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 off-the-hook with over eleven thousand views and many generous comments loaded with long lists of names to checkout (see the footnotes at the end of the Canterbury section).
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Next up… Nelson