UPDATE: On April 19, 2021, LevelTwo rebranded as Outset Ventures.
It was another sign that Rocket Lab had made it, as the Kiwi-American company opened its giant new assembly plant and mission control centre in Auckland, in October 2018.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, William Shatner, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and various New Zealand Defence Force brass were on hand for the milestone for the startup that had grown to employ around 500, and with a valuation approaching $2 billion.
Watching from the sidelines was early Rocket Lab investor Sir Stephen Tindall.
Tindall told the Herald he quite literally stumbled over the startup in its early days, due to founders Peter Beck and Mark Rocket sharing an office in the same building as one of his existing investments, biofuel company LanzaTech (these days based in the US, though NZ still has a stake in its success through a US$65m investment by the Super Fund).
The building in question was a low-rise in Balfour Rd, Parnell, which once housed the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in the 1990s then startups housed under the wing of its successor, Industrial Research Ltd (IRL), which was, in turn, rolled into a third Crown agency, Callaghan Innovation, in 2013.
Sir Stephen noted other startups based at Balfour Rd at one point included drone technology-maker Dotterel, agritech venture BioConsortia and medical diagnostics company Pictor.
Now Icehouse Ventures and LevelTwo (co-founded by LanzaTech and Dotterel alumni Matt Rowe) have combined forces to put $10 million on the table for "deep tech" local startups that follow in the boundary-pushing spirit of Rocket Lab and LanzaTech.
The two hero startups aren't just touchstones. Beck is a LevelTwo board member, along with Icehouse CEO Robbie Paul, while LanzaTech co-founder Dr Sean Simpson is an adviser.
Where does the name "LevelTwo" come from?
"As the startup cluster grew organically in the lower floors of the building, it was colloquially known that 'level two' of that building was where the startups and entrepreneurial scientists were hanging out - and so the name came about when the cluster was formally incorporated," LevelTwo CEO Imche Fourie says.
"It's the same building we're still in today."
The new LevelTwo fund will name its first two investments shortly.
Fourie says the $10m will be spread across investments in 20 to 30 companies.
And its Balfour Rd headquarters is also getting an upgrade, with more
specialised laboratories and workshop spaces are being added to accommodate the growing waitlist of entrepreneurs wanting to access LevelTwo's world-class facilities. The expansion of LevelTwo's footprint by an additional 25 per cent to nearly 3000 square metres has been made possible by new investment into LevelTwo, with a significant contribution from Icehouse Ventures, with Sir Stephen's K1W1 and other private investors also chipping in.
Fourie says Johnson & Johnson's JLABs in the US is a model.
Entrepreneurs developing their ideas at LevelTwo can participate in a new "pre-incubation" Launch Lab programme. Two LevelTwo residents are currently piloting the initiative Zenno Astronautics, which is developing the world's first fuel-free satellite engines for sustainable space exploration, and Helico Bio, which is testing the growth of human insulin in plants.
Beck told the Herald this morning: "There are world-changing ideas coming out of New Zealand, but the entrepreneurs and innovators behind them need to support to grow their companies to a global scale. LevelTwo provides the support and infrastructure to make that happen.
"Having access to workshops and laboratories can accelerate a start-up's progress by years, and I'm massively supportive of programs that enable the rapid growth and commercialisation of great ideas."
Prior to the partnership with Icehouse Ventures announced today, LevelTwo, which was founded in 2014, had helped grow 25 companies, which hold around 30 patents and have raised around $20m in seed investment.