Auckland is making inroads in its bid to be a crucial innovation hub of the Asia-Pacific, writes Graham Skellern.

Auckland's drive to become an innovation hub of the Asia-Pacific region - and subsequently export more value-added, technology-based goods and services - is gaining momentum.

The city has taken crucial steps to build a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship and the results are seen in an exciting innovation corridor from Albany to Mangere - all facilitated by the region's economic growth agency Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed), which recently released The Auckland Innovation Plan.

Ateed chief executive Brett O'Riley says innovation is at the core of economic growth in Auckland.

"The city has matured to the point where we are recognised for our high-tech sectors and locally-born global companies. Our economy is well past being overly influenced by milk fat prices set in overseas markets.

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"An innovation-led economy means businesses grow quicker, employ more skilled staff and engage with international markets faster," says O'Riley.

"We can have more Fisher & Paykel Healthcares, Orion Healths and Booktracks bursting on to the global stage."

The latest Innovation Cities Index, released in May this year by influential agency 2thinknow, placed Auckland 106th globally and 20th in the Asia-Pacific sub-region. Auckland is well-placed to rapidly climb the rankings.

The Auckland Innovation Plan sets a goal of generating an additional $8 billion a year into the local economy by 2025, through increased research and development and innovation activity.

Innovation is developing new goods and services that create value and enhance business performance.

By 2025 Ateed wants to see 60 per cent of businesses in Auckland participating in this activity - up from 42 per cent in 2011.

Key actions outlined in the plan:

• Build strong connections and working practices, both nationally and internationally, with public and private sector partners to promote and enhance the value of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Auckland economy.

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• Ensure innovative businesses are aware of the range of support and resources available such as Ateed's delivery of the Government's Regional Business Partners programme across Auckland.

• Work with partners to address skills shortages and attract new qualified people to Auckland, as well as supporting the development of the local workforce.

• Encourage more investment into growth sectors such as Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and digital media.

Ateed will help implement a new innovation mentoring programme; it will identify and support innovative businesses with high growth potential; and it will work with partners to support Maori and Pacific peoples' economic development, innovation and investment.

These actions, to be well under way by the 2016/17 financial year, will create an environment in which innovation permeates throughout all sectors and businesses.

Research and development
Plenty of research, development and brainstorming is taking place from Albany to Mangere. Massey University's Albany campus runs the bustling ecentre, an incubator offering training, angel investment and business mentoring for entrepreneurs and start-up companies.

The university also operates the Auckland Knowledge Exchange Hub, an innovation portal for sharing information with organisations and businesses, and it is planning a new science, technology and business innovation centre on its campus.

Ateed's Constellation Drive hub has developed two Information Technology Export Clusters (iTECs) which regularly meet to share business intelligence. The clusters help North Shore companies tackle one of their biggest challenges - their relatively small scale - with many having to break into export markets earlier than their global competitors.

Nearby Takapuna is now being called Techapuna after becoming home to a growing cluster of smart, ambitious technology companies including Snapcomms, Diablo, AFT Pharmaceuticals and Unleashed Software.

The businesses meet monthly at the Techapuna High-Tech Entrepreneurs club to share experiences and swap ideas.

In downtown Auckland, The Icehouse, GridAKL, The BizDojo, Astrolab and powerHouse - hosting nearly 100 early-stage companies in total - are providing incubation, co-working innovation spaces and acceleration programmes to increase the pool of successful high-tech businesses.

Auckland University's UniServices, employing more than 700 people and managing 1500 projects at any one time, and AUT University's Enterprises are intent on turning its intellectual property and research into commercial goods and services.

Unitec's The Mind Lab gives teachers and their students the ability to integrate technology and digital capability into new teaching practices.

Further south near the airport, The FoodBowl - Te Ipu Kai, Ateed's joint venture with government agency Callaghan Innovation, hosts all types and sizes of food and beverage companies anxious to develop and test new products, and open up new export markets.

The FoodBowl, GridAKL - Auckland Council's new $20 million innovation precinct at Wynyard Quarter - and the tertiary private sector initiatives form the backbone of the city's busy and productive innovation corridor.

