mentioned they were keen to get some events happening again amongst the community now that the warmer weather was arriving.
It would be something to see Sacha, Sarah, Mark and Keegan teaming up for a Summer Nelson Startup Weekend.
The Bridge Street Collective 111 Bridge Street, Nelson, Nelson, 7010, New Zealand
Massively honourable Nelson mentions, that I didn’t have the time to catchup with…
- Pic Picot founder of the hugely successful Pic’s Peanut Butter and instigator of the giant peanut butter jar in front of Peanut Butter World. Pic’s Peanut Butter Check Pic’s blog as well. Really Good Stuff
- Stephanie Fry founder of IdealCup is NZ’s very first, lifetime reusable cup, designed and made in NZ. IdealCup
- Chris Rodley founder of award winning Snap Information Technologies who provide systems, hardware and AI for computer vision applications for the maritime and construction industries. SanpIT
- Chloe Van Dyke founder of Chia Sisters, producers of sustainable juices from a solar powered, carbon zero, climate positive juicery in Nelson. Chia Sisters
- Jonny Hendriksen founder of Shuttlerock which produces video ads for Facebook & Instagram at scale. Shuttlerock is based in Nelson, NZ, with offices in New York, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Singapore, Paris and Berlin. Shuttlerock
Franz Josef Glacier
It’s a hefty run from Nelson to Franz Josef Glacier.
I’m a “Westie” from the north, wild and forlorn is my thing. With techno beats so loud the windshield was thumping as hard as the west coast waves, certain speed limits may (or not) have been closely observed.
White knuckle elemental was the theme.
Until I noticed the only other car I’d seen was an hour ago. Heading the other direction.
There’s no telephone signal, the cloud is low, the rain heavy and the fuel gauge started taking up a lot of my attention. I didn’t know where I was going to stay. I didn’t even know if there was anywhere to stay.
The West Coast dark started closing in. Should I go on? Should I go back? Back where? Do I have enough fuel? Who lives out here? Would they mind a knock on the door?
Brad MacLachlan and Hayley Rendel’s Alpine Escape, beautiful self contained airbnb units, set amongst horse paddocks and facing the Southern Alps. A total relief in the dark, warm, private and cozy. Easy wheelchair access and all the modern conveniences.
The hosts are lovely. Even better Brad is an intrepid Kiwi inventor with a classic entrepreneurial spirit. A six foot four ex-alpine helicopter pilot.
He’s spent the last couple of years and a lot of money, developing a new door closure mechanism for a popular helicopter model. This model is known to have issues with its original door locks. He’s completed the prototyping and is into the regulatory testing phase.
We had a discussion around commercialisation. The helicopter model is used throughout New Zealand and the locking mechanism has to be replaced due to normal wear and tear every few years.
His solution is cheaper, provides a safer, fully visible confirmation of locking (the OEM system doesn’t) and installation takes the same or less time as the original.
Brad is confined to a wheelchair due to a flying accident but that hasn’t stopped him from doing anything. If anyone in the aero-tech or parts distribution community is interested in checking out this solution his contact details are below.
Coast Aviation firstname.lastname@example.org
The directions to Wanaka from Franz Josef are simple, for 285kms stay straight on. The terrain complex, and imposing. Steaming clouds covering ice capped alps, lush and densely packed bush. Crazy long, single lane bridges over sprawling gravel beds and deceptively narrow trickles of white waters.
With Beethoven’s 5th cranked up into distortion levels of loud, barreling around a bend and seeing the mighty Lake Wanaka come into view is certainly something.
Arriving late on a Saturday, the generous Tim Haller was putting up with me for the night. Another helicopter pilot laid low by the sudden halt in international tourism. He had a few entrepreneurial ideas of his own including a “Jenga Bed” and an idea for orienting pilots in “snow blind” conditions.
He was playfully offering to deliver the first ten beds via helicopter to their new owners.
Speaking of blind, Sunday was a bit of a writeoff thanks to Mr Haller.
I regret that now because I missed out on tracking down quite a few places including; the Wanaka Community Hub, The Cell Co-working Space, The Marketing Lab, and one Richard Liew founder of NZ Entrepreneur (an online magazine for New Zealand startups and small businesses).
Ignite Wanaka, the Wanaka Chamber of Commerce are also strongly involved in the local startup community.
All good reasons for a return trip to Wanaka.
Taking the Cromwell route past “Roaring Meg” and into the Frankton end of the sparkling Lake Wakatipu doesn’t really prepare you for when you come upon the Remarkables. The aptly named mountain playgrounds of Queenstown.
