Wellington's notoriously volatile weather is nothing compared with the climate Mary Quin faced in her previous home city.

The Callaghan Innovation chief executive relocated from the US state of Alaska to take the helm of the Government's new hi-tech business body last year.

While the capital's howling southerlies can be unpleasant, Anchorage residents have to deal with the mercury dropping as low as -39C in winter.

"An Anchorage summer is about the same as an Auckland winter," said Palmerston North-born Quin, adding that even Wellington had some "pretty nice days" at this time of year.


Quin was the president of Anchorage-based NANA Management Services, whose businesses include hotel management and contract staffing, for seven years. She led the firm, which is part-owned by one of the native Alaskan tribes, through a period of strong growth when revenue doubled to US$200 million.

Quin, who wrote a bestselling book about a kidnapping ordeal she endured in Yemen in 1998, also held senior executive roles with US listed companies including Xerox and Kodak.

Callaghan Innovation, billed by the Government as the "high-tech HQ for Kiwi businesses", combined the operations of Industrial Research Limited (IRL) and parts of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, as well as staff from NZTE and the Auckland Foodbowl, a food innovation facility. It has just celebrated its first anniversary.

Quin said combining the activities of so many organisations under one roof had been challenging.

"It's always an adjustment for people to suddenly find they're part of a new organisation," she said. "Our mission is a bit different from the mission of any of the [previous] organisations. There's naturally a feeling of uncertainty that people have."

Quin said Callaghan's research and technical services team had completed 800 projects for around 230 companies during the first year, while $200 million worth of grants was awarded to over 500 companies.

"Recruiting a senior leadership team [for Callaghan] was a big piece of work," she said. "In fact we just got the last person on board last week."

Quin said Callaghan's structure was now "largely" in place. But she said there would be "constant refinement".

"All organisations have to constantly adapt to what their customers need. For us customers are New Zealand's high-value manufacturing and services companies."

Quin said all of Callaghan's activities were aimed at increasing the number of large-scale ($100 million revenue or more) tech businesses in this country.

"My sense is that New Zealand has a lot of innovative, good ideas in every area but they can be quite fragmented - a lot of small programmes and organisations often trying to solve the same problems."

Quin said Callaghan needed to find "the right balance" in its distribution of services and thought about a quarter of the organisation's resources should go towards programmes aimed at starting new firms, with the rest going towards helping companies that are already up-and-running, no matter how small they might be.

"If you've already got $10 million in revenue it's probably going to be faster to get to $20 million than a company that's still at zero and trying to figure out its product development," she said.

"But don't get me wrong - they're both important."

Quin said Callaghan was focused on identifying the needs of "clusters" of companies - some of them grouped around industries such as food and beverage - in the year ahead.

"We're putting in place national technology networks where we are hiring a technically savvy person to help make sure Callaghan Innovation knows every institution, team and individual scientist working in each of five broad technology areas."

Those five segments are biotechnology, food technology, sensing and automation, information and communication technology and advanced materials.

Another big project for Callaghan this year is establishing up to four new private-sector-led technology incubators that are being modelled on the Israeli incubator system and will distribute new repayable government grants of up to $450,000 per company.

Mary Quin

• Born in Palmerston North.
• Chief executive Callaghan Innovation.
• PhD in materials science and engineering from Northwestern University in Illinois, MBA from Harvard Business School.
• Previously held senior roles in Xerox and Kodak and Anchorage-based NANA Management Services.

Callaghan Innovation

Government funded body that combined the operations of Industrial Research Limited and parts of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, as well as staff from NZTE and the Auckland Foodbowl.