Quickly building startups in a city that is slowly rebuilding

By Matt Smith

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I always have mixed emotions visiting Christchurch. It was there that I attended University, and created some great life memories; more recently it is a city that saw its CBD literally reduced to rubble through earthquakes. While construction labours on, the growth of new technology companies has not slowed down.

World class technology coming out of Christchurch is by no means a new trend

The city is home to companies such as SLI systems and Tait Communications. With a population of approx 375,000, Christchurch has long been punching above its weight on the global stage. This has been driven by Christchurch having a well-renowned radio and audio engineering school, a growing supply of engineers and several strong R&D hubs such as Dynamic Controls (IoT for wheelchairs). More recently the city welcomed the new School of ICT to fast track skills and they even have a company working on jet-pack technology!

A dedicated Innovation Precinct

While there recently, I was fortunate to work out of Vodafone xone, a venture accelerator and innovation lab powered by Vodafone for globally-focussed Kiwi entrepreneurs that opened its doors in May 2016. The program joins six others operating around the globe and is located at Vodafone’s $50 million purpose-built HQ, located in the heart of Christchurch’s innovation precinct.

Through spending time with their Innovation Manager Kevin Park it was great to hear about the experiences of the 10 cohorts that make up the first intake and some significant wins for a couple of the companies. Two things stood out for me; firstly, there has been $9mil in combined revenue generated by the startups since the program started; and secondly, there has been a combined NZD $7m in funding ($2mill in grants) with the highlight being ParkingSense who secured NZD $5m and a recent contract with the LA Metro to solve parking issues in the world’s biggest concrete jungle to go along with further contracts across 12 countries.

Government vs Startups

Always a hot topic, we spoke about the role Government plays compared to years past. Kevin said that historically things have been quite siloed with a bunch of people doing their own thing and those who have government & media relationships getting the most support and attention. He said things have evolved with a community approach and the government stepping up to support things like Callaghan Innovation (R&D), NZTE (Export), taking people to events around the world and bringing in successful entrepreneurs and startup founders for periods of time, similar to what Launch Vic have done in bringing out Andrew Hyde. A great local example is the creation of Greenhouse, a local council initiative for early stage companies.

Things are evolving with government stepping up as well as more collaboration between startup support ecosystems (e.g. a pre-seed accelerator candidate coming into Xone accelerator and funding by a seed fund as well). Another fun example is a social volleyball team between ecosystem players (e.g. Xone staff, startups and BizDojo) - which doesn't sound too unfamiliar - check out our article 'If you can't play table tennis, are you even a startup?

Building communities

Christchurch also hosts a chapter of the New Zealand co-working space legends, BizDojo who are currently building a second space in the city. The Dojo is built with the purpose of working with awesome like minded people in a workspace that communities of talented, interesting and clever humans are proud to call home. Speaking with Ryan Smith, BizDojo’s Community Manager, he said although they have only been in operation for just on six months that they are approaching critical mass in their 1000m2 space, giving it a good vibe of c70 residents which they’ve been in the fortunate position of growing organically. Ryan felt this rate of growth allows the community time to learn about residents' passions, businesses and how we can help them grow. Of the humans in the Dojo, roughly 5% are new to Christchurch; just passing through and utilising the space for a couple of months. The majority of the Dojo population are people and teams who have previously had offices at home or another studio space and want to be part of the community. He also noted there were more businesses moving back into the city from residential areas, coming off 3-5 year leases they signed after the earthquake.

Among a number of interesting tenants, the one that stood out for me is a company called Anteater who supply edible insects to high-end restaurants! Their pitch is that it is a more sustainable source of protein than animals are in the long run.

Ryan’s view is that the New Zealand startup and tech community drives a greater mass of collaboration and openness, allowing the country to work as a whole, rather than bothering with a Wellington vs Auckland vs Christchurch mentality (Sydney, Melbourne, take note!). By focusing on competing against the world stage rather than competing with their neighbours, the outcome is far more positive. Furthermore, it was great to hear that there has been a big mindset change after the earthquake in that people are more willing to work on projects together; showing eagerness to give stuff a go.

Looking ahead

Some recent wins in the city to lift exposure as an innovation and startup destination include hosting the Singularity University Summit in 2016 and coming up in September they will be hosting the Social Enterprise World Forum which will be the first time the event has come to New Zealand.

Overall it was very uplifting to see the activity and early success coming out of the innovation precinct and community. It goes to show that in the face of adversity - while navigating infrastructure challenges - passion, considered optimism, support and collaboration are key to driving growth.

If anyone in the startup and technology ecosystem is planning a visit to New Zealand I would highly recommend putting Christchurch on the itinerary. If you would like to connect with Xone or the Bizdojo crew please get in touch with Matt Smith at [email protected]