A small town with all the trappings of big city living loaded with bars, clubs and restaurants. The real estate prices to go with it and a very interesting startup ecology.
Mountain Club Coworking
- There’s several co-working spaces in Queenstown but new entrants Mountain Club are getting more than their fair share of mentions. Christopher Davern and friends have created beautiful, well appointed and well positioned spaces.
SaaS on the Street
I met Simon Small at the Mountain Club, 5 Mile Frankton.
The space has slick views of the Mountains, understated leather furnishings with a hint of Nordic cool, and Simon fits right in. Quick to smile, ready to help, man about town, and all things SaaS.
He’s dedicated to helping New Zealand create, build, expand and globalise Software-as-a-Service businesses.
He hosts and produces a regular podcast “SaaS on the Street” you can find them on Youtube or check out Simon on LinkedIn. If you’re in the area do make the effort to find the man himself.
On the ground floor of the same building as the Mountain Club is Joe’s Garage, a busy, cafe and bar. There I caught a coffee with the astute and friendly Jasper van Halder. An ex-corporate lawyer and McKinsey consultant he’s now managing director of the Queenstown branch of the Impactech Group.
Impactech takes a different approach to startups, they are not passive financiers. They invest their own money and literally work within the companies they partner with. This can include anything from creating financial models and business plans to finding suppliers and clients. Interesting.
Startup Queenstown Lakes
Lawyer by training, startup under the belt, dynamic and well known throughout the region. Detecting a theme here?
New Zealand is blessed with active women and Olivia Wensley is another lady who’s name came up everywhere I went in Otago.
Previously Head of Growth and Innovation for Automio and now Chief Executive Officer for Startup Queenstown Lakes, Olivia is bright eyed and on the ball. Busy on the phone when I arrived, she quickly gave me the run down on Queenstown.
Startup Queenstown Lakes, is a charitable trust established in 2018. It brings together founders, investors and the local community.
It has a volunteer Board of Trustees made up of community stakeholders and has regular input from a laundry list of local and national entities including; Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC), the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce, Ignite Wanaka Chamber of Commerce, Destination Queenstown, Lake Wanaka Tourism, Study Queenstown, and Film Otago Southland. The trust also gets some funding from Creative HQ (via Callaghan Innovation).
They’ve done a fantastic job of bringing together so many threads to weave a solid platform for startup innovation.
Working hard to leverage the regions natural strengths they’re actively pushing development in tourism-tech, hospitality-tech, and adventure-tech.
It’s hard to believe Olivia was only appointed CEO just this year. She’s running fast and hard to manage the nearly one hundred events they’ve had in 2020 alone. She doesn’t muck around.
Be sure to checkout their calendar of events and inquire about their startup programs.
It took her two seconds to get Peter Harris into a meeting room. Peter is the Queenstown Lakes District Council’s Economic Development Manager and whip sharp. He’s someone who thinks things through before a word is spoken.
So when we got onto the topic of investing into startups he threw me with an unexpected question…
Is it better to raise local money or money from overseas?
I’m interested to hear what others think on this. Foreign or local money? Why?
Each answer comes with its own set of pro’s and cons and the question was pondered considerably on the drive to Invercargill.
Wherever the money comes from, Startup Queenstown Lakes is in good hands.
- Mountain House 85 Beach Street, Queenstown, New Zealand.
- Mountain Club Level 3, 36 Grant Road, Frankton, Queenstown, New Zealand.
SaaS On the Street (check Simon’s profile on LinkedIn)
I didn’t have Invercargill on the list of places to visit until “Noel Muskrat” called me out in the NZ Tech Startups Eco-System Group…
“Come to Inver’s… where the sunshine is liquid and the locals can count to eleven”
Who can resist a pitch like that?
So off down the Devil’s Staircase alongside the southern leg of lake Wakatipu and into the pancake flat plains I went.
The weather was perfect, cartoon green fields and piercing blue skies. Until I passed between two highway signs announcing my arrival in Invercargill.
The liquid sunshine commenced immediately.
STEAM ENGINE Invercargill
First port of call was to meet the mysterious Noel and Leon Muskrat (anagrams of their heroes name Elon). They are putting together a maker space and prototyping service called the STEAM ENGINE Invercargill
The intention is to have a fully equipped maker space that people can hire out on a one off and subscription basis. They are also planning project based STEM classes for local children.
Both were overloading me with coding and technical details. I begged them to simplify their pitch and get out and talk to people. We all have a habit of loading everything including the kitchen sink into a pitch.
I really do hope these passionate guys get this up and running, you can find them via their Facebook group.
