Kiwi expat Sean Gourley, the founder of a $20 million high-tech business in California's Silicon Valley, believes Auckland is well placed to become an innovation hub.
"You have great talent coming out of the universities, creative, hardworking software developers on a par with anyone anywhere in the world," says Gourley, a former Rhodes scholar, originally from Christchurch.
These talented people would stay in Auckland and others including Americans would move here if they had the right (working) environment, sayd Gourley. The lifestyle, recreation, safety, cheaper living and good schooling are all attractions.
"In terms of developing high-tech innovation, you've just got to play your cards right - by making strong connections with the West Coast of United States (Silicon Valley), getting density and vibrancy in downtown Auckland, and keep telling the stories about why you are developing new technology." He says 20 talented graduates could start six high-tech companies in Auckland every year.
Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed) is determined to create a culture of innovation that drives long term economic growth. Online high-tech innovation has strong export potential, adding diversity, creating new jobs, and acting as a buffer to traditional commodity-based exports.
Gourley says Auckland's appeal would rise if it builds high density living in the city centre with creative outlets where entrepreneurs can meet, chat and spark ideas - similar to the environment in Silicon Valley.
He says it is important to strengthen connections with Los Angeles and San Francisco for promotion and investment opportunities. "Auckland is only a direct 12-hour flight to San Francisco - a lot of Americans don't realise that - and we are close culturally and on time zones if New Zealand businesses were prepared to work Tuesday to Saturday."
Gourley's company Quid, which employs 42 people including five Kiwis, builds software that collects large amounts of data, applies algorithms and categorises the information so that organisations can make better strategic decisions. An internationally renowned physicist, he is happy to transfer his knowledge to New Zealand. After speaking at the recent TEDx event, Gourley indicated he would consider opening an office in Auckland's new Wynyard Quarter Innovation Precinct.
"I can get some research and development and 3D visualisation programmes done here," he says.
Auckland Council's vision, outlined in its 30-year plan, is to become the world's most liveable city. Ateed - one of the council subsidiaries - has the mandate of improving New Zealand's prosperity by leading the successful transformation of Auckland's economy through the implementation of the council's economic development strategy.
The goal is to double annual regional export growth to 6 per cent and productivity to 2 per cent, and increase annual GDP growth from 3 per cent to 5 per cent. To achieve this, the culture of innovation needs to thrive. And Auckland will be known as a major innovation hub of Asia Pacific that is internationally connected and export-driven.
The Wynyard Quarter Innovation Precinct will be a showcase for the world class research and high-tech ventures; stage one is under way.
Ateed chief executive Brett O'Riley believes the local region is poised for a major wave of economic growth. "There has been a lot of investment over the last decade into infrastructure and other elements.
"We now have an innovation eco-system, involving incubation, angel investment, research and development, tertiary institutions and emerging companies, which can be developed further. Wrapped around the eco-system is a cohesive economic development strategy that outlines the opportunities and challenges.
"And Ateed is the facilitator to make things happen and create outcomes - at pace in partnership with other players in the eco-system.
"We want everyone to work collaboratively as a unified Auckland growth engine, and we will be using a new transparent approach, a combination of technology combined with traditional principles like kotahitanga. Our business survival rate for start-up companies is high, and pace is important. We have the iwi of Tamaki Makaurau emerging from the settlement process energised and ready to partner to grow our city, which is tremendously exciting."
O'Riley says Brisbane Marketing recently looked at entrepreneurship and innovation around Asia Pacific and found there was an outlier leading the pack - Auckland as a proxy for New Zealand.
Next March, Auckland will host the latest Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme workshop - this year's were held in Boston and Edinburgh. "This is a reflection of the good work we've been doing in Auckland and New Zealand in developing innovation-based entrepreneurship, and targeted initiatives like innovation precincts, the Food Innovation Network, Health Hub and Advanced Technology Institute."
Ateed is focused on export-led growth opportunities. It has targeted three key sectors where there is the greatest opportunity for business and export growth - food and beverage (1700 processing companies already contribute $3 billion to the local economy); information and communications technology, including screen and digital content (about 6500 businesses contribute more than $4 billion), and life sciences including health technology, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.
Ateed is also supporting growth opportunities in areas like marine, tourism, niche manufacturing and advanced materials, sustainability and clean technology sectors, and international education.
Within the key sectors, some ground-breaking projects can be found. The FoodBowl - Te Upu Kai, located near Auckland airport, has seven state-of-the-art processing halls and provides businesses, both start-up and established, a cost-effective and low-risk opportunity to develop, test and prove their initiatives through to commercialisation. It is part of the Food Innovation Network, a partnership between central and local government, universities and CRIs, and is open to all firms in the food and beverage industry.
"We have built a unique proposition," says O'Riley. "The FoodBowl is focused on development rather than research and it can become the focal point for New Zealand's capability around food safety and security, and the creation of 21st century food and beverage products.
"Companies from Hong Kong and Australia are looking at bringing their food development to Auckland, and in some cases planning to partner with Auckland companies to manufacture the food products here.
"We can also leverage the FoodBowl's intellectual property. If the Food and Drug Administration in the US is the gold standard for managing drugs, then why can't New Zealand become the gold standard for food safety and development?"
There's plenty of interest in the Wynyard Quarter Innovation Precinct, which kicked off in March when 3D mapping and simulation company, Nextspace, moved into Pakenham St West. O'Riley says about 60 smart businesses, multi-nationals and R&D organisations want to be part of the precinct, and stage one is close to being fully tenanted.
The new Advanced Technology Institute, a $166 million initiative from central government, will likely have a significant presence in Wynyard Quarter.
The precinct, designed as a campus, will provide 48,000 sq m of office space and the first stage - expected to be opened in 2014 - involves the refurbishment of the Southern Spars, Lysaght and Total Marine Services buildings. Ateed is anticipating the Total Marine Services space will be used for acceleration programmes in which early stage companies stay for up to six months.
"We may have underestimated the tenancy demand," says O'Riley. "The good thing is that companies now understand the power of collaboration - something that historically Kiwi firms haven't relied on."
Ateed is also looking at the potential of a media village concept which could include large and small screen production and incorporate education and training, expanding opportunities for Auckland youth to get involved with the sector.
O'Riley says the film industry, which grossed $2.3 billion last year, has world-class capability, from producers and directors to technical crew and facilities, and Ateed is looking to understand the mix of infrastructure and programmes that could further grow the sector.
Auckland is also part of the recently-launched New Zealand Health Innovation Hub. "New Zealand has had an established capability in health and social wellbeing - including medical devices - and we can grow this sector," says O'Riley.
He talks about other economic opportunities based on projects and events.
"We will have a new cruise ship passenger terminal. Not only can we receive more visitors, but also Auckland can become a hub for replenishing the ships and completing maintenance on them.
"The Auckland leg of the world triathlon circuit is now the first one on the international calendar and there is interest from athletes to train in Auckland rather than Sydney. They can utilise Auckland's world class sports science and coaching at the Millennium Institute of Sport and Health, and the sport science facilities at Massey and Auckland Universities.
Ateed is also focused on providing services and assistance through its six offices interfacing with business customers across Auckland. "We will continue to provide access to R&D funding, business capability assessments, acceleration and awards programmes, increasingly in collaboration with business and industry organisations including local business improvement associations.
There are plenty of exciting initiatives but ultimately it is about taking a disciplined approach that delivers measurable growth, just as we do with our approach to major events," says O'Riley.