A pile of paper napkins could help realise Wendy Kerr's vision for the University of Auckland to become the hub of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Southern Hemisphere.

In her role as director of the University of Auckland Business School's Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Kerr and her team have set a "napkin challenge" for students throughout the university's campuses as part of Auckland's inaugural Techweek, which runs until May 22.

"We're trying to get as many students within the university to think their idea is as good as anyone else's - and all the best ideas, as folklore tells us, are written on the back of a napkin," Kerr says.

So in every university café, stacks of napkins will be waiting for the next great notion to be scribbled, with the best ideas earning a small financial reward and possibly advice on how to turn them into reality.


"It doesn't have to be the next rocket or be created by the next Steve Jobs," Kerr says. Instead the goal is to draw more students from all academic disciplines into the university's entrepreneurial ecosystem.

"We're trying to change the mindset of the students, so they know they can have an idea, take it to the next level and make an impact. It's agnostic. We want to tell dance students: 'Unleash your passion, start up a dance studio.' It's not simply for business students or engineers."

The Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship was created at the university 13 years ago and currently involves 800 students. Kerr has set a goal of getting 4200 students - roughly 10 per cent of the student body - actively involved in innovation and entrepreneurship by the year 2020.

"I chose that number because, in my years as an executive coach and change management consultant in London, I learned when you have 10 per cent of your employee base changing their culture, eventually the rest of the organisation switches over," she says.

"My vision is the University of Auckland as the place to come for innovation and entrepreneurship in the Southern Hemisphere. It may be an audacious goal but it's like any start-up - you need to have a big vision to get people involved."

The university has already been identified as one of the world's top five "emerging leaders in entrepreneurship" through a two-year study conducted by the MIT Skoltech Initiative to find the world's best university-based entrepreneurial ecosystems operating outside the innovation hubs of MIT, Stanford University and the University of Cambridge.

The Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's Velocity programme (formerly known as Spark) is the country's leading entrepreneurial development programme; in 12 years, it has helped forge more than 120 ventures that have attracted more than $200 million in investment and created more than 460 jobs.

PowerbyProxi developed through the $100k Challenge in 2007 and, with the help of The Icehouse incubator, now manufactures wireless power technology for world consumer electronics giants Samsung and Texas Instruments, with offices in Auckland, Austin and Silicon Valley.


The centre has also built a strong network of support from the New Zealand start-up community. More than 200 entrepreneurs, business people and industry experts volunteer their time to the ecosystem, speaking to and mentoring the students who want to start businesses and commercialise their IP.

"While some want to see the next big ideas, many of them just want to give back," Kerr says.

Kerr ran three tech start-ups during her 25 years overseas and believes New Zealand has made major developments in the entrepreneurial realm - but there is much room for improvement globally.

"New Zealanders are really good at inventing things but where we have a real opportunity for growth and change is the innovation. How do we better commercialise and take our ideas and intellectual property to the world?" she says.

"We are good at starting businesses - about 97 per cent of all companies in New Zealand are small-to -medium enterprises - but there's an opportunity to be more global. The University of Auckland has a significant part to play in achieving that; the quality of high-level research will ultimately help the nation's economy to grow as well."

For more information about the Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, visit www.cie.auckland.ac.nz.