GridAKL, a high-tech ICT and digital media showpiece for Auckland, has a full house of 15 tenants after opening in the refurbished Polperro Building in May this year.

The precinct will expand by the middle of next year when a further 1800sq m of office space becomes available in the upgraded character Lysaght Building.

This hub will also house early stage businesses and feature a tech cafe.

GridAKL receives up to five tenancy inquiries a week and has a balanced blend of 12 software and digital start-ups, supported by three service companies - communications agency Anthem, cloud-based video production company 90 Seconds and investor Sparkbox Venture Group.

One of the tenants, APIMATIC, has developed automatic start-up tools for application programming interface (API) developers and has tripled its staff to six.

Its two founders are pursuing opportunities in the United States.

Mobile apps company Cloud M has grown its staff from six to ten and is still recruiting. Cloud M has high hopes for its unique health and safety application called Blerter which tracks workers' movements in high-risk industries such as construction. Wellington-based software services company 3months has recently opened an office in GridAKL.

With support from Ateed, GridAKL regularly attracts more than 100 people to its innovation and networking events.

From February to April next year It will also host the popular Lightning Lab, in association with The Icehouse - the first time the business accelerator has come to Auckland.

The programme has attracted more than 200 expressions of interest and the applicants will be trimmed to a final 10.

The selected businesses will be absorbed in an intensive, three-month acceleration programme "to make them international from day one".

The programme includes mentoring and culminates in Demo Day where the companies pitch to a packed room of investors and potential partners.

GridAKL hosted the first Summer of Tech programme in Auckland that features technology bootcamps and connects innovative companies with talented students in software development and business analysis. Fourteen of the 16 interns in Auckland were offered jobs, and Summer of Tech has placed 450 students in the ICT sector over the past eight years.

The FoodBowl has experienced a surge in interest as more and more businesses take advantage of the state-of-the-art equipment and hire the processing halls to develop value-added products.

Its chief executive Sarita Males says The FoodBowl's involvement in projects has doubled in the past year. "We are dealing with more larger and medium-sized companies [such as Comvita and Manuka Health], as well as the early stage businesses.

"The great thing is a lot of the companies are looking at us for longer term projects," she says.

"They will do their development work and early commercial production over the next year or two before building their own processing plant."

Innovation is alive and well in Auckland.

"We have a rich innovation ecosystem," says Ateed general manager economic growth, Patrick McVeigh. "Our role is to stimulate and facilitate connections in R&D, investment and markets, and up the game in the innovation space to add value to the economy."

- Graham Skellern

The Icehouse turns focus to local iwi

Two young entrepreneurs from Auckland business incubator The Icehouse are taking an innovative approach to working with local Maori.

Shay Wright and Travis O'Keefe are working with Maori to improve capabilities and generate better returns from the assets held by Auckland iwi. Wright explains, "There are 18 iwi who have mana whenua (authority status) over certain parts of Auckland and we're working with several of them in an advisory capacity in order to produce better outcomes for their people."

"They have interests in fishing, forestry, farming, property, tourism, social contracts for Government - there's a real wide range of business interests there and Maori want to be involved throughout the process," adds O'Keefe.

The process began when a handful of iwi signalled their interest to become more involved in innovation and entrepreneurship. The Icehouse is now partnering with iwi to leverage the mainstream system and all of the knowledge and expertise locked up inside it, and to make it appropriate for Maori organisations to grow.

Wright says a key point to make is that the Maori leaders are not traditional entrepreneurs and generally aren't from the business world. "They happen to be in charge of huge amounts of assets and have got there by being elected through their families - where standing within the iwi and trust is often prioritised over skills and merit."

"We've found the best way to work with Maori and to fit our programme to the way they learn has been through practical measures and case studies - showing what other iwi have done and how the principle can be applied to their own business," explains O'Keefe.

Hayden Solomon, general manager of Ngati Paoa said the programme had "injected real credibility and objectivity into our strategic planning process, particularly as we engage with our people about how we grow our assets."

- Alexander Speirs