The COIN South office is in the middle of downtown Invercargill, in the COIN Hub Coworking space with the tagline “When you’ve outgrown your kitchen table and the cat’s lacking any water-cooler chat.”
Late in the afternoon, unannounced I tapped on their door. Prue Halstead, Chief Starter and Louise Evans, Chief Activator were the ones I was seeking but both were elsewhere. Nikki Dermody their Chief Storyteller stepped up to the plate, to fill me full of Black Shag filter coffee and share some background on their operation.
COIN South has a solid list of corporate members and receives funding from their strategic partners including; Southland Chamber of Commerce, Community Trust South, Environment Southland Regional Council, The Southern Institute of Technology and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. They are governed by an elected Board or Directors and operated by Prue and her dedicated crew.
They provide numerous services from advisory support and business coaching to access to angel investors and networking with industry experts, corporates, governments and fellow startups.
Regular coffee checkins are a feature along with plenty of industry gossip.
The flow of information between Queenstown, Invercargill and Dunedin is surprisingly effective and that could be due in part to the Mainland Angel Investors.
Mainland Angel Investors (MAI)
While talking to Nikki, Anna Stevens came to join our conversation. She’s the Network Manager for the Mainland Angel Investors.
MAI is a network of angel investors across Otago and Southland that was launched by Scott Mason as an incorporated society and pushed forward by Prue Halstead from COIN South, David Wallace from Startup Queenstown Lakes and Sarah Ramsay of Startup Dunedin.
By joining forces, MAI investors get access to companies and ideas they might not have been aware of.
When I asked Anna about the risks of Angel Investing, her response was to point out that there needs to be a lot of education on angel investing, how it requires a “portfolio approach” and what kinds of returns can reasonably be expected.
She then went on to quip…
There’s many a local investor that will happily buy into horse racing syndicates with far riskier odds.
It’s all about education and attitude.
NZ Tech Startups Eco-System Group (Facebook Group)
- Coin Hub Coworking Hub 42, Level 1, 42 Don Street, Invercargill, New Zealand
Fully fuelled on Black Shag coffee and a little time to spare, a detour was in order. Directly south for the obligatory photos of Bluff signage and Southern Ocean with a stop at Omaui (NZ’s most Southern Northerly facing beach).
I drove past the old Bluff Freezing Works that’s being turned into an Aquaculture Park and then somehow missed the Catlins. Sidenote: I want a GPS with “interesting projects” and “take the long way” tourist modes.
A relaxed cruise through the rolling hills following Fonterra milk trucks and a speedy rural NZ Post driver delivered me to the lush hills surrounding the Otago Harbour.
I visited Dunedin a decade ago, stayed for a day and my memory was of it being dark, cold and damp. This time round it was exploding with luminescent yellow flowers across the hills and spectacular rhododendron displays in suburban gardens.
A town that’s kept much of its wonderful Victorian and Edwardian architecture from the boom days of gold. It’s produced some of New Zealand’s biggest companies, as well as a multitude of great Kiwi music and fashion has been brewed in its micro-climates.
Listening to the locals it’s hard to tell if the University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic are famed as much for the great quality of education they produce. Or the great quantity of local beers the student body consumes.
I wasn’t expecting this. Five levels that start with a cafe and events area, work upwards to coworking spaces and topped with penthouse views. Natural light, polished wood floors, quirky decoration done with a humorous artist’s eye and homely touches that tie the place into a whole that far exceeds its parts. This is New York Soho wrapped in 1860’s neo-baroque stone and glass.
Kate and Jason Lindsey didn’t start out to create a coworking space. They fell in love with a building, and took a massive punt to purchase the whole thing.
The dream was penthouse living, the reality was paying a mortgage and restoration bills.
They were forced to evolve from landlords to business incubators as their early tenants were cash strapped startups. Quickly realising that in order to survive themselves they had to help their tenants thrive.
That culture of giving and collaboration kept on growing to not just encompass entrepreneurs but art, food and the broader community as well. It permeates the atmosphere, as playful and experimental as the decorations.
Jason speaks softly and makes tales of hardship sound like lighthearted lessons. Lots and lots of lessons. They have persisted in spite of a thread in Dunedin thinking that its best days are in its past. Both Kate and Jason reject that thinking.
In a world where gold is made from ideas, Dunedin has vast potential.
Jason lays out a compelling argument that Dunedin’s best days are coming.
It has a spectacular natural environment, a mix of architecture, facilities and cosy city living that provides access to local and international students, world class University and Polytechnic resources, enough bars, cafes and restaurants and Summer time for ideas to foment and enough Winter time for people to buckle down and bring them life.
“From free-to-public business events, early stage funding grants, acceleration and mentorship programs, to well run event management. The Petridish community, smoothes out the path to success.”
My suggestion… Go check out the culture at Petridish.
I didn’t have to go far to meet Mckenzie Dowson the bubbly Community Co-Ordinator at Startup Dunedin. She was having a coffee at the Petridish cafe. She rounded up Rachel Butler the General Manager at Startup Dunedin who was also in the vicinity. Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet Angus Pauley their Programme Facilitator.
Apparently they were in the midst of a renovation of their own working space The Distiller. Rachel kindly took some time out from schlepping boxes to the boot of her car to paint a picture of Startup Dunedin activities.
They have The Distiller which is their own non-profit space. It’s for those participating in Startup Dunedin’s programmes and external events such as Angel NZ. They run events and programmes all year round.
They are also linked into the Mainland Angel Investors and the Regional Business Partner Network.
It was began as an initiative of the Grow Dunedin Partnership. With a volunteer board of representatives from Dunedin’s local entrepreneurs as well as from the University and Polytechnic. There’s quite a few familiar names on this board including once again Sarah Ramsay, Scott Mason and Jason Lindsey.
They have funding from the Dunedin City Council, the University of Otago, the Otago Polytechnic, Creative HQ and Callaghan Innovation.
If you are in Dunedin and at the very beginning of your startup journey definitely look at one of their programmes; Co.Starters, Audacious or Startup Weekend.
Check their website for events as well.
Heidi Renata a wāhinepreneur, CEO and founder of INNOV8HQ.
Aotearoa’s first Business Marae.
It was also one of the worlds first indigenous co-working spaces. I didn’t get to see INNOV8HQ but from what others have told me it’s a beautiful space.
INNOV8HQ specialises in consulting for businesses that are high-impact, growth orientated and technology focused and entrepreneurs who are wanting to commercialise their innovations.
They also run Te Aroha a philanthropic program supporting community initiatives such as KiwiHarvest and the International Science Festival.
We caught up for coffee overlooking Saint Clair beach. With covid INNOV8HQ is going through a renovation and Heidi going in a new direction. She has dark piercing eyes with a cheeky sparkle that haven’t been dimmed one bit by 20 years of helping others succeed.
A sharp business woman in her own right, you can see those sparkling eyes light right up when the topic of conversation was female and indigenous entrepreneurs. She was born to inspire.
We covered a lot of ground in an hour from business to travel, to history, to covid, to where best to apply talent. She’s happy putting more energy into consulting.
Coworking spaces are hard work and she cheekily suggested more cafes should jump into the game…
Imagine what New Zealand would look like with thousands of incubators?
Comp Girls Otago (STEM Club)
Magdeline Huang popped up out of the LinkedIn woodwork with loads of helpful recommendations for people and places all over the South Island.
Magdeline is a student at the University of Otago studying Computer Science and Entrepreneurship. She is the leader of a women in tech club the Comp Girls Otago and member of the Otago Momentum Investment Committee. Momentum is a national student-led investment program.
She was the winner of New Zealand’s inaugural Red Bull Basement University and represented New Zealand at the international finals in Toronto.
In between studying for exams she is building “Temp.” A platform for students to list and hire items to each other.
Temp’s mission is to create a sharing culture which promotes sustainability while helping students earn some money from the items they list.
I wish her all the best.
Petridish 8 Stafford Street, Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand
Heading back up to Christchurch through hills so perfectly green and curved, like the ones we would draw with big crayons in primary school, I completely regret not stopping to take a photo.
I did stop at The Business Hive in Oamaru. Run by Cara Tipping Smith and Alex Regtien it’s a small coworking office featuring desks with bed headboards, a large boardroom and regular events.
One has to wonder if…
Oamaru has a coworking space, Timaru what about you?
The Business Hive 26 Ribble Street, Oamaru, New Zealand
- My rule of thumb from past experience is that good managers often have the ability to meet at short notice, they’re always adding people for future reference and are good at quickly communicating what they’re doing. I used this as my excuse to give almost no notice and drop in on people within an hour or two of reaching out. Going by that metric the South Island is chock full of excellent managers.
- From the feedback I sorted names and organisations into regions and then sifted the names according to the number of times they were mentioned and started with the high frequency entries and went from there.
- The people and organisations I met with are by no means close to all of those that are operating in the south. Weekends, national holidays and prior commitments prevented meetings with many, so consider this more of a rough guide. Those with more time and better preparation will discover an even richer startup ecology.
- There are so many people to thank for their feedback on my original post, you know who you are and I hope these notes are a small return on your generosity.
- All mistakes and omissions are mine, I welcome any corrections. Troy